Grange on Raptors: Colangelo out, Ujiri in?

Masai Ujiri worked under Bryan Colangelo with the Raptors from 2008 to 2010.

You can only hope that at some point in the very near future this latest in a long line of odd-seeming front office manoeuvres by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment will fade away in significance.

That months or even weeks from now the company’s seeming hesitation to cut the cord with the face of its basketball operation will be overlooked as the new guy — whoever it is — gets on with finding a way to rescue a winning basketball team from the listing ship that long has been the Toronto Raptors.

Perhaps if favoured candidate Masai Ujiri arrives — a development that may be close at hand — and moves smartly, decisively and successfully, the final few days of Bryan Colangelo’s tenure won’t be a talking point.

But for now it all seems a bit strange.

The future of the Raptors current president and general manager was the first significant decision facing incoming MLSE chief executive officer Tim Leiweke. It was so significant that he’s been working on resolving it nearly full-time for the past three weeks, even though Leiweke doesn’t officially start with MLSE until June 30.

Here’s hoping the rest of his MLSE remake proceeds a little more smoothly, or goes so well that this early hiccup will be long forgotten.

The first shoe drops Tuesday morning when Colangelo will be officially removed from his duties with the Raptors.

It’s hardly a controversial move. He’s in his last year of his contract and his team has missed the playoffs for the last five seasons while recording the 23rd worst winning percentage in the NBA during his seven years in charge.

But what is surprising is that multiple sources have confirmed that Colangelo will remain with MLSE in some capacity in the near term, even with some input into the basketball operations he has theoretically been relieved of running.

“We’re not going to throw Bryan out as a resource on opinions on basketball on knowledge, on experience,” said one source close to the MLSE board.

But in the next breath it’s clear he won’t be on the inside anymore as the franchise looks elsewhere to sort out a roster that is at once expensive and underwhelming.

“Good general managers won’t take this job unless they have the ability to make all of the final calls,” the source said.

Who might take the GM job with the Raptors has become the pressing question even as the franchise’s decision on Colangelo is clarified on Tuesday.

Who will be taking Colangelo’s place?

According to league sources the leading candidate is Ujiri. If that name sounds familiar it’s because he worked for Colangelo for three years, having been hired by the Raptors from Denver in 2008 — more proof that the NBA is a small world after all.

Ujiri, originally from Nigeria by way of England, was initially the Raptors director of international scouting and later became an assistant general manager before returning to Denver as GM in 2010.

He’s become one of the hottest executives in the NBA in that short time. He inherited a Nuggets team that went 53-29 in 2009-10 and improved it against considerable odds.

This past season, having turned over every player on the roster save Ty Lawson and successfully managing the departure of former franchise star Carmelo Anthony, the remade Nuggets went 57-25. As a result Ujiri won the NBA’s executive of the year award — the same trophy Colangelo had on his book case when the Raptors pried him from Phoenix in February of 2006.

But getting Ujiri back to Toronto won’t be simple.

According to league sources Leiweke has asked the Nuggets for permission to talk with Ujiri, who is in the last year of his contract with Denver. For obvious reasons Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke and his son Josh — who serves as the Nuggets president — won’t want to lose him.

Ujiri is reportedly the lowest paid GM in the NBA but he’s in no rush to leave Denver. He apparently turned down an overture from the Philadelphia 76ers to take over as their GM.

But NBA sources have confirmed that Ujiri is at the very least “intrigued” by the opportunity in Toronto, and not just because the Raptors have suggested through back channels (likely an executive search firm contracted to do background work on identified candidates and make third-party approaches to those already under contract with other teams) that he could command a four-year contract worth about $9 million. It’s a nice pay packet in a league where the average general manager earns $1 million per year.

“They have some pieces there,” an NBA source said. “And he likes challenges.”

At the same time he’s hesitant to leave a young, vibrant team he built with his own hands.

At the very least Ujiri appears due for a raise. While it’s believed that Ujiri is open to talking to the Raptors, as of Tuesday morning the Nuggets haven’t responded to Toronto’s request for permission to speak with Ujiri that was made over the weekend.

It only makes sense that before they do respond Denver will negotiate the parameters of a new contract with Ujiri. League sources suggest that Wednesday will be the earliest any formal talks between Ujiri and the Raptors can take place — and only if Ujiri doesn’t get a significant offer on a contract extension from Denver in the meantime.

Otherwise talks with the Raptors could proceed quickly given that Ujiri is familiar with Toronto and still feels a loyalty to the organization for helping elevate his career in its early stages.

Wednesday appears to be the soonest any of that can unfold in any meaningful way. At least by then the role of Colangelo, Ujiri’s former mentor, will be clarified.

It’s an amazing turnaround.

Years ago, when Colangelo was the rock star GM that Raptors minority owner Larry Tanenbaum lured with a king’s ransom to move from Phoenix in Toronto — in February no less — the idea of him eventually moving into a business role with MLSE seemed plausible.

Anything did, really.

As the NBA’s reigning executive of the year and the scion of league royalty, convincing him to come north and reshape the Raptors seemed like stepping stone for the then 41-year-old — sort of like a foreign posting for a young executive being groomed for greater things.

Even then Colangelo was being mused about as a potential successor to then MLSE president and CEO Richard Peddie or maybe, having assuredly turned the Raptors into the NBA’s international success story, he’d head to the league offices in New York with a long-term eye on the commissioner’s job.

Things change.

Tuesday morning Colangelo’s seven-year run as president and GM of the Raptors will officially end.

He will be given a business role with MLSE, but it will hardly be a triumphant graduation. Instead it will be a kind final gesture from ownership to a favourite employee who never quite got the job done.

And if things unfold the way the Raptors would have them this week, taking his desk in the franchise’s front office will be Ujiri, who could soon have the title of Raptors GM with his former mentor, Colangelo, taking direction from him.

This being another week in the life of MLSE, stranger things have happened.

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