Masai Ujiri says he moves around a lot during a game. From the mouth of the tunnel leading from the locker room to the court, to the kitchen and eating area in the back of the locker room … to his office … and, at times, home. Home even before his team’s game is over; home to watch the Toronto Raptors on television.
He is light on his feet, the president and general manager of the Raptors. Deft. So don’t bother trying to start up a conversation about “tanking,” or even “rebuilding.”
Don’t lob softballs to him about how the Eastern Conference of the NBA is a dog’s breakfast after the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and, maybe New York Knicks. And how some magazines and websites have his team seventh or eighth. Playoffs!
Realize instead that when Ujiri wants to use a word to describe what the 2013-14 regular-season is all about, the word is “adjustments.” Read into that what you wish.
The Road To Somewhere is a better place to be than the Road To Nowhere, and for now, that’s about all a Raptors fan has to hang their hat on.
Newsflash: It is okay to cheer for the Raptors this season, if you want. Seriously. But be careful how much emotional capital you invest.
The Raptors opened the regular season Wednesday, with a 93-87 win over the Boston Celtics at the Air Canada Centre, and so begins an odd kind of phony war. Tim Leiweke, president and chief executive officer of team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ltd., told The Globe and Mail last week there will be an evaluative period of about two months, after which Ujiri will back up the truck – not his words – or leave it idling.
This has already been a kind of absurd off-season, with more talk about next year’s draft class – especially Canadian prospect Andrew Wiggins – than trades or free agency. The absurdity reached new levels in the past few days, when ESPN ran an item from an anonymous GM detailing how his team was throwing away the regular season in order to better position itself for the draft lottery.
Wednesday’s visitors are clearly of that mind-set – and that should mean ample minutes for Toronto-born, Kamloops-raised Kelly Olynyk, who made his regular-season NBA debut and went 2-for-5 from the field in 16 minutes, missing both of his three-point attempts. “Unless there are unusual circumstances, he’s going to play a lot of minutes – he may lead us in minutes,” Celtics first-year head coach Brad Stevens said. “We can run our offence through him; we can throw to him in the post; I think he can handle the pass and shoot.”
The biggest stories of Raptors camp was the added beef on the bodies of Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan, the disappearance of Kyle Lowry’s waist and, mostly, the cavernous gap between the Raptors bench and the starting five, who buried the Celtics in the fourth quarter, when coach Dwane Casey put them all back in for the final seven minutes with the Raptors leading 79-78.
This might cause fretting among the team’s fans who want a playoff spot, but it plays nicely into Ujiri’s hands in another way: It is out of the group of Gay, DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Lowry that two or three bodies would be sacrificed if tanking was the order of the day.
And so this odd, slightly wayward Raptors season has started. The team’s global ambassador, the rapper known as Drake, was on the videoboard during introductions if not in the ACC in person, singer Jon Bon Jovi was courtside, and the Raptors starters stood on a lit stage as their names were announced one by one.
It was like a gameshow with all the smoke and lights – “I’ll take Rudy Gay, Masai, for $500 and a first-round draft pick” – or maybe a kind of magic act.
It’s Halloween, after all. Could be a trick. Or a treat.
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