Raptors are all-in after eventful trade deadline week
TORONTO – In his first three-and-a-half years at the helm of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri made just two mid-season trades – a total he has now doubled over the span of eight days.
If there was ever any doubt about his intentions for the club, or at least its immediate future, this past week should have cleared that up. The team’s president has sent a strong message – to its fans, to the rest of the league and, most importantly, to those in the locker room: they’re all in.
After addressing their biggest need last Wednesday, acquiring star power forward Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic in exchange for Terrence Ross and the worst of their two first-round picks in this coming draft, the Raptors capped off a successful trade deadline week by adding some depth at another thin position.
Like Ibaka, P.J. Tucker is a player they have been fond of for years. They made a run at him around this time last season and now, after sealing the deal moments before the buzzer on Thursday, the veteran swingman is Toronto-bound. Ujiri was able to get it done without giving up anything of consequence. The expiring contract of sparingly used forward Jared Sullinger goes to the Suns along with two future second-round picks, as Toronto was able to hang onto its remaining first-rounder that Phoenix spent most of the day trying to get them to include.
Tucker, unlike Ibaka, isn’t likely to move the needle in a significant way. How much he will factor into Dwane Casey’s rotation remains to be seen. He may team with Norman Powell to absorb Ross’ minutes off the bench. Maybe he supplants Powell altogether. Maybe he fills Powell’s old role – the vacant James Johnson gig – as their situational 10th man or perhaps an injury opens up an even bigger opportunity.
One thing we know for certain: with the Raptors about to embark on the stretch run of the season and, ultimately, the playoffs, Casey will be thrilled to have another option he can turn to; an experienced one to boot.
Tucker, 31, immediately becomes the team’s oldest player. His story is of the feel-good variety. The Raptors selected him with the 35th overall pick in the second round of the 2006 draft. Nobody knew exactly where he fit as an NBA player. Although he certainly had the body strength to play the four, at 6-foot-6, he didn’t have the size. Yet, at the time, he also didn’t have the requisite skills (jump shot, ball handling) to play on the wing. He was labeled a “tweener” and after 17 forgettable games with Toronto he was out of the league and looking for a job overseas.
A young journeyman, Tucker bounced around between five countries in five years, including Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Italy and Germany. During that time he matured as both a person and a player, reinventing his game and earning another NBA opportunity with the Suns back in 2012.
Now, over a decade after they drafted him, he returns to Toronto and while his role remains uncertain, the fit should be seamless. He has extended his range and become a competent three-point shooter but he’s made a name for himself on the defensive end, where he’s been one of the league’s toughest and most physical perimeter stoppers.
The Raptors were fortunate to get their heavy lifting done in advance of the deadline, for a number of reasons. Ibaka has had some time to get situated in a new city and he’s gotten a couple practices under his belt before debuting against Boston on Friday. For Ujiri and the front office, they have had an extra week to evaluate their new team and survey the market.
On a day where the feared rival Celtics declined to cash in their many assets, the Raptors have remerged as a real player in the Eastern Conference. They backed their way into the all-star break, losing 11 of 16 games, but that has mostly been forgotten, at least for the moment.
Ujiri has turned the narrative. It’s on his team now. The holes have been plugged, their roster as complete as it’s been in Casey’s now six-year tenure. Patrick Patterson, who they have really missed, is expected to return from his knee injury on Friday. There are no more excuses, none that people will accept anyway.
Theoretically, they look like the East’s second-best team again but, as they say, the games aren’t played on paper. Even if they come together as Ujiri is hoping and return to the Conference Finals, where they will almost certainly run into the defending champion Cavaliers, they won’t be favoured in that series. Like last year, no one will expect them to win, and – assuming the Cavs are at, or close to their best – they probably won’t. That’s just the reality in a league with two elite teams – the Cavs and Warriors – and then everybody else. All you can do as a front office executive is put your team in the best possible position to compete, to challenge the giants and, maybe, take advantage of a break or two should they present themselves.
Ujiri has done that and, as a result, the Raptors are in a much better position than they were 10 days ago.