You likely woke up Wednesday morning to a push alert that many Toronto Raptors fans feared but at some point knew was coming. Phil Jackson’s slow dance towards NBA irrelevance with the New York Knicks was mercifully coming to an end.
What’s more, the darling in James Dolan’s eye to replace him is reportedly none other than Raptors president Masai Ujiri.
During the press conference announcing Bobby Webster as the Raps new general manager later that day, Ujiri didn’t exactly go to great lengths to quash the rumour. “I know it’s been a crazy day in the NBA,” he stated, adding that “Today is all about Bobby Webster, and he deserves it,” before cheekily handing things over to his 32 year-old protige, and sliding out of the spotlight.
The lack of an outright denial further fanned the flames.
Afterwards there was even speculation that a deal is being completed.
Then there were two natural responses: One, say your hail Mary’s and hope Ujiri loves ketchup chips and the Ford fan zone “Jurassic Park” scenes as much as every other Canadian hoops fan.
Hope that when he yelled “F— Brooklyn” he felt the same for the surrounding boroughs and the entire New York Metropolitan area. Hope he really meant it when he said “I’m home” to lead off his opening press conference being introduced as Toronto Raptors GM four years ago.
And the other response? “It’s been real but peace, Masai.”
It’s a sentiment Michael Grange touched on yesterday while explaining why Masai likely is staying put. “Absolutely [MLSE] should [let Ujiri leave], as long the Raptors can fleece [Knicks owner James] Dolan one last time and secure Kristaps Porzingis and a future first-round draft pick from the Knicks as compensation.”
It may all be speculation for now, but if there is truth to the rumours then maybe the Raptors won the lottery.
If Ujiri wants to leave, thank him for all he’s done and back up the Brinks truck for compensation. Demand nothing less than a boatload of picks and don’t move off Kristaps Porzingis being in the deal and hope the Latvian big man doesn’t skip exit meetings north of the border.
Weaken Masai’s potential new destination so badly that he thinks twice about wanting to undertake such a serious rebuild. Besides, all of his heavy lifting here is done. Ujiri has already delivered an NBA all-star weekend, a successful developmental league team in the Raptors 905 (who, in their second season, just won a championship), and the state-of-the-art Biosteel centre practice facility.
He’s groomed Webster and Dan Tolzman as young, ready-made replacements. DeMar DeRozan is locked up long term and even Drake is locked up as the global ambassador. Maybe the real work is done and it is time to sell high on an executive, especially when it is tough to quantify their true market value.
How valuable could Ujiri be over a league average GM? David Griffin is currently unemployed and has one more championship ring than Masai. The Boston Celtics were better off getting a 2015 first-round pick as compensation from the Los Angeles Clippers, to release Doc Rivers from the final three years of his $21 million deal.
Wouldn’t the same hold true in this case?
No. Because that logic is as faulty as Ujiri is an NBA anomaly. He’s not just the president. He’s the face of the franchise.
In Ujiri, you have a top of class, elite commodity in his role. It’s something you can’t say for the vast majority of players, including Kristaps Porzingis.
Don’t think executives matter? Forget Phil Jackson, just look at the mess Gar Forman has made in Chicago. Or the cap hell the Portland Trailblazers are in with Neil Oshey at the helm. No matter what order you rank them, Ujiri is clearly in a class with Bob Myers, Daryl Morey, R.C. Buford and Danny Ainge (honourable mention to Pat Riley— nobody knows how long he’ll continue to be in the game for).
There are ways a team president sets the tone and culture for a franchise that a player can’t replicate, unless that player is LeBron James or Stephen Curry. Don’t believe me? Look at the Raptors before Ujiri arrived compared to where they are now. It’s a stark contrast from top to bottom. Many qualified men have tried and failed to make the Raptors a first-class organization. Masai is the sole one who can say he’s done it, and it didn’t take him very long.
The Raptors did not make the playoffs in the four seasons prior to Ujiri leading the team. They have made the playoffs in all four seasons since then. Even if you think he lucked in to success in Toronto, it’s worth noting the Nuggets have not made the playoffs since Ujiri left.
Denver Nuggets With Masai Ujiri:
Denver Nuggets Without Masai Ujiri:
Toronto Raptors Without Masai Ujiri:
Toronto Raptors With Masai Ujiri:
The bottom line is a Ujiri-led team has never missed the playoffs. That’s not something many players can say. Even if Toronto acquired Kristaps Porzingis in a deal that allows Ujiri to go to New York, how good does that make Toronto in the short term? Good enough to override the cost of letting your leader go in the long term? How long before Ujiri builds the Knicks in to an Atlantic division juggernaut that Toronto would have to face four times a year?
The NBA is a player’s league and, yes, players win. It’s why the value of coaches is often overstated. You could draw up the best play in the world but if your team isn’t talented enough to execute it what does it matter?
Executives, on the other hand, are valuable because they are the vehicle with which to acquire those top players. They lead the recruitment meetings, negotiate the contracts, pull the trigger on big trades. An executive balances both the present-day competition level with a long-term path to success.
A great player can get hurt tomorrow and be dead weight on your cap. Even with a clean bill of health eventually they’ll age and provide diminishing returns. An executive provides a better return on investment because their ability to perform isn’t depreciating over time in fact you could argue it increases with experience. Ujiri isn’t susceptible to a career ending injury to his brain the way one wrong step can mean a snapped ligament for a player.
In Canada, where basketball is gaining ground but still plays second fiddle to hockey, Ujiri’s value is multiplied.
You are hard pressed to find a more charismatic leader in professional sports. If Tim and Sid could have the choice of any Raptor as a guest on their show, I’m willing to bet it would be Ujiri, and not one of the players. That’s not normally the case when you look at most sports organizations.
Part of the mandate for the Raptors is not solely to win games, but to continue to grow the game and sell the Raptors brand nationwide. Nobody attached to the franchise is more capable of doing that than Ujiri. It’s why catchphrases like “I believe in Masai” and “In Ujiri we trust” are so popular and hold more than a shred of truth.
Losing Ujiri would set the Raptors franchise back father than then when Tracy McGrady left in free agency. It would be a darker day than when Vince Carter was traded, and would cut more deeply then when Chris Bosh took his talents to South Beach.
This claim isn’t made lightly. To be clear, Porzingis is a top-end asset in the NBA, As a 21 year-old with all-star potential and a rare skill set tailor-made for today’s NBA, he’s is a top ten asset in the league. There is a reason people refer to him as a unicorn. He’s a rare breed. But he alone doesn’t guarantee a title or even contention for one.
Ujiri is more than a president of basketball operations. He’s the president of a movement. And no player— not Porzingis, or whomever they would draft with Knicks future first round picks— can match both the infrastructure and attitude Ujiri has instilled within the Raptors, and is now just starting to capitalize on.