GM Masai Ujiri, front office staff put Raptors in position to enjoy memorable Tuesday

TORONTO -- Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James may have made it known that he wanted to play his old Miami Heat team in the Eastern Conference finals, but the Toronto Raptors had other ideas.

As a result, Tuesday figures to be one of the most memorable and enjoyable days in the history of the NBA’s only Canadian franchise.

Not only will the Raptors be playing Game 1 of their first conference finals series in Cleveland, they also will be finding out where the first-round pick they acquired in exchange for Andrea Bargnani falls in the 2016 NBA draft.

It’s the lesser of New York and Denver’s first-round picks -- meaning it can be as high as No. 2 or 3 but far more likely in the 8-12 range -- and it came in Masai Ujiri’s first transaction since taking over as GM for Bryan Colangelo on May 31, 2013, a heist of the nth degree.

He and his staff have done an impressive job ever since.

Ujiri inherited a roster from Colangelo that featured Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross along with coach Dwane Casey. He then proceeded to nearly blow it up after the team got off to a bad start in the 2013-14 season.

Rudy Gay was sent to the Sacramento Kings and Lowry was nearly sent to the New York Knicks. But New York owner James Dolan, whose club already had been fleeced by Toronto in the Bargnani deal, didn’t want to part with a first-round pick, so the trade that Lowry thought was nearing completion never reached the finish line.

Gay turned into current starter Patrick Patterson and key bench player Greivis Vasquez, Lowry and DeRozan grew into elite players and put the franchise on their backs, and the Raptors wound up finishing with 48 wins and a heartbreaking playoff exit following a thrilling, seven-game series with the veteran Brooklyn Nets.

The tone had been set.

This past summer, following a four-game sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards, Ujiri responded by moving on from Sixth Man winner Lou Williams and turning Vasquez into second-round pick turned starter Norman Powell and a 2017 first-round pick. He struck quickly in free agency to sign 3-and-D ace DeMarre Carroll for $60 million before also landing Toronto native Cory Joseph for $30 million, interior heart and soul Bismack Biyombo for $6 million and veteran sage Luis Scola for $3 million -- adding several physical, two-way players to a roster in desperate need of them.

Continuity has been vital to Toronto’s success. Ujiri has stuck with Casey through thick and thin, while Lowry, DeRozan, Valanciunas and Ross all have enjoyed long stints and grown as players with the Raptors on reasonable contract extensions that enabled their GM to assemble deeper teams.

Player development appears to be the latest focus, with the addition of a D-League team, Raptors 905, and a wealth of young pieces including Delon Wright (24), Lucas Nogueira (23), Powell (22) and Bruno Caboclo (20). Counting its own pick, Toronto will have two first-round selections in each of the next two drafts, as Ujiri continues to stockpile assets.

And of course there’s also the team’s brand-new practice facility, BioSteel Centre, which looks out on Lake Ontario. These days, every NBA franchise has one of those -- or is having one built.

Regardless of what happens in this series or when their playoff run finally ends -- the futures of Casey (extension?), DeRozan (max deal worthy?) and Biyombo (how can they afford him?) will be the biggest storylines to come -- the Raptors appear well-equipped heading forward.

And they should enjoy Tuesday, because perhaps it will lead to landing the next Damon Stoudemire or Vince Carter or DeMar DeRozan or Jonas Valanciunas.

And maybe even a surprising Game 1 win.