How Toronto’s general manager built a contender through maximizing at the margins.

Lost in the hoopla of Kyle Lowry’s euphoric career night against the Cleveland Cavaliers was a heroic defensive stand by one of the Raptors’ unsung heroes.

With less than a minute to go and the score tied at 97, the Cavaliers went to LeBron James in the pick-and-roll with Matthew Dellavedova. For most of the night, James was the operator, but this time he tried to cross up the Raptors by flipping the script.

Patrick Patterson wasn’t fooled. He read the play, stepped out just far enough on Dellavedova to prevent a dangerous drive down the middle, and the ball traveled to the corner instead to Kevin Love. Bismack Biyombo did a diligent job of closing out while also remaining on the ground, but Love had burned the Raptors previously with drives around closeouts (Luis Scola can attest to that), so Patterson shaded over to dissuade that drive. Love, being the incredible offensive talent that he is, saw Patterson creeping over, and immediately whipped a cross-court pass to James, who Patterson had just left.

For a split second, James was open for an easy layup. But as he turned his shoulder on the gather, he was met by Patterson, who stopped the King in his tracks. Knowing that he couldn’t simply outmuscle his way to the shot, James could either reset the offense, or take a fadeaway. He made the smart play by getting a kickout, but J.R. Smith – maddeningly unreliable as always – missed the shot.

Lowry would go on to win the game with the biggest shot of his career.

Friday’s victory, which brought the Raptors one step closer to challenging for East supremacy, was a masterpiece by Lowry from start to finish. He deserves to bathe in the shower of accolades flowing in from national outlets. He was the lone ranger riding, the little Luke Skywalker that brought down the empire with a perfect shot to their core. Lowry was the hero, and his name will be sung.

But behind the scenes, there was the calm, steady presence of Patterson, who once again finished as a team-best plus-16 in the win. Patterson polished yet another turd from Scola to become the blue-collared savior. He stretched the floor, he moved the ball, he checked LeBron on switches, and he shut down Kevin Love.

Patterson deserved that win as much as anybody. His numbers never pop off the page, but anybody who looks beyond the boxscore can tell you that he’s an integral part of this team’s success. And while the Raptors could have used some more help at power forward, don’t underestimate what they have.

Looking back, it’s incredible that Patterson has developed into the player he is today.

Patterson came as a throw-in for Rudy Gay back in 2013. He was a column on the ledger, just like John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez, that was scheduled to expire sooner than Gay’s $19-million monstrosity. That flexibility, alone, was good enough for me.

At the press conference with Ujiri following the trade (a 20-minute barrage of leading questions teasing the admission of “tanking” from Ujiri’s lips in hopes of tying some fantasy with Kansas standout Andrew Wiggins), not a single question was asked of Patterson. And why would they? He was coming to his third team in mere months, and absolutely flopped in Sacramento.

I didn’t actually expect a real player in return. No one did. At best he would become some second coming of Brandon Bass (how exciting!). But Patterson was just the first of many moves around the margins made by Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri.

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As far as general managers go, Ujiri is remarkably patient. Others buckle at the altar of urgency; Ujiri stands his ground. It opens him up for criticism – keeping Dwane Casey last summer, standing pat at the trade deadline – but he cuts past all the noise and never panics.

The only legitimate gripe that catches traction with Ujiri is that he hasn’t built a true championship contender. Detractors point to his Denver and Toronto teams failing in the playoffs despite attaining success in the regular season as evidence. Sure, the Nuggets and Raptors haven’t gotten very far when the chips are in, but to hold him up against a standard of perfection logically dictates that he is worthy of those expectations.

What Ujiri did in Denver, and again in Toronto, is put a team on the precipice of greatness after starting off with very little. And while the finishing blow is always the hardest to execute, he deserves all the credit in the world to have the Raptors where they are right now.

Toronto Raptors v Houston Rockets

Let’s review what he inherited from his mentor Bryan Colangelo. The Raptors were were in the luxury tax despite not fielding a playoff team in five years, they were short a first-round pick (the Lowry trade), and two of the team’s leading scorers were Gay and Andrea Bargnani.

