Obscured by the brashly joyful pregame din of what was supposed to be the Golden State Warriors’ coronation, DeMar DeRozan officially opted out of his contract on Monday. This wasn’t some staggering development; we’ve known this was going to happen since last summer. The cap’s about to skyrocket next month and everyone who can possibly become a free agent is putting themselves on the market to soak up some additional millions from the NBA’s suddenly inflation-stricken economy. DeRozan is set to sign a late-prime Kobe Bryant contract: a lengthy deal with a first year that pays him $25 million, or a smidgen less than that. This is both absurd and just how supply-and-demand works. The invisible hand has run the numbers and decided to saddle one team with an extravagantly overpaid two-guard who can’t shoot.
The Toronto Raptors and GM Masai Ujiri seem to have already decided to be that team. There’s usually a distinction to be made between what Ujiri says to the press and what he actually intends to do, but he’s been so bluntly enthusiastic about re-signing DeRozan that it’s hard to believe he’s bluffing. And not for nothing, the Raptors are coming off their most successful season in franchise history. Breaking up one of the better backcourts in the league because one its members is going to be unreasonably expensive might be the smart move in a vacuum, but it’s hard to explain to long-suffering fans, effectively strands a 30-year-old Kyle Lowry, and might see the Raps take a sizable step backward.
Besides, general managing decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. We’re in a moment where championship-gaze is so pervasive that merely being pretty good is understood to be the product of blinkered executive incompetence, but that’s not always the case.
If the Raptors are dead-set on winning a title in the next few years, they should let DeMar DeRozan walk. He’s a fine player, and on the odd night his jumper is fully operational, he’s downright thrilling, but he falls short of greatness. He can defend, but he’s not exactly a stopper. He’s a smart passer, but not a brilliant one. His midrange game is fine, but not something he should live on game-to-game. There is so much to like about DeRozan’s game and not quite enough that can be depended upon. He is the archetypal Guy Who Clogs Your Salary Cap, because there are always going to be at least a couple general managers out there who will sign a quasi-star for franchise player money.
And yet, are the Raptors really going to win the 2018 NBA Finals regardless of where DeRozan plies his trade next season? There’s not anyone lined up to replace him and, in the longer term, if Ujiri wanted to initiate a teardown, he’d have to jettison a bunch of talented players who are just coming into or are already operating at the peak of their powers. Lowry is at his apex right now. Jonas Valanciunas is 24 and has been polishing a now-solid post-up game. Bismack Biyombo (also a free agent) is a terror off the bench. DeMarre Carroll is going to get healthy this summer and play better than he did last season. This is a squad with an industrial-strength ceiling overhead—and that ceiling looks a lot like the underside of LeBron’s bootheel—but there’s still room underneath it in which to grow.
You would never start a team from scratch aiming to land in the league’s upper middle class, but only one or two GMs each year walk into situations where their bosses empower them to strip the roster for parts and build something completely new. Ujiri arrived in Toronto three years ago and remade a mediocre group into a solid one with medium-scale moves. He got rid of Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani. He brought in Biyombo, Carroll, Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph. He drafted Norm Powell. Steadily, the Raptors have grown over the past three seasons, in part due to Ujiri’s adept personnel maneuvering and in part because DeRozan and Lowry have returned each year having expanded some aspect or another of their now-estimable skillsets.
That the Lowry-DeRozan Raptors Era is extremely unlikely to top out at a title isn’t a compelling reason to snap off an upward trendline. Toronto has a whit of an inferiority complex, but it belongs among small handful of Great North American Cities and its citizens fill the Air Canada Centre whenever the Raps are good. Dwane Casey is a decent coach—even if he does occasionally give off troublingly bemused old-timer vibes—who has organized the team around a hard-nosed identity. And this is worth something: the Raps are pleasing to watch on most nights. They aren’t a gaggle of fledglings trying to adapt to pro ball nor are they bummerishly bottoming out in front of a wall of empty seats.
Modern NBA franchises—especially ones that aren’t based in New York, Miami, or Los Angeles—plot out their futures in phases. You can roughly separate each team in the league into one of four categories: they are either tanking (asset and lottery ball collection mode), rebuilding (trying to develop two or three young players into stars), striving for title contention (searching for one or two players who might put them over the top), or contending for titles. It’s easy to understand, from 30,000 feet, how each phase leads into the next one, but teams don’t advance through them like they’re turning a book’s pages. They stall all the time, or regress, or a superstar hits the trade market and their big-picture plan goes out the window. The Raptors are currently stuck in phase three, with no clear path forward, but it would take a cold empiricist to say that this means they should start over again or dramatically change course just for the sake of it. Getting to phase three is, by itself, damn difficult, and it comes with lots of enjoyable, competitive basketball.
This is why re-signing DeMar DeRozan for yacht cash is a little bit stupid but ultimately the correct decision. Given the choice among the abyss of a protracted rebuild, a couple more playoff seasons, or some zany Plan C panic move, the non-masochist takes some 45 wins and the subdued joy of nightly competence. Further down the road, maybe, Masai Ujiri can try his hand at a full-scale renovation, but the Raptors are just alright as currently constituted. They haven’t gotten to where they want to be, but they’re certainly somewhere.