Raptors GM Masai Ujiri faces all sorts of questions after Kyle Lowry and team collapse in playoffs
It now seems like a moment in time. Three months and four days ago.
Kyle Lowry voted legitimately, deservedly, appropriately to start in the NBA all-star game. It was the continuation of the Masai Ujiri everything is going right narrative.
The Raptors, as an NBA team, were on the move. Ujiri with a golden touch, accidental or not. Lowry, the Toronto athlete who had everything we value, the basketball Gilmour with guts and drive and me-against-world-fight: He may not have been the right size or the right shape or even play the traditional point guard game - but that’s what made the story even richer.
A story that now seems so long ago.
The Raptors couldn’t have bombed out any worse than they did in the opening round of the playoffs against the Washington Wizards. They were taken apart, piece by piece, and left for scraps by the end of the series. This wasn’t a contest as much as it was a convocation for the Wizards. And nowhere, not in any of the four defeats, was there a sense that Lowry was a great NBA player, could lead a team anywhere, and now the questions for Ujiri are greater and deeper and probably more convoluted than he imagined when he signed the point guard for four years and $48 million in what seemed the right move at the right time - the beginning of something big.
For half a season, that held up. The Raptors won. Lowry played terrific, if not singular, basketball. Toronto was so adept at scoring, it didn’t care to play much defence and despite coach Dwane Casey’s constant calls that all was not right, the players didn’t respond accordingly.
This was a tale we have seen before at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment: Randy Carlyle pushing, cajoling, screaming, prodding the Maple Leafs to play a certain way, the right way, even though they were winning games. Casey said almost the same thing at the all-star break in basketball, when Lowry went off to wave the Toronto colours. Casey knew the team wasn’t right but like Carlyle didn’t seem to be able to do anything to change that.
Part of that was his coaching. Part of that was the roster Ujiri had afforded him. And as the season went on, the problems went unsolved, Lowry got more and more beaten up, injured, bruised, abused, he never found that first-half magic. By the end of the Washington series, with John Wall and Bradley Beal exposing the Raptors' greatest weaknesses, what was left was greater than crushing disappointment.
Over history, one game, win or loss, has come to mean so much for the Raptors. Had they lost one more game three seasons back, when they weren’t anywhere near contention, they could have drafted Harrison Barnes, not the ubiquitous and distant Terrence Ross. Had they won one additional game this season - and there were so many opportunities lost - they would have played Milwaukee in the playoffs, and not been undressed by the Wizards, and maybe even won a round. The matchup was wrong with Washington in every conceivable way. One more loss altered almost everything.
And now Ujiri must determine how much of this team is salvageable, how much can he go forward with?
Does he have a lesser version of the San Jose Sharks or the St. Louis Blues on his hands, teams that cruise through regular seasons only to be exposed at playoff time? As he takes stock right now of all he has and doesn’t have, it is too easy to overreact to the Washington disaster but also to under-react to the most wins in franchise history.
One minute Lowry is an all-star and at season’s end he is barely average. One minute, Casey was the coach on the rise, was worth building the future around and now his future may be day to day.
Ujiri’s vision has always been about building a championship style team. He has been clear about that. But the progression from Rudy Gay trade, to the playoff goodwill of last spring, to the first half of Lowry’s surge, to the excitement in Jurassic Park has stalled; the regression has begun.
And what does Ujiri do now? Does he keep the coach and tear up his roster? Does he fire the coach and keep much of the roster? Does he do both? Who and what does he believe in and how, after all we’ve seen the past two weeks, can you know what to believe in?
This is all on Ujiri now. His players failed in the post-season. His coach failed in the post-season. That’s on him. The collapse was deep and across the board: There were no winners.
The NBA is a league all about stars. Maybe more than any other sport. LeBron James is still playing and so is Steph Curry and the championship teams almost always have at least three of them in their lineups. The Raptors thought they had two. Now they can’t be sure they have any.
They thought they had a centre they could build around for the future in Jonas Valanciunas. They still might. But he was taken apart by Marcin Gortat in Round 1, looking a step slow, instinctively behind, not the physical equivalent of a middle-range NBA player who dominated him.
Ross is basically a waste of NBA space. In four games, he didn’t make a single free throw because he never got to the foul line. How is that possible for an athlete of his explosiveness? Will he ever be better than this? Don’t we keep asking that question? How do you go forward with him and have any belief?
And then there are the free agents - Amir Johnson and Lou Williams. Williams was sixth man of the year in the NBA. That was nice. He has some ridiculously good offensive games. Coming off the bench he could provide the kind of instant offence that changed games.
But, he too, is part of the mirage. He is instant offence and no defence. When he creates his own offence, he is a magical scorer, but when he doesn’t score he is a defensive liability. Would you sign him, an NBA executive was asked late Sunday night after the series was over. For a year, yes, he said. For longer than that, no.
The Raptor attitude, that they don’t have to play defence because they can outscore anybody, crashed to the court in the tough Washington series and Williams is part of that problem. So what does Ujiri do with him?
And what to do with Amir Johnson? The NBA executive says you sign him. Even to come off the bench. He thinks Toronto needs him in its lineup, not necessarily as a starter, and not to be depended upon because of his health issues.
So there are questions - so many questions. The coach. His staff. The backcourt. The frontcourt. The bench. The money works in the Raptors' favour - over the next two seasons, their salary commitments drop and the cap goes up (especially in two years) significantly.
But paramount in all of this is Kyle Lowry, who, like his team, was great this season and then he wasn’t. He said, in the end, he has no excuses. He said there was no injury. That declaration only complicates matters, as if they’re not already complicated enough for Lowry and the Raptors.