The Darth Vader theme music said it all; this wasn’t any ordinary game. But what followed from the overly dramatic introductions wasn’t exactly the Hollywood ending many Los Angeles Laker fans were hoping for.
The Toronto Raptors romped Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the Black Mamba‘s much anticipated season debut. Bryant finished with nine points, eight rebounds, and four assists as he showed expected signs of rust in his return from a torn Achilles. Since that Dec. 8 game, Bryant’s play has been dissected and analyzed in media outlets across the world at an obnoxious rate. Despite his team’s victory clearly being overshadowed by the Mamba’s return, GM Masai Ujiri must be grinning from ear to ear following the Raptors’ 106-94 victory at Staples.
Ujiri and Bryant both know that the entire basketball world was watching Sunday night. Fans, media members, players, general managers, and coaches, all tuned in to see how Bryant would look in his season debut. Yes, this was a regular season game, but make no mistake about it; Bryant’s season debut garnered a huge international audience. Would he be rusty? Would he be the same old player? How would he look? All of this pre-game melodrama was exactly what Ujiri needed after having dealt Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings just hours prior to tip-off.
With the Gay trade complete, Ujiri simply can’t be done dealing. The team looks too good as they currently stand — they can actually win games. If Ujiri is serious about the 2013-14 campaign being a transition year — or more bluntly a tank year — as many reports indicate he is then Ujiri needs to clear up more cap space, develop the younger players even further, and make the ship tank as quickly as possible to the Eastern Conference ocean floor.
Enter the importance of Sunday night’s game. Because of the Gay deal the Raptors were left with eight active players on their roster for the Lakers game. This meant an increased opportunity and role for all the dinos that were suited up. At this point, the Raptors’ roster is essentially an open meat market; everything and everyone is up for grabs (with the exception of Jonas Valanciunas and most likely Demar Derozan). The two most likely culprits to leave town next would be Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry — two players who played exceptionally well in front of a massive audience on Sunday Night.
A former bench reserve for the Raptors, Johnson exploded with 32 points (career high), 10 rebounds, and two blocks as a starter against the Lakers. Johnson is on the books until the 2014-15 season and is owed $7 million next year. In dominating the Lakers on the national stage, Ujiri can now use Johnson’s performance as a springboard when speaking of his worth in trade negotiations. Other teams will quickly learn that Johnson has been playing some exceptional basketball for the Raptors all year long. Most recently, on the Raptors West Coast road trip, Johnson averaged 23.3PPG and 9RPG on a scorching 71 percent shooting. Lowry also torched the Lakers on Sunday with 23 points, eight assists and five rebounds while shooting 8-for-13 from the field. Lowry’s worth within the league is much more well known than Johnson’s. Lowry played fairly well for the Houston Rockets — one of the largest media markets in the United States — as their starting point guard for several years. Sunday night could perhaps serve as a reminder to other GMs of just how feisty and fearless a player like Lowry can be.
In considering these performances on the national stage, along with Ujiri’s reported mindset on tanking for the 2014 Draft, Ujiri would be wise to strike while the iron is hot. Package these two excelling misfits for some draft picks or young(er) prospects. In other words, sink the ship. The Raptors need to finish in the bottom three of the Eastern Conference by the season’s end. Otherwise, Ujiri may find it difficult to justify the dismantling of a roster of this caliber and promise.