It says all you need to know about why the New York Knicks are well into their second decade as an NBA gong show that there is even a smidgen of belief within their ecosystem that they can coax Masai Ujiri to save their sorry franchise.
The arrogance. The ignorance.
But what else would you expect from the NBA’s flagship franchise for dysfunction?
The timing of the news – a cascade of events stemming from Phil Jackson getting fired by the Knicks late Tuesday night and Adrian Wojnarowski immediately reporting that Ujiri was the Knicks’ first choice to succeed him – couldn’t have been more perfect.
A long-scheduled MLSE board of directors meeting was convening Wednesday morning, and yes, most of those on the board follow Wojnarowski, the NBA’s most plugged-in media source, via social media.
It would have taken about five seconds for MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum to recognize former MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke – a business partner of James Dolan’s who is being given a formal advisory role in the transition — as having his fingerprints all over everything.
It was Leiweke who recruited Ujiri to the Raptors from the Denver Nuggets and there’s no question he’ll be pressing hard again.
As of this writing, the Knicks haven’t approached MLSE for permission to talk with the Raptors president. It’s certain that the first answer would be a firm ‘no chance.’
The Knicks issues with Jackson have been long brewing, and vice versa and Dolan – with Leiweke whispering in his ear – has had his eye on Ujiri as a potential successor. To MLSE’s credit they pre-emptively tore up the final two years of Ujiri’s deal last summer and gave him a new five-year contract that is believed to make Ujiri among the very best compensated executives in the NBA, and by extension, all of sports.
The organization recognizes that Ujiri represents something important to the club and just the idea that an organization like the Knicks – the anti-Raptors in recent years — think they can have what they want because the want it will motivate them to dig in hard, if it ever comes to that.
“As a source close to MLSE ownership told me Wednesday morning: “Don’t even waste your time on this.”
But time will be wasted. It is the NBA way.
Ujiri – unwittingly or not – fanned the flames of speculation Wednesday afternoon when he chose not to address the issue when he introduced Bobby Webster, promoted to general manager to replace the departed Jeff Weltman.
“I know it’s been a crazy day in the NBA,” said Ujiri. “Today’s all about Bobby Webster, and he deserves it.”
Ujiri was likely being sincere in allowing Webster his moment – anything he would have said would have immediately sucked up all the available oxygen.
But as one NBA source put it: “This is not fake news, the Knicks will be coming hard.”
And can a dealmaker refuse the chance to at least hear the terms? The longer Ujiri waits before quashing the speculation firmly and publicly the more credence to those who figure he’s at least interested enough to listen, so that will be worth monitoring.
But of course Ujiri, if it makes sense, would be the preferred choice. Just as Dolan likely thinks he can snap his fingers and lure Golden State Warriors boss Bob Myers or the San Antonio Spurs’ R.C. Buford. ESPN’s Dave McMeniman reports that recently ousted Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin will be considered. Ujiri doesn’t have the rings that Myers and Buford have.
His teams have made the playoffs for seven straight seasons, going back to his years running the Nuggets, averaging 51 wins a year, and he’s done it without a signature superstar or rebuilding with the benefit of a fistful of high lottery picks.
He’s taken teams and made them better. Along the way he’s taken advantage of Dolan and the Knicks a couple of times— once in the Carmelo Anthony deal and then foisting Andrea Bargnani on the Knicks (against then-general manager Glen Grunwald’s advice) shortly after Ujiri arrived in Toronto.
Dolan was so spooked by Ujiri that when the Raptors were willing to part with Kyle Lowry early in the 2013-14 season, as Toronto was poised to start a determined rebuild, Dolan nixed it, scared of being taken again.
Ujiri would tell you that’s the luckiest move he never made as the Raptors current run of four straight playoff appearances has been engineered in large part by Lowry.
It’s worth pointing out how far MLSE has come in a decade or so. From the troughs of post-Vince Carter chaos to a model organization that has done just about everything well except recruit, draft, or trade for a top-five player and thus truly enter championship contention.
Ujiri’s been a big part of it, lending leadership, calm and vision along with a generous dollop of charisma. Not bad for a guy who got his start in the NBA scouting for free, badgering scouts from other teams to crash on the floor of their hotel rooms.
It’s understandable that Dolan and the Knicks would see him as a solution to their woes and will certainly pay almost anything. It is the Knicks habit.
But would Ujiri leave?
If I’m betting, I say no. A hundred times no.
Still, in the end, contracts only provide so much leverage. They aren’t cages and shouldn’t be. If someone wants to get out of town, they can usually force the hand that feeds them. John Farrell did it with the Blue Jays, as one recent example.
In theory, Ujiri could do something similar, but it’s inconceivable for a couple of reasons.
The first is it would contrast with everything he’s preached publicly and privately about building a team and organization based on a culture of loyalty, trust and consistency. He’s a long-term thinker and his plans in Toronto aren’t near to being realized. As intriguing as the challenge the Knicks would present is, he hasn’t finished the job here and has been given complete autonomy to do just that. He’d be turning his back on his baby.
Ujiri’s been poached for jobs before— the Philadelphia 76ers wanted to make him Sam Hinkie before they hired Sam Hinkie, and offered him a considerable raise to leave Denver where he was the lowest-paid executive in the NBA. He completed his contract in Denver without an extension, and took the Toronto job at that time. He’s been approached since he’s been in Toronto, too, with Brooklyn and more recently Milwaukee believed to have nosed around. Things never got off the ground because Ujiri was happy here.
The second reason for Ujiri to pause would be going to work for Dolan and the Knicks. Careers and reputations die there. It’s a fact. While any ambitious executive— and Ujiri is ambitious— would look at the challenge of resurrecting one of the NBA’s most prestigious franchises as a mountain worth climbing, the timing would have to be right, too.
He won’t be leaving because of money. Ujiri is paid well here and is hardly a big spender; it’s unlikely he’s swayed by zeroes.
So ignoring whatever obligation he has to the Raptors, my bet is he’s smart enough to recognize that this might be too early in his career to take a job that might make him richer than a pharaoh, but could see him spend the prime years of his career babysitting an owner who has proven himself only to be incompetent, petty, and out of touch.
Finally, running a legacy franchise in the NBA isn’t what it is in baseball, for example. A restrictive salary cap means you have the same resources to rebuild as the Bucks or the Memphis Grizzlies. Once all the heavy lifting and losing is done you only have the same money to spend as any other team.
Does playing in New York or Los Angeles hold sway for those free agents who would be the finishing touch on a rebuild? Maybe, but that theory has yet to be proven as the Knicks and Lakers drag their franchises through the mud year after year.
Should the Raptors let Ujiri go if – in the very unlikely scenario – he decides that’s what he wants to do with the next 10 years of what has otherwise been an exemplary life?
Absolutely they should, if that’s where his heart is. But the terms of the agreement should require Ujiri to negotiate his own compensation so the Raptors can fleece Dolan one last time. Ujiri for Kristaps Porzingis and a future first-round draft pick from the Knicks?
Start with that.
Otherwise they should tell the Knicks to kick stones.