‘I believe in these guys’: 3 things Raptors boss Masai Ujiri said after a quieter than expected trade deadline

Many people expected the Toronto Raptors to be one of the most active teams in the lead up to the NBA’s trade deadline on Thursday afternoon, but aside from one minor deal to acquire a former Raptor, they stood pat.

Early on Thursday, hours before the 3 p.m. deadline, the Raptors finalized a deal with the San Antonio Spurs that brought Jakob Poeltl back to Toronto in exchange for Khem Birch, a protected 2024 first-round pick, and two future second-round picks.

Poeltl spent the first two seasons of his NBA career with the Raptors after Toronto drafted him ninth overall in 2016.

He was traded with all-star swingman DeMar DeRozan and a protected 2019 first-round draft pick to the Spurs in the summer of 2018 for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

Birch, meanwhile, had fallen out of Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s rotation, averaging just 2.2 points, 1.3 rebounds, 0.4 assists and 0.3 blocks in 8.1 minutes per game over 20 games this season.

Poeltl is no doubt the upgrade at the centre position the Raptors have been looking for since the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, but it’s a far cry from the major shakeup most Raptors fans were expecting.

Here is what Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri told reporters about his deadline strategy during a Thursday afternoon press conference.


When asked why he didn’t make a more significant trade, Ujiri said the opportunity just wasn’t there, and he preached the importance of not making desperation moves that could jeopardize the team’s future.

“The way I look at the deadline, it’s really not a great place to make long-term decisions,” he said.

“I think growth is not linear. So we’ve had a really bumpy road and that’s what you expect sometimes with a young team. We have a young team and I think players have made progress individually but as a team, it’s been up and down,”

Ujiri added that despite the disappointing season so far, he believes in his core group of players.

“We’ve had a really rough stretch but I believe in these guys. We believe in them. And we think growth sometimes takes a while.”

Currently sitting in tenth place in the Eastern Conference at 26-30, the Raptors will face an uphill battle no matter how optimistic the front office is about the roster post-deadline.


The move to acquire Poeltl perplexed many Raptors fans, who see it as too small of an upgrade to make any significant difference to the team’s ultimate success this season.

But Ujiri said Poeltl, a true seven-footer who can rebound, pass and protect the rim, has the ability to unlock some of the potential this team has failed to tap into this season.

“We needed at least to give them a chance with a big rim protector and see what this team does,” Ujiri said.

“We know him as a player, we know him as a person and I think there’s a fit here. I think sometimes we’ve played a little selfish but he’s going to pass the ball a little bit better for us, so knowing him, knowing his style of play, just knowing the guy, I think he already brings a little bit of spirit for us and I see that.”

Addressing the glaring hole at centre was a necessary move, but the team still lacks depth at the guard position.

Fred VanVleet, the only true point guard Nick Nurse seems to trust, has been forced into playing heavy minutes over the past few seasons, leading to speculation that he may be frustrated with the lack of support in the backcourt.

The team has been steadily looking to hand over ball handling responsibilities to their star rookie Scottie Barnes, but his lack of shooting ability and at times shaky perimeter defence has complicated that transition.


The rest of the league had been waiting and watching the Raptors for any indication that they’d be willing to move some of their key rotation players, mainly OG Anunoby, VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr., all of whom would have been valuable to contending teams.

In the case of VanVleet and Trent Jr., both have player options on their contracts next year, meaning they can opt-out this summer and negotiate new contracts with any team.

Poeltl’s contract is also up at the end of this season, and re-signing all three of them will be an expensive proposition, though Ujiri signalled that he’ll try and do just that.

“We’re always focused on trying to retain our players; that’s always the focus for us, and I’ll be focused on that with these guys and see how we perform the rest of the season and make that assessment,” he said.

Still, Ujiri says the front office has enough flexibility to pivot in a number of different directions in the off-season if necessary, whether the team decides to re-tool or rebuild.

“I think the good thing about it is I think we’ve put ourselves in position to do any of those. If any situations come about, I think we’ll be very, very ready to attack anything that comes in front of us,” he said.

“We have good, young, talented players, but does it all fit together? We’re hoping. Does it amount to wins? We’re hoping, but if it doesn’t, I think we’re in a great position to re-energize this team, whether it’s a re-tool, a rebuild or any way you look at it.” 

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