Through no fault of his own, Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri didn't have a chance this week to get in on the NBA draft's love affair with Canadian-born players.
But he took a masterful first step toward burnishing the team's national brand, celebrating what is traditionally known in Quebec as Moving Day by shipping veteran forward Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks.
It made for a truly happy Canada Day for Raptors fans, even though the NBA's byzantine salary-cap regulations necessitated so much tweaking the deal didn't pass muster originally, and can't be announced until July 10, when the salary cap for next season is finalized.
But it is a potential trade reportedly broached with the Los Angeles Clippers – involving DeMar DeRozan – that really signals Ujiri's justifiable intentions in 2013-14. It would have brought an actual useful piece in return (point guard Eric Bledsoe) but there was a wider message. Translated: sacrificing DeRozan, 23, means Ujiri is taking seriously the notion the Raptors need to be players in next year's draft lottery; that he will make certain this season's Raptors – bless them – are going to fight and scrape for every inch of last place.
This is a good Plan B, however. Just like that – poof! – Il Mago is gone. It's taken Ujiri weeks to do what his predecessor, Bryan Colangelo, didn't have the stones to do the past three years: let The Magician take his Invisible Intensity Act© to a team that clearly thinks it can re-energize the 27-year-old and use the outside shooting skills he exhibits every third game to stretch the floor.
The personification of Colangelo's too-cute-by-half approach to team-building and misplaced faith in international players, Bargnani and the $23.5-million (U.S.) he's guaranteed over the next two seasons was sent to the Knicks for a three-point-shooting specialist (Steve Novak), the few remaining wheezes of 39-year-old Marcus Camby's career and contract, backup point guard Quentin Richardson and three draft picks: a 2016 first-round pick (lottery protected) and second-round picks in 2014 and 2017.
The teams tried to get the deal done by a midnight deadline so it would be in before start of the NBA's new fiscal year, but since the sign-and-trade with Richardson wasn't finished until Monday, it cannot be announced until the end of a 10-day moratorium.
Bargnani was an uninterested player even before a pair of injuries to his shooting elbow. He is marshmallow soft for a seven-footer, and has been since Colangelo made him the first choice overall in the 2006 draft. It was not a great draft year – No. 2 pick LaMarcus Aldridge isn't a franchise player, and Rajon Rondo, who went 21st to the Boston Celtics, would have been an inexcusable reach at No. 1 back then – but Colangelo exacerbated the issue with a five-year, $50-million (U.S.) contract extension in 2009.
It matters not what Ujiri receives in return as far as this season is concerned. Richardson's deal has just one guaranteed year, and he's a useful piece for a team that doesn't want, let alone need, to win. Right now, Ujiri needs to make this roster cost-effective; he needs to collect options and draft picks are the most useful options he could possibly have in his possession.
But it gets more difficult from this point on.
The folks that have paid a lot of money to watch five years in the playoff wilderness ought to brace themselves: Getting better may look really ugly, especially since teams such as the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers seem to be on the same path.