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Lewenberg: Ujiri prioritizes roster flexibility in rebuild

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Josh Lewenberg
12/10/2013 12:19:21 AM
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TORONTO - Masai Ujiri has officially taken the next step, a rather bold one at that, in the inevitable rebuild of his Toronto Raptors.

The Raptors announced the completion of a seven-player swap Monday, officially sending rental star Rudy Gay to Sacramento along with the seldom used Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy in exchange for guard Greivis Vasquez, swingman John Salmons and forwards Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes, a deal first reported by Yahoo Sports Sunday evening.

In just over six months on the job, the Raptors' general manager has quickly made his presence felt, as expected after he inherited Bryan Colangelo's roster back in May. It didn't take him long to jettison maligned forward Andrea Bargnani - the face of the Colangelo era - to New York and with Monday's transaction he bid farewell to Gay, his predecessor's second marquee mistake.

Ujiri has made his statement. This team is now his to build as he sees fit.

How he plans to do that still remains unclear, despite adding a pair of necessary, albeit significant transactions to his already impressive resume.

"I couldn't tell you where the team is going to go from here," Ujiri said, addressing the local media at the Air Canada Centre for the first time since the trade was made official late Monday afternoon. "Sometimes you have to make a change."

"I know people speculate different things on the direction," he said, referring to the elephant in the room; the T-word (tank) that has been hovering over this team like a black cloud long before he accepted the gig in Toronto. "We made a move that creates certainty."

Looking at Ujiri's resume - his early returns at the helm of the Raptors and his time spent in Denver - there's an obvious trend that has defined his brief, yet mostly successful career as a lead NBA executive. The Raptors' GM leaves as little to chance as humanly possible. Time and time again he has taken his team's fate out of the collective hands of his players and into his own. More than anything else he values flexibility.

When it appeared Carmelo Anthony was destined to hold the Nuggets hostage in free agency Ujiri flipped the script, waiting patiently and parlaying Denver's best player into more manageable assets. On Sunday he did the same with Gay, a player attached to a contract - like Bargnani - that many believed could not be moved.

Although Gay can opt out of the final year of his deal at the end of the season, it seems impossible to imagine him walking away from the $19.3 million he's owed in his option year while he's mired in the worst statistical campaign of his career. Naturally, the Raptors' front office had safely just assumed the forward would be on their books next year, eating up a sizeable portion of their payroll, hampering their ability to plan ahead.

"That option was tough on our part," Ujiri admitted, citing the uncertainty of Gay's contract as a motivating factor behind the deal, it left them in limbo he said. "That option really put us in a tough position to plan."

Therein lies Ujiri's fundamental goal as he continues to dismantle a disjointed unit; attaining the roster and financial flexibility necessary to build on the fly. He executed it to perfection in Denver, remaining competitive and even improving as a team after the Anthony trade when many believed the Nuggets were poised to bottom out.

Ujiri won't use the T-word. He detests the word and what it represents. But he also insists the organization won't "be stuck in no-man's land." He can't have it both ways, not unless he can pull off something remarkable and duplicate the award-winning magic he performed in Denver.

Barring a complete tear down - which remains possible but still seems unlikely - the Raptors are still too good to bottom out, as many expect they will. Exchanging Gay and his contract for the Kings' quartet was a stroke of genius. Toronto can save roughly $12 million next season if Salmons is bought out for $1 million and the team renounces its rights to Vasquez and Patterson. Still, the move gives us little-to-no indication on the direction Ujiri intends to take.

Both trades - Gay and Bargnani - were about ridding the team of expendable pieces that just didn't fit, not dumping star players in an outward attempt to be bad. On the contrary. The absence of Gay, his high usage rates and his inefficiency could and likely will make them a better team.

"It just didn't work out," Ujiri said of Gay's 10-month tenure in Toronto. "I think it was just a chemistry [issue] with the team. I think everybody saw there was no sync there."

So now we wait. We wait for Ujiri's next move and the consensus around the team, around the league, is that it won't be long. Gay will not be the last domino to fall and the GM's subsequent moves should, in theory, tip his hand.

Everyone on this roster is available, at the right price. Would Ujiri be willing to listen to offers for Jonas Valanciunas? Is DeMar DeRozan safe now that the similar Gay has been dealt, or do you sell high on what appears to be an emerging star at his position? Is Kyle Lowry the next to go, as most expect? And what of Amir Johnson, who should be a valuable trade chip as the deadline approaches?

In moving Gay, and Bargnani, Ujiri has already done most of the heavy lifting. Now the Raptors' GM has options, and he wouldn't have it any other way.

Masai Ujiri (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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