Why Masai Ujiri is the must-have Raptor around the NBA

Cory Joseph scored 18 points and the depleted Toronto Raptors defeated the Indiana Pacers.

TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors have had a tremendous season, posting franchise records for wins, wins on the road, wins at home, and will finish the regular season having sold out every home game at the Air Canada Centre for nearly two seasons.

On Friday night they throttled the Indiana Pacers — their likely first-round playoff opponent — 111-98 while resting DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola. It’s been that kind of year.

A number of the key figures in the process stand to be rewarded or already have been. DeMar DeRozan will enrich generations of DeRozans as a free agent this summer, with all indications being that he’ll choose to become a Raptor for life.

Head coach Dwane Casey is due a new contract; it’s hard to imagine he won’t get one. Bismack Biyombo? He’s earned himself a massive raise, either here or elsewhere. Carroll, Cory Joseph, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross have already been paid. Youngsters like Norm Powell, Delon Wright and Bebe Nogueira have, to varying degrees, proven they are players that deserve to be in the NBA.

But no one has had a better season than the person who put the whole thing together. Will Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri earn the second executive of the year award of his career?

It’s hard to tell, but he should, even if there’s a very real chance that the Golden State Warriors will sweep every award possible. Seventy (plus)-win seasons are hard to ignore.

But Ujiri’s résumé could earn him something even more valuable if ownership at MLSE step up and do the right thing.

Whether Ujiri wins executive of the year or not, or even if the Raptors’ playoff run ends up being relatively short-lived, the work he’s done in elevating the profile of a franchise and a city within the basketball industry is bound to earn him constant attention from rival NBA clubs.

It’s simple. All kinds of owners will look at what’s happened in a short time in Toronto, compare it to their own club’s sagging fortunes and figure they’ve got to at least try to make a run at the executive who has built teams in Toronto and Denver that have averaged 51 wins the past six seasons without the benefit of a bushel of top draft picks or players with All-NBA pedigrees.

There is only one current executive who oversaw the opening of a state-of-the-art practice facility, launched an NBA Development League team and hosted All-Star Weekend all in the same season.

That Ujiri transformed his roster with four clever additions in free agency and traded Grievis Vasquez for a first and second-round pick that turned into Powell — another rotation piece — should also be noted.

Friday night’s win against the Pacers was as good an advertisement for Ujiri’s acumen as anything else: With four starters sitting out to rest, Ujiri signing Cory Joseph had 18 points and nine assists on six shots, Powell had a career-high 27 points on 11 shots — unheard of for a rookie picked 46th overall — and fellow rookie Delon Wright, taken No. 20 overall, put up 19 points on 10 shots, his game coming along nicely after a D-League apprenticeship.

On the floor, off the floor, everything is coming up aces for the Raptors and Ujiri’s fingerprints are all over it.

The must-have Raptor around the NBA is Ujiri.

Earlier this week an item appeared in a column by well-respected New York Daily News NBA columnist Frank Isola that tentatively linked Ujiri with the New York Knicks.

It was one of those sideways references: Knicks president Phil Jackson is a falling star. Ujiri’s star is rising. Jackson has two years left on his contract and so does Ujiri. Isola made the case that Knicks owner James Dolan has already made Ujiri the apple of his eye.

Is that a big deal?

Well no, if you think short term. Ujiri has two years left on his contract and has a track record of working through to the end of his deals, something he did in Denver even after approached with a more lucrative offer from the Philadelphia 76ers — a job that eventually went to since-departed Sam Hinkie, who is now being replaced by former Raptors president and Ujiri mentor Bryan Colangelo.

But if you think longer term or bigger picture? It’s a huge deal, at least if MLSE lets it become one.

A little nosing around NBA circles adds some important elements of subtext.

One is that Jackson badly wants out of New York, preferring to return back to Los Angeles to be near his fiancée, Lakers scion Jeanie Buss. Jackson is believed to have an out in his Knicks deal that could free him up to do just that at the end of next season unless things between him and Dolan become untenable before that. It’s believed that as soon as Jeanie’s brother Jim Buss — blamed for the Lakers current free fall — is somehow removed from the scene, Jackson will be back as soon as he can engineer it.

As for the Knicks’ interest in Ujiri? It’s preliminary, tested by back channel intermediaries that take the temperature of a candidate before the executive search firms are brought in and the formal permissions are requested. But those channels are always close at hand in the NBA, even if the process can play out over years.

Would Ujiri want to leave Toronto for New York? It’s hard to imagine him craving a job like that on its face. The Knicks haven been proven the place careers and reputations got to die not-so-slow deaths. Jackson went to New York as an icon with 11 rings and now he’s looked upon as a guy time has passed by who can’t hire a coach.

And Ujiri’s commitment to Toronto is sincere and unwavering. He’s not quite the ambassador his pal Drake is, but he’s just as sincere about what the city is and what it can be.

But money can change a lot of minds and Jackson is being paid $12 million a year to run a team that has missed the playoffs two years running under his watch and is devoid of upside outside of Kristaps Portzingis.

Ujiri is well paid. His deal with the Raptors is believed to be worth $15 million, which made him one of the better compensated executives in the league.

But the Knicks could make him wildly rich.

The good news is it’s not a problem MLSE has to solve any time soon. Ujiri is under contract, if anyone approaches them to speak with him all they have to do is say no, and if anyone knows Ujiri, it won’t impact how he does his job in the slightest.

But it’s how they say no that will ultimately carry the day. Do they say no and point to his contract as the reason why?

Or do they say no, tear up his deal and lock him up for another five years or more with money that proves their commitment to the long-term vision he’s so expertly helped make clear, step-by-step, over the past three years?

Do they send a strong message across the NBA and their own fan base that Ujiri will be around to finish what he started, as long as it takes?

Ujiri’s rising star shouldn’t be a problem for MLSE, unless they let it become one.

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