Utah Jazz can learn from the Toronto Raptors to swing for the fences

Jared Woodcox , 2019-06-08 15:59:55
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The Toronto Raptors risked it all by trading for Kawhi Leonard and are now on the brink of a championship. The Utah Jazz should find their own way of taking a similar risk and following suit.

When the Toronto Raptors made the move to deal for Kawhi Leonard, sending away a long-time and beloved star in DeMar DeRozan for a guy with only one year remaining on his contract that had presumably expressed little interest in re-signing, it was viewed as a massive risk. And it indeed was! Factor in that the Golden State Warriors’ dominance had much of the league simply cowering and biding their time rather than being overly aggressive, and Toronto’s strategy looked all the more gutsy.

However, after taking a commanding 3-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, it’s become more clear now than ever – that risk was absolutely worth it. The Raptors swung for the fences last summer by adding Kawhi Leonard and continued to do so at the trade deadline when they added Marc Gasol to their mix. They went all in, and they’re now on the cusp of reaping a massive reward.

Now, before I go any further let me proclaim one thing. As someone who’s consistently on the skeptical side of things, I’m far from believing this NBA Finals series is over. If there’s one thing the Warriors have taught us over the years, it’s that they can never be overlooked. Yes, a 3-1 deficit looks daunting, but think of all the winning streaks and sweeps this team has pulled off over the years. Three straight wins, even against a daunting Raptors squad, is very much in their wheelhouse.

In other words, it would be foolish to just assume that the Raptors have this in the bag even though, admittedly, they appear to be sitting pretty with three chances to win one game and two of those opportunities (if necessary) coming on their home floor. Not to mention, Kevin Durant‘s status remains very much up in the air and the Raptors have seemingly taken control on both ends of the floor with a disciplined and balanced effort.

And if they do go on to win the championship, they’ll have taught a very intriguing lesson to the Utah Jazz and the rest of the teams in the NBA: If you want a chance at the big-time, you have to be willing to take big risks. Heck, even if the Raptors collapse and fall short in the Finals, I’d argue this lesson still applies. They went from a middle-tier playoff team to an NBA Finals squad in one season thanks to some carefully calculated risk-taking.

Raptors team president Masai Ujiri could have very well listened to all the naysayers last summer and turned away from making a deal for Kawhi Leonard. And there was plenty of criticism being tossed around.

“The Warriors are too good anyway, even Kawhi won’t put Toronto ahead of them.” “All this for a one-year rental, the Raptors will be shooting themselves in the foot when Kawhi leaves.” “You don’t do players like DeRozan who are loyal to you like that, this is a bad look for Toronto.”

All of those sentiments have been proven horribly wrong, and will be even more so if the Raptors can close the deal and win one more Finals game.

As such, the Utah Jazz absolutely have to be willing to follow suit. Sure, there’s a difference between a calculated risk and a foolish one. And while there were a lot of ways the Leonard trade could have blown up in Toronto’s face – he could have struggled with injury, they could have lost earlier in the playoffs and given up DeRozan for nothing, and so on and so forth – the fact of the matter is that even if Leonard leaves, yes, the Raptors will have to pivot, but they won’t be up a creek.

Trading for a one-year Kawhi rental, for example, despite being extremely risky in some ways, was much more savvy than taking the risk of adding a long and burdensome contract to their mix that could handcuff them for years, a la Chris Paul, Gordon Hayward and several others. The Raptors weighed the risk – sure, if the Kawhi experiment failed and he left them, they’d likely be in for a bit of a rebuild after that – and weighed it against the reward – a legit shot at an NBA Championship – and took their chances.

That gamble appears very likely to pay off, no matter what Kawhi does this summer.

So, in spite of what other teams around the league are doing, that many experts would venture to say something like, “The Jazz can’t get past Houston or Golden State anyway, why would they try to go too much out on a limb”, or that adding talent can be a tricky venture in Utah, the Jazz need to be willing to stick their neck out and make big changes if the right calculated risk opportunity presents itself.

This could include some tough decisions, such as (it pains me to say it because I like him so much) parting ways with Derrick Favors. Or perhaps trading fan favorites such as Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale or Jae Crowder. The fact of the matter is that a good deal and a calculated risk will always come with some pain to the team initiating the move to improve. The Raptors as a whole, despite excitement about adding Kawhi, were still somewhat scarred for a while after giving up DeRozan.

But time and overwhelming success have mended all such wounds. And it’s overwhelmingly evident that the decision has paid off big time.

Yes, I recognize the trouble can be that an opportunity like nabbing a guy like Kawhi is often hard to come by. But yet again another superstar with one year remaining on his contract – Anthony Davis – will likely be up for grabs this summer. No, the Jazz probably don’t have the assets to lure him in, but it should absolutely be explored, as an example.

If trading for Mike Conley is the move that the Jazz think will take them to the next level, then it’s a risk that should be taken without reservation. Adding D’Angelo Russell? Tobias Harris? Putting all the eggs in the Kemba Walker basket? Sure, these decisions would take more than the Jazz taking a risk, it would take the other players agreeing to join the squad, but I think you catch my drift.

The time for hesitancy is long past, Utah has to be willing to pull the trigger on something even if it’s out of the organization’s usual comfort zone.

Because as the Raptors are finding out, you never know when misfortune will strike an opponent, you never know when the ball will bounce just right your way, and you never know when slight improvements to your roster will have a monstrous ripple effect across your team. When the chance to go for it all is there, you have to strike.

Now, perhaps that chance won’t present itself for the Jazz. Trades take two to tango. Free agency acquisitions take the agreement from the player. The Jazz could very well do all in their power and still not find the right chance to improve.

Nevertheless, as the Oklahoma City Thunder proved with Paul George, as the Raptors have proved with Kawhi, and as the Milwaukee Bucks continue to prove with their own set of calculated risks, if teams are persistent, calculated and willing to gamble now and again, it can pay off big time.

The Jazz have long been reputed as pretty conservative when it comes to pursuing such deals. But if there ever was a time to roll the dice, it’s this summer. The Jazz need to act now to add a third star so that they’re able to pay all of their key players once Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert‘s contracts are up in the not-so-distant future.

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The Raptors were largely doubted when they made the move for Kawhi, but it’s looking as if the risk is going to earn them the coveted Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. The Utah Jazz would do well to aim to take a page out of Toronto’s book if they hope to one day ascend to that level as well.


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