Pro teams like to talk about a plan.
In most cases, the plan is “Talk about a plan for as long as it keeps us employed. Then go somewhere else and talk about a new plan. Some day, consider creating an actual plan.”
The Raptors are the rare case of a team with a multilayered approach for tomorrow, for two years from now, and for the decade after that.
Nobody talks about it – not on the record. It’s tampering and it’d be careless. Up in their suites at 50 Bay St., it’s all they talk about.
In general manager Masai Ujiri’s office, there’s a large, colour-coded board that acts as a map of the NBA. It’s updated daily by interns – every guy on every team, where he stands on the depth chart, where he is in his current deal.
Ujiri and his lieutenants will sometimes spend hours in there, staring at it and plotting.
As they crest a wave of success, this executive group has been freed to chart a course that extends well beyond the current run.
Nobody doing the big thinking is worried about the small dip in form that’s seen the Raptors lose four of five games.
They are marginally interested in the idea of adding substantive pieces before the Feb. 19 trade deadline. As in, they’re listening, but they’re not shopping. They may tinker, but a big deal is exceedingly unlikely.
This year’s goal is winning a single playoff round. Winning two might create an unreasonable expectation, and could be more trouble than it’s worth.
In the off-season, they’ll chase a big-name centre and/or power forward. Memphis all-star Marc Gasol remains the fixation, but that’s a very long shot. In choosing Toronto, per CBA rules that encourage a player to sign with his current team, the Spaniard would give up around $30-million (U.S.).
Gasol will be 30 years old. This will be his first and last max contract. He’s a man who values his comfort, and is very comfortable in Tennessee. Nonetheless, the Raptors are still actively pursuing the possibility.
A year and a half from now, there’s the race for Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant. Since Durant was outgoing MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke’s white whale, that seems less and less likely to happen.
They’re fun names to throw out – Gasol and Durant. You get the strong impression the Raptors are chasing them not in the expectation of signing them, but in order to educate themselves in the art of free-agent flirtation.
To that end, Ujiri has undertaken a detailed study of what prompted Carmelo Anthony to re-sign in New York. He wants to know how the game’s biggest stars make off-court decisions.
Was it just the money? Was it environment? What did the presentation look like? Who was part of it? Ujiri is building a script that takes the guessing out of the most important work a GM does, but only gets a chance to practise sporadically.
Gasol and Durant are test cases. The real target will not rise into view for more than six years – Andrew Wiggins.
We haven’t heard a whole lot about the Vaughan, Ont., product lately. He plays on the worst team in the league (not counting the Knicks, who are no longer functionally an NBA team).
Wiggins’ embarrassing ouster from Cleveland has turned out to be the blessing many guessed it would be. He was a thin presence in the early going, overawed by the pace and size of his peers. Over the last 10 games, something’s clicked. Wiggins is averaging 21 points per in that stretch, and playing smarter defence. He still doesn’t have a jump shot, but that can be taught.
He’s going to be the rookie of the year, and a major star in this league.
And the Raptors have their sights set directly on him once he becomes an unrestricted free agent, as early as 2021.
That’s a long time from now, but a great deal of what the Raptors are building is being constructed with Wiggins in mind.
First off, there’s the team’s $30-million standalone practice facility on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. It’s a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thing – few NBA teams still practice at their arena, as the Raptors do.
It is more importantly an indoctrination hub. This facility will become an off-season drop-in centre for every Toronto-based pro – Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Ennis, Nik Stauskas, et al. Nobody’s going to be dumb enough to actively recruit while they’re there, but it will help form a friend-of-the-family relationship that can massively goose future negotiations.
Wiggins is the key target. He also seems to be the guy who feels the biggest pull toward home. During last year’s post-season run, while he was still attending the University of Kansas, Wiggins had to be talked out of coming to a game at the Air Canada Centre in Raptors gear. This was only weeks before he was drafted, and would’ve looked terrible. Wiggins apparently didn’t care.
Gasol probably won’t give up the money. But a future 26-year-old Wiggins – knowing he will get more than one max deal – may do it for the team he loves. That’s what the Toronto brass hopes.
This is the multilayered plan that underlies all the current decisions made by the Raptors: Be good now. Be very good in two years time. And then extend that run into dynastic terms by raiding other NBA teams for their Canadian talent.
This much is beyond doubt. No one is watching the rise of Toronto-based players more closely than the Raptors. It’s the subliminal message buried deep in the We The North campaign.
The Raptors look at these kids and think that, while other teams will do the work of developing them, the very best of them are eventually coming home.Report Typo/Error
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