The mind of Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri is constantly thinking two moves ahead. The gears are always turning and the wheels are always in motion as the reigning NBA Executive of the Year continues to rebuild and revamp this roster.
Trading Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings in a seven-player deal back in December was meant to be the first of many moves that would set the Raptors up with a prime position in the 2014 NBA draft. With the pool of talent in college basketball as deep as it's been in almost 10 years, it would seem like a no-brainer for a team that hasn't been in the postseason since 2007-08 to try and get as many ping-pong balls for the draft lottery as possible.
Besides, how many times does a guy like Andrew Wiggins, who was born in Canada (Thornhill, ON) and is projected to go in the first three or four picks, become available? Having a highly-touted Canadian suit up for the only team in the country would be such a positive for the franchise.
Well so much for that. Rather than sending the Raptors on yet another downward spiral towards mediocrity, the trade with Sacramento has catapulted Toronto up the standings in the Eastern Conference, with a berth in the NBA playoffs no longer just a pipe dream.
The Toronto Raptors are now the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference. They have also won 8 of their past 11 games. En fuego? #RTZ— Kevin Bryant (@KevinRashidi) January 14, 2014
The team currently owns a record of 19-17, which is the first time Toronto has been two games over the .500 mark since March 9, 2010. They have a 4.5 game lead for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, as well as home-court advantage with the No. 3 seed in the conference.
In 18 games with Gay, the Raptors were 6-12. Since the trade, they're 13-5. Their assist percentage has taken a gargantuan leap from 49.2 to 60.5 percent, while their net rating has jumped from -1.1 (101.0 points per 100 possessions while allowing 102.1) to 8.5 (105.7 points per 100 possessions while allowing 97.2).
Surely Ujiri is pleasantly surprised with these results, but it must have thrown his plans completely out of whack. Adapting a culture of winning for this franchise has been a top priority since he took over for former general manager Bryan Colangelo. Now there's plenty of basketball still left to be played, but maybe his blueprint for success won't take nearly as long as he thought.
It almost seems foolish to even consider messing with the chemistry the Raptors have at the moment. Why ruin a good thing, right? If it's not broken, don't fix it.
While it may not be broken, this team is certainly not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. This recent string of good fortune and strong play shouldn't get to their heads. It's a morale and confidence booster, but there's a lot of work to be done.
What are Ujiri's next moves? Nothing substantial, but there are certain things that need to be addressed.
Come to a Decision on the Immediate Future of Kyle Lowry
The Toronto Raptors cannot lose Kyle Lowry in free agency for nothing. They just can't.
The NBA trade deadline on Feb. 20 is fast approaching. In a little over a month, the opportunity to move Lowry will come and go.
That is, if management decides that's the path they want to travel in the first place.
Lowry is an expiring contract of $6.2 million who has the right to walk at the end of the season and leave the organization with no compensation for his departure. That's a scary thought.
This franchise should almost be immune to such anguish at this point. Do the names Chris Bosh and Tracy McGrady ring a bell?
Having played in all 36 games thus far, Lowry is putting up some serious All-Star calibre numbers in his second year with the team, averaging 15.9 points, 7.3 assists and 4.1 rebounds. He's taken on more responsibility since the departure of his friend Rudy Gay, becoming more of a vocal leader both on and off the court.
Greivis Vasquez (6.5 points and 3.2 assists) is the only credible backup point guard on the roster who could possibly come close to filling Lowry's shoes. While he does have experience as a starter in the NBA as a member of the former New Orleans Hornets and during his previous stint with the Sacramento Kings, the drop off from Lowry to Vasquez would be quite noticeable.
There's no need to sign Lowry now, even if it does prevent him from walking. He's remained injury-free all season, which goes against how he's been for a majority of his career (47 games played in 2011-12 and 68 in 2012-13). Toronto should also afford themselves the luxury of evaluating his progress over the next several months before deciding to lock him up for the long term.
By trading him, you're making the decision to part ways with Lowry while his value is at its highest. Signing him at this stage of the game is just jumping the gun, which Toronto has a storied past of doing.
With it being a contract year, his numbers could be inflated because of it.
Lowry will likely garner offers of $8-9 million a year on the open market as a highly-coveted scoring guard who can also run an offense efficiently. He's in an amazing place with the Raptors. Lowry is surrounded by young talent who continue to improve in a conference that is clearly regressing. If the team can avoid a matchup with the Indiana Pacers (30-7) and Miami Heat (27-10) in the opening round of the playoffs, they can probably win a series for the first time since 2000-01.
Winning solves everything. The fruit of his labor is paying off in the win column. Things haven't been this good in Raptor country for a long time.
If this keeps up, Lowry won't feel like he has to leave.
Some peace of mind would be nice, whether it comes from Ujiri or Lowry himself. Being kept in the loop on this matter would be greatly appreciated.
Find a Suitor for Landry Fields
With Ujiri at the helm, anything is possible. That includes finding a trade partner for seldom-used Landry Fields and his asinine contract.
There's nothing like paying a fourth-year small forward $5.2 million this season and $8.5 million the next to wither away at the end of the bench.
Don't say it can't be done. Landing a king's ransom for Andrea Bargnani on July 10, 2013, in a trade with the New York Knicks and disposing of Rudy Gay and his $19 million player option for next season five months later should convince even the most skeptical of fans that Ujiri knows how to make magic happen.
Unfortunately, finding another team to bite on a trade for Fields may require all of the pixie dust, secret potions and spells this general manager has stashed away.
Fields is putting up career-lows across the board. He's averaging just 2.7 points and 2.4 rebounds in 21 appearances for Toronto this season. He's scored in double-figures just once (11 points against Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 2) and barely even sees the court during blowout victories, as evident by the 1:08 he played against Detroit (+21 on Jan. 8).
Give credit where credit is due. It's times like these where a player could become overly frustrated and cause drama with the media and back in the locker room for not getting enough PT. Through all of this, Fields has remained a consummate professional by biting his tongue on the matter and not once acting selfishly. You could do a lot worse for an 11th or 12th man in your rotation.
He probably expected his role to be a lot more than it currently is when he signed on the dotted line during the summer of 2012. Inconsistent play and several of his teammates emerging as more reliable options off the bench have reduced Fields to nothing more than insurance in case someone goes down with an injury.
There's no need to urgently shop Fields. This isn't a major issue that needs immediate attention. He's only 25 years of age and still nowhere near his prime. It's just far too much money tied into one guy who has his buttocks firmly planted on the pine as much as he does.
Follow Featured Columnist Christopher Walder on Twitter at @WalderSports
*All statistics are current as of January 15 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com/stats*