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Masai Ujiri's Free Agency Patience Comes with Its Own Hidden Risk

Ujiri chose to sit out the first crazy days of free agency, again. For his team's long-term cap sheet, that was probably for the best. But there's a catch.

by Eric Koreen
Jul 20 2016, 4:12pm

Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

For the first four years of his NBA career, Andrew Nicholson struggled to stay in the Orlando Magic's rotation. Sometimes, he found his niche and carved out a meaningful role as a versatile scorer. Other times, his lack of defensive intuitiveness banished him to the bench, behind such post luminaries as Jason Smith, Kyle O'Quinn and Dewayne Dedmon. As far as beginnings of careers go for players picked in the latter half of the first round, Nicholson's was pretty much what you'd expect—meh. Apologies to fans of Canada Basketball, Western New York collegiate programs or Nicholson himself. He has been, to this point in his career, just another guy.

Early on in free agency, Nicholson signed a four-year, $26 million deal. It was a surprise, but not a huge one. We all knew that the bump in league revenue was going to cause a lot of outsized contracts (hello, Solomon Hill and Timofey Mozgov), and Nicholson cashed in on that. Now, if he manages his money well, he and his family will be set for life. It is tough to begrudge anybody that luxury. Good for Nicholson.

Toronto Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri chose to sit out those first crazy days of free agency. For his team's long-term cap sheet, that was probably for the best. As Ujiri hoped, the market eventually came to him, and he signed Jared Sullinger to a one-year deal for an annual salary that is less than Nicholson's. Sullinger has had a similar first four years to Nicholson. On the whole, Sullinger has been a better player, contributing more frequently to a better team. Sullinger adds some depth for the Raptors exactly where they need it, and at a low cost and commitment.

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If you follow the Raptors, this should remind you of last year. Last offseason, the Raptors lost two of Dwane Casey's frontcourt options: the frequently used mainstay, Amir Johnson, and the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency (those emergencies usually coming in the form of Marc Gasol or Al Jefferson) veteran, Chuck Hayes. To soak up the extra minutes, Ujiri waited until relatively late in free agency to sign two players to one-year deals. One was Luis Scola, who performed as expected in his 35-year-old season. The other was Bismack Biyombo, whose production was so notable and well timed that he is now earning $17 million a year in Orlando.

Timing was everything for Biyombo. Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

That Biyombo is now gone should be instructive to Ujiri and Raptors fans alike. It is not necessarily a bad thing, as it is tough to imagine a world where paying him and Jonas Valanciunas north of $15 million annually would be an efficient use of resources. It does, however, naturally limit the amount of cohesion the Raptors can have from year to year.

This is where Ujiri must do some daunting calculus, marrying basic risk-reward navigation with the team's long-term objectives. Yes, it must be frustrating that Ujiri could not tack on another year or two on Biyombo's contract to maintain club control, even if it would have resulted in a higher annual salary (Biyombo had a player option on his contract that he could have opted into this summer, assuming that he hated his agent). Now, Casey has to hope Valanciunas is ready for full-time centre duties on the defensive end, while praying some combination of Sullinger, Lucas Nogueira and maybe Jakob Poeltl can replace Biyombo's overall production, if not its specific composition. (The Raptors will simply not be able to replace Biyombo's rim protection and shot blocking.)

On the other hand, Ujiri is likely thrilled he did not do something foolhardy like guarantee Scola or Anthony Bennett a second year. The same fiscal conservatism that cost the Raptors Biyombo—without a multi-year deal, the Raptors did not own his early-Bird Rights, which meant a solid season would virtually guarantee his stay in Toronto was brief—has also kept the Raptors' cap sheet fairly clean.

The contracts for DeMarre Carroll (age, health), DeMar DeRozan ($!!!) and Terrence Ross (Terrence Ross) may not work out in the end, but the team's long-term commitments are all to players whom the Raptors are still very much glad to have around.

Taking a short-term deal now could have long-term benefits for Sullinger, as it did with Biyombo. Photo by Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

That sort of prudence, though, matters only if Ujiri can regularly get the Raptors meetings with the most impactful free agents. They did not have enough salary cap to work with this summer, but neither Kevin Durant nor Al Horford gave Toronto a sniff this July like LaMarcus Aldridge did last July. That left Ujiri to work the bargain bin, which he did with Sullinger, and the trade market, which has yielded nothing so far, to improve the team. He did not have the luxury of simply bringing back Biyombo and returning the Raptors' rotation in tact, and that was by design. Ujiri gains flexibility, but he loses the possibility of a huge upside hit like Biyombo on a longer contract signed in 2015 (instead of 2016) would have represented. For those types of wins, Ujiri must nail the draft.

From Sullinger's perspective, you can understand it: He views a regular role on the Raptors as a stepping stone to a big pay day next summer, when the salary cap is set to rise again. And from the Raptors' perspective, you can understand it: Sullinger for not even $6 million a season is a far safer bet than Nicholson at a higher salary for four years. If Sullinger outperforms the contract as Biyombo did, both will benefit; Sullinger will get his big deal, and the Raptors will get a year of production at a cut-rate price.

It will be tough, however, for the Raptors to have a long-term benefit from the deal—unless another excellent season turns Toronto into a legitimate free-agency draw. Factor that into the low risk of the Sullinger deal, and other deals like it. For now, they seem to represent Ujiri's modas operandi.