Gone is President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo and many of his front office staff. Now in charge – strangely enough – is his one-time understudy in Toronto, Masai Ujiri, fresh off an exceptional run as GM of the Denver Nuggets.
Ujiri was lured away from the Nuggets by new Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke. Ujiri and Leiweke represent not only a changing of the guard for the Dinos but potentially a complete reset for a franchise with a shaky image around the NBA.
But as the saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same. Regardless of rebranding or marketing speak, the on-court product still leaves a bit to be desired.
That’s not to say there aren’t some intriguing story lines though this coming season. Here are five of them.
1. To Tank, or Not to Tank. This is the biggie. The Raptors go into this season as one of the only teams in the Eastern Conference this past summer that didn’t take a definitive step toward either the playoffs or presumed top overall pick Andrew Wiggins. Ujiri’s offseason instead was filled with moves that wouldn’t lock the team into either scenario. Depending on how the season begins to unfold, Ujiri can still make changes on the fly.
This might be easier said than done, however.
Ujiri’s predecessor, Bryan Colangelo, left the reigning Executive of the Year with a bit of a financial quagmire, and it may take more than one season to dig out. DeMar DeRozan is making $9.5 million over each of the next four seasons. Landry Fields may be the most grossly overpaid player aside from Richard Jefferson, making $6.25 million. Kyle Lowry is coming off the books at the end of this season, and Colangelo mortgaged last June’s draft pick to get him, waving goodbye to Jose Calderon in the process. Does that give Lowry leverage? Or does it make him a prime post-Colangelo trade asset? Is the tanking is in full force by February, Lowry can be dumped if Ujiri has no intention of keeping him, and D.J. Augustin can hold down the fort.
Regardless, the club needs to make more trades at some point, and one of the most intriguing things to watch this season will be which direction Ujiri takes the franchise. On one hand, the playoffs aren’t completely out of reach in a top-heavy East. On the other, Wiggins looks to be a once-a-decade type talent, and a Canadian kid to boot. And the Raptors are the team he wants to play for.
2. Rudy Gay’s Future. Tied directly to the first point of intrigue for the Raptors this coming season is this second one. Gay’s gargantuan contract (2 years remaining at $37.2 million) puts a damper on any major roster readjustments. A decision by Ujiri and Co. to go after Wiggins and the 2014 draft’s top talent appears to be inextricably linked to moving Gay.
But Gay is no Andrea Bargnani, who had to be moved at all costs – something Ujiri magically did this offseason – fleecing the Knicks in the process. Contract aside, Gay is still one of the top wing talents in the league. To move him for little in return simply to clear his contract might equate to “one step forward, two steps back,” especially if such a contract dump doesn’t result in enough losses to clinch a top lottery pick.
Keeping Gay is equally problematic considering he has a contract extension looming and the Raptors have a glut at the wing position already. It’s a tough situation and one that fans and media alike will be keeping an eye on as the season unfolds.