Can Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors Resist Temptation at Trade Deadline?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2014

TORONTO, CANADA - June 5:  New Raptors GM Masai Ujiri  Press Conference on June 5, 2013 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ron Turenne/Getty Images

Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri didn't carve out a reputation as one of the most ruthlessly effective executives in the NBA by standing pat.

Ujiri's Raptors are in good shape right now, largely because of the deals he's made since taking over in May of 2013. As a result, there's a good case to be made that Toronto should avoid participating in the flurry of trade deadline activity this month.

But as that deadline nears and the Raptors continue to hover around. 500, it's fair to wonder whether Ujiri's feelings on mediocrity—combined with his skills as both a wheeler and a dealer—will make it tough to hold off on entering the trade melee.

Remember, Ujiri has been uncomfortable with "decent" for a long time:

In addition to his desire to take advantage of a few more suckers (New York Knicks, anyone?) there's also the fact that Ujiri's team is positioned nicely to make a few moves.

Per Grantland's Zach Lowe:

The Raps have a lot of dead or semi-dead salary they’d like to move, an extra first-round pick courtesy of the Knicks (BARGS BARGITTY BARGS!), an aggressive ownership group, and a potential hole at point guard next season as Kyle Lowry enters free agency.

The Raptors clearly have the assets to be players in the trade market. This is a team with plenty of nice pieces but no transformative star. Between desirable contracts and four first-round picks over the next three years, the means exist for the Raptors to go out and get that missing centerpiece.

As Tom Chisholm of Raptors Republic noted, Ujiri's desire to move beyond mediocrity and Toronto's currently starless state are related issues: "If Ujiri isn’t tanking and he wants to avoid living in the middle then eventually he’ll have to make a big move for a big player since it appears like the Raptors don’t have a big player currently on the roster."

Then again, the Raptors have already made the biggest deal possible: Shipping out Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings in an absolute coup that improved the team in the short term and cleaned up the books for the future. No move Ujiri makes from here on out will rival the sheer brilliance of that one.

It might not stop him from trying, though.

Wisely, Ujiri is capitalizing on a position of strength by asking for huge returns on any potential trades. Per ESPN's Marc Stein, his asking price for Lowry has, so far, prevented any deals from being struck:

But as suitors get increasingly desperate, Toronto might get an offer too good to pass up.

Suppose the Knicks—who we might as well keep picking on—suddenly agree to part with some comically valuable package of distant-future picks, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Iman Shumpert for Lowry. Even then, Toronto's decision won't be so easy.

That's because the Raptors are in a bizarre position of immobility; they can't improve enough to pose a real threat to the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers for one of the top two seeds in the East. But even if they were to deal Lowry for future considerations, they'd still be far too good to slip out of the playoff picture entirely.

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

Maybe it's not accurate to say they're stuck in the middle, but the Raptors' potential for upward or downward mobility is severely limited this year.

So, it's clear that the smartest move is to avoid dealing for dealing's sake. The current roster seems a lock to advance past the first round of postseason, and who knows what might happen after that?

Toronto figures to face either Miami or Indiana in the conference semifinals. Maybe a key injury to LeBron James or Roy Hibbert would swing the balance of that hypothetical series. And we've seen major upsets before; the Raps have a nonzero chance of catching a hot streak and moving into the conference finals, no matter who they play.

Frankly, it seems crazy for the Raptors to be sellers when they're all but assured at least one series victory in the playoffs.

Perhaps it's silly to worry Ujiri won't be able to resist the temptation to swing a deal. After all, he's not a highly respected (and feared) executive just because of the trades he's made. His is a broader skill set based on knowing where to find value and how to take advantage of favorable situations when the time's right.

His track record is good enough to suggest he knows when there's no real benefit to making a move. For all we know, the deals Ujiri hasn't made have been just as important as the ones he has.

Ultimately, Toronto's roster isn't good enough to contend for a championship. That means Ujiri will eventually make some changes—probably significant ones. But now might not be the time to do that.

Think of it this way: The Raptors signed him to a five-year deal less than one year ago. It's always been understood that he'd have ample time to get the Raptors on the right track. That process is way ahead of schedule, which means the organizational urgency and personal temptation to deal might not be as great as we imagine.

The middle's OK for now, so the Raptors might hang around there a while longer. Just don't expect a permanent stay.