Masai hopes to rekindle love from stale Raptors

Every relationship gets stale eventually.

You settle into a routine and the great human inconvenience called romance gets pushed further and further down the to do list. You stop trying so hard. Anyone who has ever built a life around somebody else will tell you this.

Being stale doesn’t necessarily mean the love is gone — it might mean you need a grand gesture. We could always use the occasional reminder for why we’re there in the first place. It requires us to wake up early on a Sunday to serve breakfast in bed, but sacrifice is the very point of the gesture.

Masai Ujiri saw the writing on the wall, saw two months of passionless play, and made his move. Consider Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker a bouquet of flowers. The card attach read:

“I’m not a big trade deadline guy. I like training camp, I like preparation, I like all that. With this, the team deserved — players, coaches, the organization, the fans — they deserved this chance to see,” Ujiri told reporters Thursday with a wry grin.

More than anything else, more than addressing some long-standing weaknesses on the roster, more than making a move on Cleveland or the rest of the East, Ujiri stepped out of his comfort zone to deliver a message, hoisting a boombox overhead to declare his intentions.

Attention, Raptors: Ujiri is serious about winning with this group.

In the weeks leading up to the deadline the players started to grumble, raising ripples for a laconic locker room. The fiery Kyle Lowry ominiously demanded that something had to change following their meltdown against the Pistons. An aloof DeMar DeRozan wondered aloud about recruiting help.

It’s not hard to understand their frustration. Both took their turns carrying the team early in the season. DeRozan entered the year on a Kobe Bryant-esque scoring binge, while Lowry took another step in his transformation into an elite 3-point shooter. That got the Raptors to a 22–8 start despite obvious holes on the roster.

Everyone else’s problems became their problems. Cory Joseph’s struggles, Patrick Patterson’s nagging knee pain, the ups and downs of Jonas Valanciunas, the injury-induced off nights for DeMarre Carroll, and most painful of all, they lugged 300 pounds of hard-luck Jared Sullinger and an irresponsibly inexperienced Pascal Siakam on their backs. They never had a bad night to allow everyone else to be inconsistent.

But for every mile they added to their bodies, they gave back an inch on the court. They stopped playing hard on defense. They monopolized the ball in crunch time. They played with less trust in their teammates. They also eventually wore down and picked up wirst and ankle injuries.

They’re not dumb — they’ve seen this before. This isn’t the first time the two all-stars had to compensate — the forward spots have been shit forever. It’s like watching dishes pile up — nobody really gives a shit until the mood changes, then it becomes a problem. What was always a weakness of the roster became an sticking point when losses started to accumulate.

Catharsis came through displaced anger. They made life hell for the refs every night. Interally, Ujiri also admitted that Lowry voiced his opinion with himself and Dwane Casey. Nobody threw down the gauntlet and threatened to break up, but they made themselves clear: we want to see some action.

Even putting all that aside, Lowry and DeRozan just deserved it.

They deserved some better players to play with. No offense to Siakam but he’s a clueless rookie that needs everything but expecations. All due respect to Carroll, but he was brought in to give consistent minutes — not to take the small forward spot hostage each night with inconsistent health. The center combination of Valanciunas and Bebe Nogueira are both talented in their own rights, but as of right now they fail to fully complement the star backcourt.

Ibaka is an adult in the room who will produce. He makes players think twice about attacking the hoop and can consistently hit an outside jumper. Tucker is a no-nonse stopper who maniacally seeks to smother his defensive assignment. These are guys you can go to war with in a way that Ross, Siakam and Sullinger couldn’t live up to.

“At least we feel like you have to put guys on there that are going to try and I know he’s going to try. I know DeMarre Carroll is going to try, I know Ibaka is going to try, I know Patrick Patterson is going to try. You want to put yourselves in the best position,” Ujiri said.

The other reason you make a grand gesture is to find out where you stand. You make that challenge to see if they’re real, or maybe the love is really gone.

How good is this team and how good can they be? How would they perform if they had the right supporting pieces for once? Can Lowry and DeRozan really carry them all the way? Does Casey have the coaching chops to have his team execute the right game plan?

The last four seasons have come without expectation. Being casual was convenient but in the back of our minds we knew the other shoe could drop. We’ve been dating for a minute but there was no ring, no sure thing. By straddling the line between building for the future and trying to win right now, the Raptors have hung in limbo with the freedom to sway back and forth.

But eventually the dreaded question gets asked: Where is this team going?And for the first time, Ujiri made himself clear: he’s trying to make it work — now what’s really there?

Maybe these additions push the Raptors over the top. Maybe we submit a better showing against the Cavaliers — shit, maybe we even catch a miracle and beat LeBron James. Maybe we see the magic from this team that led us to fall in love in the first place.

Or maybe it doesn’t work and we hit the ceiling with this core. Maybe a grand gesture leads to just that — a gesture and nothing more. Perhaps the flame has burnt out with this core, and if so you move on from there. You’ll never really know without giving it a shot.

We’ll learn something either way. Masai made his proposal. Now it’s time for his Raptors to respond.