There are all sorts of interesting story lines going on in this NBA season, will the Heat three-peat? What does the future look like for Kobe and the Lakers, how will the Jason Kidd circus/experiment end in New Jersey, and what the hell is wrong with the Knicks are just a few of them. But there is one thing flying under everybody’s radar, and if it happens it would be only the second time in league history and the first time since 1987. I’m talking of course about Masai Uijiri possibly winning back to back executive of the year awards, this is a feat that has only been achieved by current LA Dodgers President Stan Kasten, who won the award in 1986 and 1987 as GM of the Dominique Wilkins led Atlanta Hawks.
Ujiri won the award last year with the Denver nuggets using the pieces he acquired from dealing Carmelo Anthony to assemble a contending team without a true superstar, something that is extremely difficult in the NBA. He was then lured away with a big money contract to rejoin the Raptors where he had previously held a position as an assistant general manager. Fans of the Raptors envisioned their new GM jettisoning their high priced roster pieces and free falling down the standings towards Andrew Wiggins and begin the rebuild in earnest in 2014.
However Masai began working his magic right away. This summer he pawned Andrea Bargnani off on the New york Knicks this summer, and since arriving there Bargnani has been very good at Helen Keller impressions, but not so good with the defence, and putting the ball in the basket. Even after jettisoning their first overall pick from 2006 the Raptors were a mess, their offence was stagnant, they didn’t move the basketball and the redundancy of having both DeMar Derozan and Rudy Gay on the same roster was very apparent. Having a volume shooter like Gay as the focal point of the offence doesn’t work when that volume shooter can’t sink a basket. As a result young players like Terrence Ross and Jonas Valancunis were not developing and the team looked to be in a state of dysfunction with a lottery pick all but assured, even in the terrible terrible Eastern Conference.
But somehow Masai was able to strike again sending Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings. Bringing in quality role players, unloading the big money that Gay will be getting over the next two seasons, and making the journey to Wiggins even easier or so you thought? But No! Not only did this trade create one of the greatest moments in sports talk radio history, as can be seen below, (jump too 2:22 if you’re in a rush) but it also helped the Raptors to find new life. The team that lost 12 of it’s first 18 games has been on a tear since the trade, going 7-3 with road wins against Chicago, Dallas and most surprisingly Oklahoma City. And then a pair of beat downs against the Knicks in a home and home over the weekend.
So now as 2014 is upon us, the Raptors sit at 13-15 and hold the lead in the Atlantic Division and fourth place in the conference due to that divisional lead, With the Atlanta Hawks losing Al Horford to a torn pectoral muscle it seems more likely that the Raptors climb into third place than slide back down towards a lottery pick. They face very little challenge from their own division as both New York teams are a complete mess, the Celtics are rebuilding and the 76ers are still reeling from trading away quality young players so that they could pay for Andrew Bynum to get his hair cut styled last season.
If the team does start to falter they have many attractive pieces such as point guard Kyle Lowry, who is also on an expiring deal, which Masai could spin into other picks and assets for the future, while a fire sale/tank would clearly derail any plans of him repeating as executive of the year the fact that he has the flexibility to try and win now or rebuild for the future at a moments notice is what qualifies him for the award.
If however the team that finished dead last in the Atlantic last season is able to jump to first place even while unloading the bad contracts of players like Bargnani and Rudy Gay on other hapless teams he clearly has to be the hands on favourite for the award. So there’s another story line to watch for in this NBA season, maybe winning a terrible division won’t have the same impact as Kasten’s back to back 50 win seasons but either way, just like Raptors coach Dwayne Casey said, I believe in Masai.