Ujiri’s first move was to offload Bargnani. Given that he had two years left on his deal at $10 million per season, and his historically inept defensive output, it was widely expected that Ujiri would have to sweeten the pot to lose Bargnani. Instead, the Knicks swooped in with an unprotected first-rounders and filler salary to grab Bargnani out of some perverted need to match their new crosstown rivals who had just traded their future for the ancient bones of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

Chalk that one up to Knicks gonna Knick, but that pick currently projects to land in mid-lottery (about 7th right now), and that just so happens to be where Canadian Jamal Murray ranks in mock drafts. Just saying.

Ujiri’s second move was the aforementioned Gay trade. Again, with Gay having a $19-million player option for 2014-15, it was a virtual certainty that Ujiri would have to move a pick to lose him. Again, they waited until the Kings got desperate, and grabbed Patterson, Vasquez, Salmons and Chuck Hayes.

That sparked the turnaround, which wasn’t necessarily Ujiri’s goal. He couldn’t have foreseen Lowry and DeRozan becoming all-stars almost overnight, but shedding a high usage player in Gay allowed Lowry and DeRozan to captain their own team and it all worked out.

As for the players Ujiri got in return, those four formed the Raptors’ bench unit, which instantly turned a gigantic weakness into a strength. Vasquez became a dynamic offensive threat in two point guard lineups, Patterson was decent stretch four, Salmons was a steady hand off the bench, and Hayes was good for locker room chemistry (and internet shenanigans on behalf of his heft).

That summer, after nearly making the second round, Ujiri managed to ink Vasquez and Patterson to reasonable extensions. He also turned Salmons’s unguaranteed contract (only $1 million of his $7 million for 2014-15 was guaranteed, so he was essentially free cap space) into a Hawks team desperate for wing depth. Not only did Ujiri nab Lou Williams, who recovered nicely from his ACL tear to become 6 Man, he also procured a former first-round pick in Bebe Nogueira.

2013 NBA Draft

As for the 2014-15 season itself, it was a tale of two teams. One featured a healthy Kyle Lowry leading a 55-win pace. The other had a broken Lowry as one of many guards who couldn’t stick with their shadows on defense. It didn’t work out.

Ujiri found himself at a crossroads last summer. Given the way the team bowed out, he had all the political clout he could need to shovel Casey out the door, or possibly move DeRozan before his deal was up. He did neither despite fans wanting blood. He asked for patience and trust.

In what many saw as disaster, Ujiri spotted potential. Again, he was able to cut fat while keeping the lean. He saw that DeRozan and Lowry were a dynamic offensive combination when healthy, and that they just needed help on defense to make it all work.

Out went Williams, who despite his magnanimous personality and cavalier scoring outbursts, was ultimately redundant. Ujiri didn’t even offer him a contract because he didn’t fit what he wanted.

Vasquez was shipped out too. The bravado that Vazquez so easily toted had become a hazard when he openly gripped about his playing time. His defense was also a problem. So out he went to another desperate team in Jason Kidd and the Bucks for a 2017 protected first, a second-round pick (used on Norman Powell), and cap flexibility.

(Side note: Everyone deservedly craps on Doc Rivers for how he likes to recruit his former players or his current family, but how about Kidd’s hard-on for tall guards that vaguely reminds him of himself? MCW, Jorge Gutierrez, Shaun Livingston, Greivis Vasquez – if you’re a 6’5 PG, Kidd wants your resume).

Ujiri used the cap flexibility to sign Cory Joseph, an unproven guard from the San Antonio Spurs. There were concerns about the dropoff in offensive talent from Williams and Vasquez to Joseph, but he’s done just fine, and Joseph has been miles better on defense. He also doesn’t complain about his role, and it fulfilled a promise Ujiri made to bring a Canadian to the Raptors (Jamaal Magloire didn’t count).

