It’s been a busy summer for Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri.
The man not only fired long-time coach Dwane Casey and promoted assistant Nick Nurse to man the helm, he also completed one of the biggest trades in team history in sending franchise icon DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Danny Green and two-time defensive player of the year, Kawhi Leonard.
Oh, and while he was doing that, he also had time to build a brand new basketball court in Kenya, alongside the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama.
With training camp set to begin in just 11 days, it would seem Ujiri has just now had time to catch his breath. Sitting down with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski for about an hour, Ujiri discussed his jam-packed off-season in the latest episode of The Woj Pod.
Here are some of the highlights from their conversation:
Championship or bust?
One of the most consistent messages Ujiri has sent out throughout his time in Toronto has been the idea that building towards anything short of a championship is a waste of time.
Hence, seeing the same mistakes being made with his team for the last five seasons, Ujiri explains he felt he had no choice but to take a risk and make some sweeping organizational changes.
“Those five years were strong but we had been doing the same thing over and over again,” said Ujiri. “So I think it was time for change and time to disrupt a little bit. You don’t want to create even more pressure for them, in my opinion. Next year everybody will be looking at, ‘Oh, the same thing’s going to happen again.’”
“At the end of the day, the goal is a championship. And, honestly, if you’re trying to win in the NBA and are just trying to stay in the league I think everybody can do that,” Ujiri continued. “Our jobs aren’t that hard, to be honest. I think putting teams together and making the playoffs, I don’t know that if it’s [that hard.] For me, I feel that everybody’s goal – the 30 teams – is to win a championship.
“I think these 30 teams want to win and I think they want to win championships. We have to prepare, we have to figure it out. It’s our jobs to do that and sometimes that’s taking risks, and we have to be willing to do that. I think that’s the challenge of the job. At some point, you have to put yourself out there. There’s no reason to be afraid of that. …
“In terms of preparation, risk-taking, determination, the passion to go and figure out how to win a championship, well, how many instances, chances are we going to have to get a player at that level, and that’s what we’re talking about. We weighed those chances of getting a player of the calibre of Kawhi Leonard.”
Ujiri has faith the Raptors can sell Kawhi on staying long-term
Getting Leonard for a season is one thing, but convincing him to stay is something completely different, especially because he’s already expressed interest in going to Los Angeles at the end of this upcoming campaign.
However, similar to how the Oklahoma City Thunder did so with Paul George, the Raptors will have the advantage to, essentially, recruit Leonard and actually show him what being a Raptor is all about, something Ujiri has a lot of confidence in.
“Those things, to me, you want them to happen organically. He has to come and see your situation and you have to lay the bed well for him.”
“When teams are put in this situation, for me, it’s not promising what you don’t have. We are who we are, and we’re going to be prepared and we’re going to make things as good and smooth [as possible]. I think you want to be genuine and real. You want to be, ‘This is who we are.’
“We might not be the best ones in weather, but we might be the best ones in many other places. I think that the diversity, the city, the uniqueness of a place like that – our fans, the atmosphere. I think those things are so unique and it’s beginning to show everywhere, that this place is a little unique.
“And you have to put the basketball together. Maybe before the basketball wasn’t a part of it, but I know there’s a part of him that, I’m sure, thinks this team has a chance, with his teammates and seeing how hard these guys are working.
“We have to show who we are. There’s no fake sell job here. This is what it is and, hopefully, we have a good year and we can prepare well.”
When Masai met Kawhi
When Ujiri first met Leonard, he says he delivered a message to the forward built around respect.
“We wanted to tell him that we believed in him and that we did this for good reason to think that we were getting a top-three player in the NBA and the way he has gone about it on the court is, for us, phenomenal and fit into what we we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to win a championship one day.
“For me that’s the clear message. We will treat you with total respect and prepare well and put things around you that will help you.”
Ujiri’s not completely cold-blooded
No matter the optics, in explaining his process to relieve two Raptors staples in DeRozan and Casey, Ujiri came across as a man who genuinely felt to be at his wit’s end to find any other ways forward other than to shake the team up as he did.
Just as he was in his press conferences after firing Casey and trading DeRozan, he was very complimentary of the two and says making those moves were very hard to do, personally.
“The most difficult part of our business, sometimes not said, is two things: Trades and when a player leaves,” he said. “Those are the two most difficult parts of our business where everybody goes through a really, really tough time because you build those relationships and no matter how any human being is there’s no pretend. …
“I’m proud of the opportunities that were given because when you first take a job, I hate to call it out like this, but most guys have their own guys. I think we were open-minded in our regime to keep Coach Casey, to go with DeMar, Kyle [Lowry], these guys and figure out a way to build around them. …
“That’s the nature of the business a lot of times, so we’re proud of the opportunity, at least. And we’re really proud of the moments they gave us.”