Bruce Arthur: Raptors go all-in with Marc Gasol blockbuster

Bruce Arthur: Raptors go all-in with Marc Gasol blockbuster
Masai Ujiri is playing the big game, now and later. It was clear when he traded for Kawhi Leonard last summer; it became clearer Thursday. When you sit at the big table you have to roll the dice, and the Raptors are rolling. They’ve come this far. What else was there to do?

No, the Raptors had to go as all-in as they were willing to go. A few hours before the NBA trade deadline, the Raptors traded longtime centre Jonas Valanciunas, guard Delon Wright, spare part C.J. Miles and a second-round draft pick in 2024 to the Memphis Grizzlies for centre Marc Gasol, 34. He’s a former defensive player of the year, a shaggy and ferocious and cerebral player, declining but still effective. That is what going for it, right now, looks like.

The acquisition of Marc Gasol from the Grizzlies on Thursday adds muscle and a defensive force to the Raptors’ core.  (Joe Murphy / Getty Images)

It was a significant move, especially considering Ujiri didn’t have many cards to play, and the Raptors and their team president had been put under heavy pressure late in the day by their closest Eastern rivals. Milwaukee loaded up. Philadelphia, too. The Clippers cleared cap space to chase Leonard, their native son. Ujiri has never worried too much about pressure, but it was there.

So he made a move. It helped that it didn’t come out of the blue. According to a league source, this offer was on the table at least two weeks ago. It was one of several attempts that indicated Ujiri wasn’t satisfied with his team. An executive for another team said all-star point guard Kyle Lowry had been available for a couple weeks, but any talks involving Memphis point guard Mike Conley didn’t get too far, and nothing else serious materialized. One source said Lowry was told Monday that he would not be traded.

But the pressure was on. The Milwaukee Bucks, who have beaten Toronto in three of four games this season and lead the NBA in point differential, got three-point shooting big man Nikola Mirotic from New Orleans; Toronto had interest, but the Bucks got better instead. The Philadelphia 76ers had already added borderline all-star Tobias Harris to their all-star core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler.

The Boston Celtics didn’t do anything of note, but will try to pry MVP candidate Anthony Davis out of New Orleans this summer. The Raptors believed from the start there would be no Davis deal by the deadline, and never even made a call.

But the East was suddenly gladiatorial, with two hours to the deadline. Meanwhile, the Clippers cleared more salary-cap space, and their desire to sign Leonard is an open secret. So the pressure was on Toronto now, and for the future.

So these are the Raptors now. Gasol is a gifted passer, a one-man defensive co-ordinator — when the Raptors used to try to improve Valanciunas’s defensive instincts, Gasol was considered too good to be the reasonable best-case scenario — and has become almost a league-average three-point shooter. He’s good.

How he fits, how quickly, we’ll see. Gasol is a playoff-hardened veteran. He will compete, as will Leonard, as will Lowry. The bench is thinner, but Ujiri didn’t give up either rising star Pascal Siakam or still-valued wing OG Anunoby, who together comprise this team’s best starting point if Leonard decides to leave. You could say the Raptors are chasing it, and maybe you’re right. But if this is the tightrope, they didn’t trade the net.

No, this is about maximizing Leonard’s presence now, and trying to extend it in the future. The Raptors and Leonard have not been a seamless fit, but there has been a deepening of relationships, an increase in comfort, encouraging signs. Toronto’s free bingo space is that they can offer an extra $50 million (all dollars U.S.) to a player who is known around the league to care about the value of a dollar in his life.

Beyond that, the Raptors can say: Look, sign a contract for the max and if you’re not happy in a year or two, we will find a way to send you where you want to go. It wouldn’t be the NBA’s first such handshake promise, and it makes all the sense in the world. It would give Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster a chance to build something worth staying longer for.

And it could give them a better chance. It was reported that Davis’s acceptable trade list included Milwaukee, where superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo is under contract through 2021; Paul George was willing to stay in Oklahoma City to play with Russell Westbrook. How does life change if Kawhi stays? What else could Ujiri, with stars across the league constantly getting jarred free, do?

Gasol fortifies the window now, and if he opts in after this year as expected, his $25.6-million player option will come off the cap after next season, along with Lowry and Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet, at a total of approximately $90 million. That’s the real reset button, with or without Leonard.

So Toronto is going for it, along with Milwaukee, along with Philadelphia, with Boston in the fight. And two of them will be gone by the end of the second round of the playoffs at the latest. The Raptors are as all-in as they were willing to be; everyone has something to prove. This is playing the big game. Now comes the fun part, or something else.
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