The champagne had barely dried following the Toronto Raptors‘ 2019 NBA Finals victory over the Golden State Warriors when the rumours began to surface that team president Masai Ujiri was being headhunted for a job taking control of the Washington Wizards.
It’s no surprise the Wizards would be interested in Ujiri — who had just pulled off a series of gutsy moves that paid off beyond what most could have imagined — and reports indicated that Washington’s brass were going after the executive hard, even offering an ownership stake in the company that owns both the Wizards and NHL’s Capitals.
Ujiri elected to stay in Toronto and see through the next phase of the Raptors — a difficult process that will involve more major change down the line and potentially even a full-fledge rebuild to get back to title contention.
Given his track record and well-earned reputation as one of the NBA’s best decision-makers, Ujiri’s return was welcome news for Raptors fans excited for what he has up his sleeve next.
But, according to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and The Ringer’s Bill Simmons, Ujiri made the wrong call.
“That was the all-time ‘we’re going for it,’” Simmons said of the moves Ujiri made in building last season’s championship roster during the most recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, where Smith was a guest.
Ujiri made the toughest call of his career by trading beloved star DeMar DeRozan for Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, a superstar who came to Toronto with plenty of question marks, including whether or not he was even healthy enough to play after missing all but nine games the season prior. He dealt another fan favourite in Jonas Valanciunas in exchange for Marc Gasol, while the stable of young talent he had groomed in the G-League, like Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, proved to be difference-makers en route to a championship.
In doing so, Smith argued, Ujiri had reached the top of the mountain with only one direction to go from there.
“I think Masai made a mistake,” Smith said. “I believe he should have taken a shot and gone to the nation’s capital to take over the Washington Wizards. I truly believe that… You have nowhere to go but down in Toronto. Now, you will [have] security for years to come, no question. You will be somebody who will be deified in that area for a long time to come.”
“You got rid of Dwane Casey,” he continued, “who was the coach of the year and guided you to 59 wins and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference before they got swept in the second round by LeBron’s Cavaliers. You got rid of him, you brought in Nick Nurse there, who did a tremendous job. And obviously you traded an all-star in DeMar DeRozan and you got Kawhi Leonard. It was a one-year wonder, but they delivered the goods: You got a championship.”
The next move, Smith said, should have been clear.
“To me, once you do all of that, you throw all your chips on the table and you cash in with a championship, you move on.”
“I’m half-agreeing with you,” Simmons responded, saying that he agrees that Ujiri should have moved on from the Raptors, but to virtually any other team but Washington who are weighed down by John Wall’s hefty, unmovable long-term contract.
In order to return to the championship conversation, Ujiri will face an uphill battle in Toronto this season and beyond. The Raptors roster remains talented and a surefire playoff contender, but with aging veterans Gasol, Kyle Lowry, and Serge Ibaka, along with Finals hero VanVleet, all on expiring contracts this season, the future is uncertain as ever — especially given the lack of prospect depth on the roster currently.
Siakam could hold the key to the Raptors’ eventual rebuild and dictate its timeline, but Ujiri and his staff will now have to strike gold a second time to get back to hoisting the Larry O’Brian trophy again.
But despite how Smith or Simmons feel, here’s betting it’s a challenge Ujiri is eager to take on.