At present, the basketball world feels like a beautiful ball of flames, pulsing through the NBA landscape without consistency, predictability, or direction. Log off for even a second, and fans run the risk of missing the latest in a steady, unrelenting stream of moves and rumors, almost all of them involving big names with league-wide implications that could reverberate well into and beyond the summer of 2018, the "next big offseason" for potentially wild free agent movement.
It all feels a little premature and may underscore how a new collective bargaining agreement, yet another salary cap spike, and the perception of inevitability that exists at the top of the league—unless you can somehow put together a comparable super team—have conspired to alter timelines, endgames, and plans, near and long term. It's a mess, but it's an entertaining one. When your phone is blowing up with Paul George and Jimmy Butler in rumors, with Dwight Howard, D'Angelo Russell, and Brook Lopez in trades, and with any of the Plumlees on the move, the inability to turn away is understandable. The NBA offseason, before it's even started, is a veritable variety show of entropy, on par with and perhaps (OK, very likely) surpassing the entertainment value of the first three rounds of this year's playoffs.
Through all of this, things have been fairly quiet with the Toronto Raptors, and you get the sense that's exactly how they'd like it.
"What has happened? Nothing has happened. Very quiet," Raptors president Masai Ujiri said Tuesday at BioSteel Centre, tongue firmly in cheek. "I think this is why you wait and go through the process of evaluating your team and see what happens in the NBA. One day it's quiet, the next day it's noisy. That's just how the NBA works. With all of these things going around, you make calls, you listen to calls and you see what fits your team. Leading up to the draft and on draft day, that's another deadline that we work with on our side. Things will shake up a little bit and we'll see how it affects the Raptors."
To be fair, things are only really "quiet" with the Raptors in relative terms. By their hush-hush standards, Monday's report about Kyle Lowry's earlier discontent from Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star, Kyle Lowry's tweet in response, and the need to contextualize all of it were, together, more buzz than the Raptors are used to. Even still, some of that was borne of Arthur's reporting—particularly the timeline of it—being taken a bit out of context, ratcheted up by Lowry's tweet, and conveniently closed off with Ujiri's own comments at his annual pre-draft media availability.
"From what he tweeted yesterday, yeah, I think we are comfortable," Ujiri said. "He's been a part of our organization and he says he wants to come back. Listen, I know there is speculation. We all have ups and downs. There are times when he has been down and there are times when we are down. It happens to every team, every player. People go through it. This is rumor season and everyone is going to make a big deal out of everything. I know what Kyle has told me. Kyle has been here working out and he actually just left. I know what he has been telling me and I can only believe what he tells me, not the famous sources."
If it felt like Ujiri said something to the tune of "we'll see" a lot in his 12-and-a-half minute session, it's easy to understand why. He's generally not the type of executive to tip his hand or deal in public posturing—he even declined to reveal his decision with respect to the team's vacant general manager role, though a decision has, in fact, been made—and he's earned a bit of a reputation for engaging with the media in a thoughtful, helpful, and agreeable way without actually saying much at all. That's just good gamesmanship, and while it's not particularly illuminating, a front office with looser lips would be cause for greater concern.
More pragmatically, the other reason Ujiri can't say much is that there is still an air of uncertainty around the Raptors' offseason. The rest of the NBA has sort of gotten a head start on things this week, but the NBA Draft is usually the unofficial kick-off of the offseason and a night Ujiri and company have liked to get important work done in the past.
The pick is obviously important, and Thursday's the night when that pick, as an asset, depreciates significantly (once it's off the lot, it loses value, although it becomes slightly more useful for matching salaries in a trade). The Raptors own just the No. 23 pick this year, having dealt their second-rounder to Phoenix in the P.J. Tucker trade, but they have a handful of interesting trade chips otherwise, including a glut of young centers and a first- and second-round pick in every future draft in perpetuity. The big priority for the Raptors in a deal would seem to be shedding some salary ahead of a free agent cycle that could push them well into the luxury tax, and a pick can be a helpful tool in offloading a bloated contract.
The guess here, though, is that the Raptors make their selection tomorrow. Since the moment the season ended, and really since he arrived and expedited the creation of the BioSteel Centre and the Raptors 905 D-League team, Ujiri has talked up the need for player development. The new CBA only increases its importance, and while the Raptors do already have seven players on their first deals, four of those can become restricted free agents next summer. Prospects are an inexpensive means of filling out a roster, and they're a chance at striking gold and making a meaningful improvement down the line.
Of course, everything flows from Lowry, the most difficult free agent situation the franchise has ever faced. The feeling from Ujiri's comments Tuesday is that the Raptors are confident they can still retain the All-Star guard, that after a cooling-off period he came around on staying, and that there's enough room between Lowry's market elsewhere and what the Raptors can (and are willing to) offer that there's a band to make a deal within. The NBA's hectic few days suggest teams like the Spurs and Rockets may find the financial flexibility to make a run at him, but there's a deep point guard market and few teams with money and a need, and the Raptors hold a significant advantage.
And they're ready if not, because they have to be.
"Any direction we are going, I think we are prepared, that's what I should say," Ujiri said. "We are very well prepared after studying it for a couple of months after the season has been over. I think we're excited about our free agents and [if] it goes the other way, we are excited, too."
Whatever direction the franchise goes, youth will be important, particularly in the rebuild scenario. Keep Lowry, and Thursday could be a key moment in helping massage the roster around a top-heavy core without a ridiculous tax bill. Lose Lowry, and Thursday's pick grows in long-term importance, perhaps nudging the team to take a higher-upside approach.
Pick a useful short-term piece, swing for the fences, select a draft-and-stash candidate, or deal the pick, everything is an option, and the team is comfortable either way. Everything sort of flows from Thursday, even if the No. 23 pick itself isn't a universe-altering place to be. The draft starts the clock on one of the toughest, most uncertain offseasons the Raptors have dealt with, and there will finally begin to be some clarity of direction.
The way things are going this week, it seems quite literally anything might be on the table.
"I know that when there's a deadline like draft day we all put it in high gear," Ujiri said. "I feel that things will happen around the league, I don't know with us, and I don't know what will come up with us. I can't tell you because I don't know what offers will be made, what will present itself to us. I wish I could tell you, but who knew what has happened in the last couple of days? Who knew that would happen?
"You never know. And whether that involves us or not, you have to pay attention to all of that."
The wild last week in the NBA has made it so that you can't not pay attention, anyway. Even with the Raptors only sticking a toe in the rumor mill, the next few weeks are decidedly "Twitter notifications season" for Raptors fans. The dominos continue being set tomorrow.