He also brought in a DeMarre Carroll, who has been injured for two-thirds of the season. When healthy, Carroll is one of the league’s best 3-and-D players and he’s pretty much exactly what the Raptors need. He might even solve the problem at power forward, but as of right now, this move is in the air – much like his health.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Toronto Raptors

The finishing touches were the shrewd signings of Bismack Biyombo and Scola, who joined the team on a combined six million. Scola has really fallen off lately, but he’s still a capable player with some offensive talents and by all accounts, he’s the Santa Clause of veteran presents. Biyombo has been tremendous in every way – he’s the shot-blocking defensive anchor that this team has lacked for ages, and he even filled in capably for Jonas Valanciunas when Kobe Bryant broke his hand.

As for the prospects, Ujiri lined the bench with high-upside players, while also locking in rotation pieces in Terrence Ross and Valanciunas to cost-effective extensions. The idea here is to create an asset if things break right – a few calculated gambles on a team without a true superstar.

(It’s like this: if you have a bunch of high OBP guys with low ISO, it’s not a bad idea to slap a one-dimensional home run hitter in there. Think of Carlos Pena with the Tampa Bay Rays.)

All of their success carries over into the team’s rise to relevancy in their market. Walk around downtown Toronto and you’ll see more WE THE NORTH banners than Leafs or Jays signs, which is patently ridiculous when you remember that the Raptors have historically been this shitty franchise captioned by a cartoon fucking dinosaur.

Now it’s cool to be a Raptors fan out in the open, it’s cool to rock the red watermelon logo and cape up for basketball in Canada. Ujiri’s teams have done wonders for the #brand, and I mean that in earnest. The second-most popular rapper in the world reps this team! That certainly didn’t happen with the Bargnani-Gay Raptors.

NBA: SEP 30 Toronto Announced as Host of the 2016 All-Star Game

There’s no question that the Raptors are in a far better position than where they stood in Day 1 of Ujiri’s reign. Through two-and-a-half seasons, Ujiri has trimmed the fat and built around the edges, piece by piece, to have the Raptors where they are now:

  • 21 games above .500 (a franchise-best)
  • Top-10 in offensive and defensive efficiency
  • A lock to finish second or first in the East
  • On pace for 56 wins
  • A young, cost-effective core
  • Robust relations with DeRozan as he heads into free agency (he’ll be back)

That’s what strikes me when I watch this team: there was no superstar addition. Look at the Cavaliers – they were amazing with LeBron, then shit without him, and now they’re amazing once again. That’s easy to explain.

With the Raptors, it all happened so suddenly. Patterson grew leaps and bounds to become the player he is today. Ditto for Lowry and DeRozan. Joseph found an even better fit than where he was in San Antonio (imagine that). Biyombo’s become a fan favorite. It just all came together somehow.

Credit Ujiri for that.

And no, the Raptors don’t have it all figured out (as I impatiently wrote here). They’re not the Warriors or Spurs. They’re with all the other mortals with the mundane quibbles of finding enough room to re-sign DeRozan and Biyombo, while also trying to take the great leap forward. They could hardly steal a game against the Cavaliers at home, let alone dream of beating them in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup (how about just one round at a time?).

But they wouldn’t be where they are without Ujiri’s work around the margins. And for that, more than Lowry’s 43 points, more than Patterson’s plus-minus, I am truly impressed.

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11 thoughts on “On the quiet brilliance of Masai Ujiri

  1. Nice read but once again it’s all for nothing if they choke again in the playoffs. The expectations for the fans are no longer to just win a playoff series for the first time in X years.

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    1. I don’t understand your comment at all. What are you expectations based on? You sound like a spoiled brat who has done nothing to earn your rewards. You are fortunate to have an exciting team team to cheer for. Playoff success is the next step without question, but they have never had any so your expectations should be based on that.

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  2. really good article,always been behind ujuri in the fact he preached patience and cohesion and chemistry,,,and for those who griped about him not making a move, give it a rest, and look who they would have had to give up ! ujuri does his best work in the off season anways

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