TORONTO – Masai Ujiri traded away a third of his roster for a “winner” in one of the league’s biggest deals at the NBA trade deadline.
The Raptors president acquired Marc Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday in a move that both echoes his vision of a chance at a championship this season, and brings a player he’s long coveted to Toronto.
“Phenomenal player and a real . . . I think . . . a winner that hopefully can come and make an impact,” Ujiri said. “I’ve talked to Marc, he’s really excited to be here and this is exciting for us going forward as we move to all of us trying to achieve a dream of contending for a championship in the NBA.
“That’s our goal and I think everybody on the team understands that and we’ll keep trying to achieve that goal.”
WATCH: Raptors’ Ujiri explain why they traded several players for Marc Gasol
The Raptors sent popular veteran forward Jonas Valanciunas, C.J. Miles and Delon Wright, plus a 2024 second-round draft pick to the Grizzlies. Later in what turned into a marathon day, they sent Greg Monroe and a 2021 second-round pick to Brooklyn for cash considerations. A day earlier, Toronto shipped Malachi Richardson to Philadelphia for cash considerations.
Acquiring the 34-year-old Gasol was a power move for a Toronto team looking to at least keep pace with Milwaukee and Philadelphia, who both pulled the trigger on trades of their own, in a heated Eastern Conference race.
Gasol is a three-time all-star and the 2013 defensive player of the year. He’s averaging 15.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals a game, and his 4.7 assists a night is second best in the league for a centre behind Denver’s Nikola Jokic.
“We added a player that’s very savvy, in the playoffs you need experience, going forward you need a really strong basketball mind, toughness, you need size, you need shooting from outside, basketball IQ . . . he combines it all,” Ujiri said. “I think another guy who can get you a bucket . . . that would relieve us a little bit with Kawhi (Leonard) and Kyle (Lowry) . . . that high post passing is very important for us, elbow passing from a big guy who can really pass the ball.”
Raptors guard Fred VanVleet spoke highly of Gasol shortly before Toronto tipped off against the Hawks in Atlanta.
“(Gasol) is one of the best fives in the league for a long time now, perennial all-star, defensive player of the year,” VanVleet said. “Just really excited to see how we can acclimate him to what we do and see how much he can give us a boost. Obviously we’re very excited about that.”
The 76ers and Bucks were both big players before Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline, the Sixers landing Tobias Harris and Milwaukee acquiring Nikola Mirotic.
And as Thursday wore on, Raptors fans took to social media to implore Ujiri to make a major move.
He obliged. It was Ujiri’s biggest trade-deadline deal since he returned to the team as GM in 2013.
“I think with a player like Marc, we had talked about it for some time, it lined it up well for us,” Ujiri said.
Toronto played short-handed due to the trades Thursday night but still pulled out a 119-101 win over the Hawks.
Head coach Nick Nurse said the atmosphere at the team hotel was “a sad one.” Nurse spent five years as an assistant coach working with Valanciunas and worked out with him in his native Lithuania on several occasions.
“I said to him today ‘No more trips to Lithuania,’ he says, ‘Come on man, you can still come,”‘ Nurse said. “I think it’s funny to say, as a coach-player deal, but I think we’ll be friends for life man, for sure. And certainly miss him. I miss him already.”
NBA trade deadline day moves at a snail’s pace, and the deal wasn’t rubber-stamped until late into the night. When the team president finally addressed the wilting media contingent at Biosteel Centre, the team’s practice facility, he thanked them “for hanging on here. I appreciate you hanging on.”
WATCH: Raptors talk next steps after trading several players for Marc Gasol
In Valanciunas, the Raptors lose one of their most popular players. Ujiri said it was a “tough” phone call to make.
“Jonas was a baby with us, grew up with us,” Ujiri said.
The 26-year-old, who was drafted by Toronto fifth overall in 2011, was finally cleared to play Thursday after missing 25 games with a dislocated left thumb. The team posted a photo of the big bearded Lithuanian on social media with two words: “I’m back.”
Valanciunas told reporters in Atlanta on Thursday morning: “I am really excited. I was really looking forward to this day and there you go. If nothing crazy happens, I will be playing.”
Something crazy indeed happened.
Wright was playing FIFA with Norman Powell when he learned he was on the move.
“We were in the foxhole when we weren’t getting minutes, talking about the process, and working to make an impact when we did get the time and growing together in the league, so it was definitely tough seeing guys like that go, but you just wish them the best,” Powell said on losing long-time teammates. “I’m sure they’ll make the most of a new opportunity and chance to go out there and prove themselves with another team.”
The major shakeup comes after an off-season that saw fan favourite DeMar DeRozan traded to San Antonio for Leonard.
And there will be more moves in the coming days. The Raptors have just 10 players under NBA contracts, and they must be at 14 within the next two weeks. They could convert one or both of their two-way contracts with Chris Boucher and Jordan Loyd to NBA contracts.
Asked if he has any players in mind, Ujiri jokingly mentioned several reporters in the room.
“How good are you guys? Can you play?” he laughed. “We have a lot of spots. We’re going to attack the buyout market and try to get guys. It’s becoming a big market in the NBA.”
Gasol, meanwhile, could be in the Raptors’ lineup Saturday in New York pending a team physical.
The seven-foot-one Spaniard, who played all 11 of his NBA seasons in Memphis, is slated to make US$24.1 million this season and has a player option for $25.6 million next season. He’s a two-time Olympian, and will be reunited with Spanish coach and Raptors assistant Sergio Scariolo in Toronto.
Nurse agreed with Ujiri about Gasol’s potentially impact in the post-season.
“We all know those playoffs can get wild and wooly, and he’s a guy that’s been through ’em deep many times, he’s played internationally at the highest level many times, and he should give us a settling force a little bit with his ability to have the ball, deliver it to people. . . he’s got a hell of a career under his belt,” Nurse said.
Last summer, Gasol volunteered as part of a Spanish rescue effort in the Mediterranean Sea, plucking people from the water who were fleeing Africa. A photo showed Gasol helping lift a woman onto a stretcher. He voiced his “Frustration, anger and helplessness” on Twitter, writing “It’s unbelievable how so many vulnerable people are abandoned to their deaths at sea. Deep admiration for these I call my teammates at this time. â†•openarms-fund”
Ujiri’s biggest trade deadline moves came in 2017, when he acquired Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic and P.J. Tucker from the Phoenix Suns.