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Finally, Masai Ujiri gets to rebuild the Raptors

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With Kawhi Leonard leaving, Ujiri can finally get the blank canvas he seemed poised to use when he was first hired in Toronto.

The Toronto Raptors got more than they bargained for in the Kawhi Leonard trade: an NBA championship. Now, that all-too-brief era is over, as Leonard left for Los Angeles despite the title.

Now, Masai Ujiri — the best basketball operations executive in the entire league, at this point — can do what it seems he’s always longed to do in Toronto: tear it down to build it back up again.

It’s legend that Ujiri arrived to the Raptors in 2013 intending to demolish what Bryan Colangelo had built and start fresh. In some ways, he started the process by trading Rudy Gay for spare parts and Andrea Bargnani for draft picks. Kyle Lowry was supposed to be next up on the docket, with rumors tying him to New York.

But something weird happened once Gay and Bargnani were gone: the Raptors became a good team. Trading Lowry or DeMar DeRozan became non-starters. Toronto was too competitive to blow it all up.

So Ujiri built on top of that foundation.

That meant getting Serge Ibaka (good) and DeMarre Carroll (whoops) and, for a minute, peak Bismack Biyombo. It meant drafting for plug-in talent like Norman Powell and Delon Wright. It meant that instead of giving high-potential prospects like Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet free rein to learn, the youth had to fit into the program. After a few years of playoff heartbreak at the hands of LeBron James, it eventually meant swinging for the fences with Leonard.

It all ended up working. Ujiri pivoted to building on top of Colangelo’s foundation, and it worked to the tune of a championship. If Leonard had decided to stay and star alongside Siakam for the next four years, Ujiri would have found a way to help the Raptors make sense around the duo for the next four years. He would have figured it out.

Instead, Ujiri has something of a blank canvas, which is what it seemed like he thought he had all the way back in 2013 when he arrived north of the border.

First, Ujiri and the Raptors can do no wrong this next season. It can be an unbridled victory tour with low expectations and no intent to compete for the East crown. The Raptors deserve it. Or, in theory, Ujiri can start the rebuild now by salvaging the better veterans on the roster for parts.

Would Ujiri trade Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Ibaka for picks and/or prospects going into their contract years? Well, is Ujiri going to pay any of them as unrestricted free agents next summer given the timeline for the Raptors truly contending again? Probably not. And if you’re not going to re-sign them, and if the sign-and-trade market isn’t likely to be robust, you might as well trade them between now and February 2020 for what you can get.

That would betray a victory tour, and might not be worth the trouble consider most open cap space around the league has disappeared a week and a half into July. Ujiri can and should be very selective on what contracts he’d take back in deals for the expiring veterans. And Lowry in particular is so emotionally attached to Toronto and the Raptors’ championship that trading him a few months into the championship afterglow would seem especially cold, even though he has the most value of the bunch.

Regardless, by this time next summer, Ujiri will have his blank canvas.

Only Norman Powell ($10.8 million) and now Patrick McCaw ($4 million after agreeing to a deal on Tuesday) have guaranteed 2020-21 salary on the book. Add in the fourth year option on OG Anunoby ($3.8 million), Stanley Johnson’s cheap player option ($3.8 million) and cap holds for young 2020 free agents Siakam ($7 million) and Fred VanVleet ($14 million). If the Raptors then renounced cap holds on Lowry, Ibaka, and Gasol, they’d have about $65 million in salary cap space next summer after accounting for open roster charges. They could, in theory, acquire two max or max-adjacent players, then re-sign VanVleet and Siakam.

And, boom, the Raptors are back.

The free agent class in 2020 is notoriously light, and there’s no guarantee Ujiri would want to wade back into the deep end of the player empowerment era so soon after the Leonard experience, no matter how well that turned out. But the point is that Ujiri, for the first time really since arriving in 2013, has options. Wide ranging options. A blank canvas to fill as he sees fit, whether it’s bringing back the stable veterans or seeking a new vision for Toronto.

The Raptors probably won’t defend their championship, but given the incredible skill of Ujiri and the resources available to him quite soon, Toronto should be back in the hunt before you know it. We should all look forward to seeing what that edition of the Raptors looks like.