Toronto Raptors preview: When will Toronto escape mediocrity?


New general manager Masai Ujiri inherits a franchise stuck in the NBA's middle class. How quickly will he try to make his mark on the roster?

The final throes of Bryan Colangelo were, in a word, bizarre.

Desperate to show the Toronto Raptors would not be irrelevant forever, the longtime GM of the club traded a decent prospect (Ed Davis) and a useful veteran (Jose Calderon) to pick up one of the five worst contracts in basketball: Rudy Gay. Gay as a player is fine -- he's an average small forward who shoots a lot, but has a proven scoring ability and enough athleticism that the right coach could conceivably make him a good defender. The problem is that he makes $18 million a year. It's not his fault -- he didn't offer himself a max contract. But when a player like Gay gets paid that huge a chunk of payroll, his limits stand starker. And so it is in Toronto.

I'm still not sure whether Colangelo thought trading for Gay would get the Raptors to the playoffs in 2012-13: they finished four games out of No. 8, despite No. 8 coming in at 38-44. Perhaps the Gay trade was meant more for this season, 2013-14, in which case the events of the summer -- former Colangelo assistant GM Masai Ujiri was hired to run the front office, Colangelo was demoted into oblivion -- are even more unfortunate. So now Ujiri inherits a half-built team that may or may not be intended to compete. It's an odd situation.

The conventional move would be to strip it back down by dumping veterans (Gay included) unlikely to be a part of the next great Raptors team. Build around Jonas Valanciunas and whatever survives from among the wing Hunger Games starring DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross.

But it's clear Ujiri isn't quite going that way. While he did jet out Andrea Bargnani for scrap (err, Steve Novak), it's arguable whether that makes the team worse in the immediate term. Cap space was spent on Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin. Right now it looks like the team will be built around two (related) thing: defense and Valanciunas. Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry fit the mold, and in theory Gay and DeRozan can supply the points.

But that team isn't going to be very good. Maybe enough for a low playoff seed, which would be a great improvement over the past few years, but little more than a ride on the so-called treadmill of mediocrity. Ujiri, who left the No. 3 seed in the West to take this job, might want more, and soon. While he does have a long-term contract in Toronto, he's not someone willing to rest on laurels and be totally patient. He's shown a fondness for the big move as a GM: Carmelo Anthony for Danilo Gallinari and friends, Nene for JaVale McGee, Arron Afflalo for Andre Iguodala, Bargnani for sweet, merciful cap relief.

And so it follows that if Toronto isn't racing up the charts this season, Ujiri might shift gears and unload another big piece. DeRozan and Gay are the top candidates. Can he get value for either? (Remember, just seven months ago Memphis inexplicably got value -- Ed Davis -- for Gay. It only takes one GM falling in love.) If so, the whiplash that Raptors fans have experienced could continue through the 2014 trade deadline and beyond.

But if Gay's shooting woes are fixed by offseason laser eye surgery, and if DeRozan figures out how to be effective as a supplemental scorer, and Valanciunas develops as so many expect he will, and Lowry and Johnson stay healthy and anchor a good defense, then perhaps Ujiri can be patient, reap the fruit of Colangelo's final, desperate acts and then strike to really give Toronto something to be excited about.

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