Grange on Raptors: Out with the old, in with Ujiri

Masai Ujiri is starting to put his people in place in Toronto. (The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette)

He didn’t answer the question, but in some ways he didn’t have to. His presence in this place, at the end of a long and uncertain path, was all the answer required.

What is the difference between the old and the new? Between the last reigning NBA Executive of the Year to join the Toronto Raptors and the new reigning Executive of the Year unveiled on Tuesday?

The man himself chose not to elaborate, saying only:

“I think I’m very different. I’m Masai,” he said. “I’m me.”

Will it be enough, is the more important question.

Seven years ago the Raptors were gushing about their new general manager, fresh from assembling another team into a championship contender and having the NBA stand back in wonder.

But Bryan Colangelo wasn’t good enough, or lucky enough, or something enough, and now he’s out of a job — or at least out of the one he really wants. Seven years later, the Toronto Raptors aren’t in all that different of a place than they were when Colangelo was the star executive stolen away from Phoenix.

Four other general managers have tried to make NBA basketball work in Toronto somewhere besides the balance sheet.

Now it’s Masai Ujiri’s turn, with his credentials resting on his ability to rebuild a really good team on the fly during his short stint running the basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets. Now, with a resume much shorter than Colangelo’s at the same stage, he’s required to repair the franchise that his predecessor was never able to quite fix.

Did we mention he doesn’t have a draft pick this June; his roster is projected to be over the NBA’s luxury tax threshold and the last high-profile free agent Toronto ever attracted was Hedo Turkoglu?

Did we mention Andrea Bargnani still works here?

“I don’t see a problem at all,” Ujiri said. “You’re not going to get a job where there is a lot of cap space and draft picks and money to spend. These jobs are available because things are the way they are.”

Ujiri chose not to answer in specifics how he’ll be different in his approach from Colangelo, who hired him as the director of global scouting in 2008 and soon promoted him to assistant general manager before allowing him to leave to take the general manager’s role with Denver in 2010.

But minutes into his introductory press conference, still a bit jetlagged from his late-night flight from Denver, he’d already laid bare the broad strokes.

Colangelo was a master of control at events like Tuesday’s introduction of Ujiri, where the media, ownership and MLSE staffers crowded in for a look at the latest human coat-hanger on which to drape a winter’s worth of hope.

Smooth, polished and professionally reserved, he came across as you’d expect the son of NBA royalty to handle himself. By the time Colangelo arrived in Toronto from Phoenix he’d already been a general manager in the NBA for 11 years. As the son of Jerry Colangelo, there was probably no role he didn’t somehow feel prepared to undertake. If he ever felt overwhelmed by the situation he found himself in, he never let on.

Ujiri has no such qualms. He was tailored and confident Tuesday, but it was his moment and he was alive in it. You got the sense that the unlikelihood of his basketball life was flashing in front of him.

It’s an underdog story: From a skinny teenager in Nigeria getting his taste for the NBA via VHS tapes his parents managed to bring home to him on their travels, to a junior college player in North Dakota to a journeyman European pro to an NBA scout in name only, working for free and paying his own way, nothing about Ujiri has seemed inevitable or preordained.

From son of Africa to being front-and-centre at his own press conference with a $15-million contract in his back pocket to run his own team?

What could he say?

“Wow, I am overwhelmed,” were Ujiri’s first official words as the person charged with reversing 18 years of varying degrees of Raptors misfortune, including a five-year run without a post-season appearance at the hands of Colangelo, his friend, mentor and now co-worker.

“I don’t even know where to start. I don’t have anything written, I am going to speak straight from the heart: I’m home, I came home. It was a tough decision to leave Denver, it was an easy decision to come here.”

And then:

“This is unbelievable for me. I’m pumped, I am excited,” he said. “This is a stage I have always wanted in my life … someway, somehow, this was meant to be.”

It is an impossible story not to get behind, and for perhaps a single day it will be a suitable distraction from the reality that underlies the fairy tale.

Ujiri is only here because the basketball organization he is now paid handsomely to run has been varying degrees of broken from the moment it was conceived. Not irretrievably, mind you. There are more advantages to be leveraged than weaknesses to shore up.

The building is first class, the market large, the hard-core fan base rabid. The ownership group which is among the richest in the NBA has been pledging to spend luxury tax dollars, if and when required, while at the same time promising that if Ujiri needs to take a sideways or backwards step that means a season or two in the draft lottery, so be it.

“That’s one of the reasons (Ujiri’s) here is he knows he’s got an unbelievable opportunity to go in whatever direction he deems to be in the best interests of the organization,” said MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke, whose first public act in his new job was to introduce the man he’d been pursuing for weeks.

“We’re not going to put timelines on it, we’re not going to say ‘If you do this, you’ll get this bonus.’ This may require patience if he believes that (stripping down the roster and heading into lottery territory) is what we need to do, that’s what we’ll do. It’s his decision.”

He has many decisions to make, from who his coach is going to be, to who his executive staff is going to be, to how to turn an expensive roster with perhaps only one untouchable player into a team that can realistically expect to become an NBA champion, his loudly-stated goal.

As for how, Ujiri was keeping that plan to himself for now, which is probably for the best.

Exactly how different Ujiri is from those who have come before, in either style or substance, doesn’t really matter.

All that matters is that the results change.


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