Grange on Raptors: Homecoming for Ujiri in T.O.

(Photo: Garrett W. Ellwood/Getty)

The Toronto Raptors have signed their next general manager with the hope that he’ll lead the struggling franchise to heights never reached before.

Masai Ujiri was announced as the Raptors fifth general manager in the franchise’s checkered 18-year history on Friday evening.

“To come back to the Raptors, to live in such a great city, and work in an organization that has committed all the resources necessary to win championships was a huge factor in the decision,” Ujiri said in a statement.

“I have already developed a great relationship with Tim Leiweke and I can’t wait to get back to Canada to build a team that is poised to take the next step in the NBA.”

If the former Denver Nuggets executive can build a team that advances beyond the second round of the playoffs it will be a first in Toronto.

It is a homecoming of sorts for Ujiri, who worked for the Raptors from 2007-10, first as director of global scouting and later as assistant general manager alongside Bryan Colangelo.

He will report to MLSE’s incoming president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke, who targeted the NBA’s reigning Executive of the Year as soon as he decided to remove the general manager’s title and authority for basketball decisions from Colangelo, who remains with the Raptors as team president. He was offered the job last Friday, May 24th, and the time it took for his to accept made for some nervous nights, but was in keeping with the nature of a man described as decisive but meticulous in reaching his decisions.

“We feel very lucky to have Masai in our organization. He is a proven judge of talent and we look for him to be a big part of creating a winning atmosphere, leading us to the playoffs and, ultimately, delivering NBA championships for Toronto,” Leiweke said.

Terms of his contract have not been disclosed, although some NBA sources have pegged the deal at as much as $3 million annually over five years; a considerable raise for Ujiri who was reportedly the lowest paid GM in the NBA, earning about $500,000 a year.

The Raptors were given permission to speak with Ujiri last week and he met with Leiweke in Denver on Friday. Ujiri was instantly receptive but wanted to meet with Nuggets president and owner Josh Kroenke before finalizing any decision. The long weekend in the US slowed matters and then the Nuggets issues were put aside briefly as the Colorado Avalanche – the NBA and NHL team share ownership – introduced Patrick Roy as their new head coach on Tuesday, an event they didn’t want overshadowed, according to sources.

How much of a departure Ujiri’s hiring will be from the Raptors current direction remains to be seen. According to NBA sources one of the most determined backers of the Ujiri’s move was Colangelo. The two are friends and it was Colangelo who was endorsed Ujiri for the Nuggets job.

The two men are different. Colangelo prided himself on having his fingers on every aspect of the franchise, from basketball decisions to marketing and corporate relations.

Ujiri, 43, is described by those close to him as someone whose preference is to keep his focus narrowly on building a team.

“For (Ujiri), his work is basketball. He doesn’t worry about all the other parts. He’s not a politician,” an NBA source close to Ujiri said. “He’s not into all that. His work is basketball and the grind of it and making the basketball team the best it can be.”

The Nijerian-born Ujiri has been assured that Colangelo will remain a step removed from the basketball decision-making process, though not isolated. It’s not a dynamic he’s concerned about.

“It will be his decision to get input (from Colangelo),” the sources said.  “He doesn’t see anything wrong with that. Bryan is a good basketball mind.”

If there is an area where Ujiri could logically be expected to make his mark with the franchise it will likely come with the team’s front office and basketball operations staff, where turnover has been relatively low over the past seven seasons.

It will also be up to him to decide on the future of Dwane Casey, who has a year remaining on his contract as head coach.

Remaking the Raptors into the championship contender that Leiweke has stated as the franchise’s goal promises to be much more difficult. The Raptors are projected to be over the NBA’s luxury tax threshold for the coming season, with about $73 million in salary obligations.

The Raptors have missed the playoffs for the past five seasons under Colangelo. Only the Sacramento Kings (seven) and Minnesota Timberwolves (nine) have gone longer without making a playoff appearance than the Raptors, who finished 34-48 and 10th in the Eastern Conference in a season when 38 wins got the Milwaukee Bucks into the playoffs.

Their problems go back farther than that. Toronto has won just 11 playoff games in franchise history, tied with the Golden State Warriors for the second-lowest total among teams that have been in the NBA since they joined the NBA in 1995-96. Only the hapless Washington Wizards, with eight, have done worse by that measure.

The team has been built by Colangelo around a core of Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan, but has been weighed down by expensive underperformers such as Landry Fields, Andrea Bargnani and Linas Kleiza.

Ujiri solidified his reputation as one of basketball’s rising young executives when he was able to remake the Nuggets after trading their franchise player, Carmelo Anthony.

The Nuggets were an experienced team coming off their seventh straight playoff appearance and a 53-win season when Ujiri got the job. However Anthony wanted out, with his preferred destination being the New York Knicks. The risk to the Nuggets was that he would reach free agency and leave with no compensation.

Ujiri was able to pull off a massive deal in February of 2011 as the Nuggets acquired Danilo Gallinari, Kosta Koufos, Timofey Mozgov, Wilson Chandler and Raymond Felton as part of a three-team trade with the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves. The Nuggets sent Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Renaldo Balkman and Shelden Williams to New York.

The Nuggets got younger, added three starters and set in motion a remake that saw the Nuggets win 57 games in 2012-13 with a lineup that included just one holdover from the team he inherited.

In the absence of a single franchise player his emphasis in Denver was collecting young talent that plays with high energy and enthusiasm.

Leaving the Nuggets wasn’t an easy decision, those close to him have said.

“It’s a very vibrant team and he was close to everyone,” a source said. “But he also likes challenges.”

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Ujiri, the NBA executive of the year with the Denver Nuggets, replaces Bryan Colangelo, who remains as team president in a non-basketball roll.