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Scott Stinson: Marc Gasol trade shows Raptors are firmly in win-now mode

ATLANTA — For a fevered few minutes there on Thursday afternoon, it looked like the NBA trade deadline music would stop and Masai Ujiri would still be looking for a chair.

The Philadelphia 76ers had already added Tobias Harris earlier in the week, giving them a terrific starting five if not much of a bench at all. And then a little after midday the Milwaukee Bucks jumped in, pilfering sweet-shooting big man Nikola Mirotic from the New Orleans Pelicans for roster flotsam and draft picks, an addition that will make the East-leading Bucks even more of a handful than the Toronto Raptors have already found them to be.

It was flop-sweats time for Raptors fans and, even if they might not admit, for Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster and everyone else in the Toronto front office. They had built a team that at the start of this season looked very much like an Eastern Conference contender, perhaps even a title contender if things broke correctly, and now here they were stuck watching everyone else around them getting better. When so much of the sales pitch to pending free agent Kawhi Leonard relied on the Raptors having a long playoff run this spring — well, that and the extra US$50-million they can offer him — it was starting to look like the team might have a hell of a time trying to get out of the second round again.

It was starting to look like the team might have a hell of a time trying to get out of the second round again

They still might. But the Raptors’ own prospects were also significantly improved on Thursday with the trade with Memphis for centre Marc Gasol, a move that sent centre Jonas Valanciunas, guards Delon Wright and C.J. Miles, and a second-round draft pick for five years from now to the Grizzlies.

“He’s really excited to be here and this is, I think, exciting for us going forward as we move to all of us trying to achieve a dream of contending for a championship in the NBA,” Ujiri, the team president, said in Toronto late Thursday night.

It was, at a stroke, a trade that signalled a couple of things: that the Raptors are in win-now mode as much as they have ever been, but also that Ujiri and company aren’t so desperate to load up for this coming playoff run that they were willing to part with assets that they know they need to keep if things don’t work out as they hope over the next four months or so. They retained their two prized young forwards, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, both of whom would be expected to be the centrepieces of a rebuild effort should the Raptors’ fortunes go pear-shaped sometime between April and July.


Toronto Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas (17) reacts after scoring against the Los Angeles Clippers during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, in Los Angeles.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/ AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez

In parting ways with Valanciunas, the Raptors lose a genuinely likeable big man, a guy who had become a franchise great somewhat by virtue of having been a long-serving member of the team during the best era in its history. But he was never an All-Star, and as much as he improved his game over the years he was rarely on the court in crunch time. They also lose Wright and Miles, the former a talented guy who does all the little things right but struggled to find a defined role on a deep team, and the latter a mercenary shooter who has unfortunately struggled this season to shoot. Oh, and that 2024 draft pick, by which time we could all be knee deep in rising seas, so whatever.

All of which is to say, the Raptors lost two guys who hadn’t been key pieces all season and one in Valanciunas who was replaced by someone who is significantly better at the same position. Gasol, while at 34 is eight years older than the big Lithuanian, is a three-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA, and a former Defensive Player of the Year. He scores, he rebounds, he passes, he even shoots threes. He’s the best centre the Raptors have ever had, just like that. In landing him, Toronto went from a team that was being passed as it stood still to striding aggressively back into the Eastern Conference race, otherwise known as the fight to be pantsed by the Golden State Warriors in the Finals.

After the Raptors were eliminated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs last season, there was a point this summer in which it appeared a new coach would be the only significant change to the group that kept getting punched right in the face by LeBron James and his Infinity Glove in the post-season. But three of the four Raptors who played the most minutes against the Cavs last May — DeMar DeRozan, Miles, and Valanciunas — are now all gone. Four more players from that 13-man roster are also now all former Raptors: Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Lorenzo Brown and Bebe Nogueira. While everyone wondered what Ujiri would do after another embarrassing playoff exit, we now have our answer: He blew it up. It may have taken a little time, but he has turned over more than half the roster, plus the coaching staff, of the best Raptors team that its fans had ever known.

Asked Thursday morning in Atlanta if he expected his roster to change, head coach Nick Nurse said: “I don’t think so, but what do I know?” Either not much, or that was an excellent poker face he displayed.

After Thursday night’s game, in which an undermanned Raptors squad eventually overcame a young Hawks team, Nurse said he was excited to see what Gasol would mean to his roster. But he also said he was sorry to lose the players that were shipped out. The coach was unusually soft-spoken after the win, and said it had been a tough day. As an assistant he had worked closely with Valanciunas over many years, often travelling overseas in the summer to see him. “I’ll miss him,” Nurse said. “I miss him already.” It’s a fun game, professional sports, but a hard business.

The Raptors are doing all they can to get to the NBA Finals this season, but you already knew that.

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