How Raptors president Masai Ujiri became the NBA’s most wanted man

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Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri speaks to media during an availability in the lead up to tomorrow's NBA Final game 1 against the Golden State Warriors, in Toronto on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (Frank Gunn/CP)

The Toronto Raptors had just hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time in history as the architect of the 2019 NBA champions, team president Masai Ujiri, soaked it all in from his spot stage left of the makeshift platform at centre court of Oracle Arena.

For Ujiri, the moment was the culmination of a six-year roller-coaster ride in which his messaging remained consistent — even if the results were anything but — and a moment of pure validation if there ever was one.

Since taking the Raptors’ general manager gig back in 2013, he hadn’t been shy about his goals in Toronto and what he’s been building toward: A title — and not simply making the Finals, but winning it all.

“We’ve been growing, and trying to prove to the world that there’s a meaning to having one NBA team outside the U.S.,” an emotional Ujiri told Doris Burke. “We wanted to win in Toronto, and we’ve won in Toronto.”

So… now what?

Roughly around the same time Ujiri made his victory speech to a global hoops audience, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported “sources” indicated the Washington Wizards were in hot pursuit of the newly crowned champion executive.

It wasn’t necessarily new information. In fact, the Wizards have been linked to the Raptors’ president since at least April when NBC Sports Washington’s Ben Standing reported that Ujiri was a ‘wild card’ in the Wizards’ pursuit of somebody new to run their team.

Last weekend, Standing doubled down on his report, adding that the team could go after Ujiri with the same intensity that helped them lure Michael Jordan to their ownership group — and out of retirement — in 2000.

Ujiri, who has two years remaining on his contract with Toronto, could be in line for a mammoth offer that would see him not only earn north of US$10 million per year, but also grant him a stake in running Washington’s equivalent of MLSE, per Wojnarowski:

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis is expected to reach out to Toronto ownership soon to request formal permission to meet with Ujiri and offer a staggering financial package that would include running the Wizards’ basketball operations and, perhaps, taking on a larger leadership role in the Monumental Sports and Entertainment company that oversees the Wizards and NHL’s Capitals, league sources said.

That Ujiri is highly coveted should be no surprise. Even before he sealed his status arguably the NBA’s premier roster-builder thanks to the Raptors’ 2019 Finals run, he has long been among the most respected decision-makers in the league.

His reputation was bolstered early in his career with the Denver Nuggets, when he orchestrated the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks for a package of players and picks. Two years later, the new-look Nuggets reached 57 wins before Ujiri left for the Toronto job.

He gained mythic status early in Toronto when he was able to unload Andrea Bargnani (and the $22 million left on his contract over two years) to the Knicks without inheriting any burdensome assets in return, and even getting a first-round pick from New York out of the deal. In fact, you can trace the roots from that 2013 trade all the way to the Kawhi Leonard acquisition last summer.

The way in which he proceeded to build this Raptors team showed both his willingness to adapt on the fly — improbably building a contender around DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry — and the calculated moxie he displayed when he traded the fanbase’s favourite player for a potentially broken superstar.

It’s no secret that the Raptors return to playoff contention happened by chance rather than intention. Ujiri adopted a roster featuring Rudy Gay from his predecessor, shipping Gay off to Sacramento in December 2013, in an effort to free up future cap space and, dare I say, tank for the chance at a franchise-changing top draft pick.

He got a package of veterans on expiring contracts in return — Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes — who by total chance developed into the supporting cast of a playoff team as the Raps season went the opposite direction you’d expect after dumping your best player for a bunch of expiring contracts. With Lowry and DeRozan leading the way, Toronto made the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.

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They haven’t missed the post-season since as Ujiri saw the seeds of something potentially special and delivered wealthy extensions to DeRozan and Lowry, while also inking promising big man Jonas Valanciunas to a long-term deal.

Meanwhile, he drafted shrewdly and built a loaded farm system that featured the unheralded but talented group of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Delon Wright. They helped win a championship in the G-League with the Raptors 905, as Siakam earned Finals MVP honours.

By 2016, the Raptors reached the Conference Finals — a franchise first — but after successive years of being unceremoniously swept by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, Ujiri examined his team and saw a group he determined was destined to fall short.

Which brings us to the 2018-19 NBA champion Toronto Raptors. Ujiri’s first bold move heading into this season was to fire Dwane Casey, the head coach he’d inherited but also one that had just been named Coach of the Year. He eventually promoted assistant coach Nick Nurse, who shared Ujiri’s desire to win and ability to improvise.

The Leonard trade was a siren call to his team, organization and the NBA as a whole that the Raptors and Ujiri were all in. There were inherent risks — Leonard played just nine games the season prior and was expected to enter free agency following the season, with the Raptors reportedly not a destination that interested the former Defensive Player of the Year.

The team got off to a roaring start to this season, but Ujiri, eyes fixated on a Finals run thanks in large part to his newest star player, wasn’t satisfied and dealt another fan favourite, Valanciunas, for Marc Gasol, whose best years were behind him, but added a prolific offensive threat and gave the Raps their second former DPoY.

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We know how it all worked out and the litany of moves Ujiri has made — as bold as the DeRozan deal or as quietly critical as re-signing the ever-so-clutch Fred VanVleet last summer — puts him atop any list for teams looking for a new leader.

It’s no surprise that the Wizards want Ujiri badly, but the mutuality of that interest seems questionable.

The Wizards are in disarray and have preciously few assets. They failed to luck out at the lottery, and have a point guard in John Wall who is injured indefinitely and owed roughly $77 trillion over the next 12 years (actually, $170 million across four years). Turning that team around would be a significant accomplishment given the roadblocks in place.

But outside motivations could make the conversation a little more interesting. As Standing mentions, Ujiri’s wife is from the D.C. area, where buddy Barack Obama also resides. And then there’s this:

“Ujiri views the District as a larger platform for the “Basketball Without Borders” program along with other outside interests, according to sources.”

The report adds: “Washington loves power brokers. This setup could turn Ujiri into one.”

As it stands, everything feels up in the air. Leonard’s impending free agency decision now keeps the Raptors in limbo. If he returns, the Raptors are poised to repeat as finalists next season. If he bolts, the Raps best move may be to start over.

It’s worth noting that with Ujiri under contract, the Raptors have no obligation to allow the Wizards to negotiate with him.

And if his track record to this point is any indication, no matter which direction the Raptors now head, they’re going to want Ujiri at the helm.

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