Ujiri’s future with Raptors could be intertwined with Leonard’s

It’s been 24 years in the making. The Raptors fanbase has gone to so many ups and downs that have led to this moment. Now it’s finally here. The Raptors are NBA champions.

OAKLAND – Oracle Arena is a great place to win an NBA championship if you’re the road team. It may be the largest visiting dressing room in the NBA. There is lots of room to celebrate and lots of floor space for the champagne bottles to collect.

The Raptors had a full skid of bubbly waiting for them after they cemented their NBA championship with a nail-biting Game 6 win over the Golden State Warriors Thursday night.

Some of it was sent along by Champagne Papi himself as Drake wanted to make sure his boys had the good stuff to chug in between dousing themselves with Gruet Cuvee 89 Sparkling Rose ($19.95).

It wasn’t until Kawhi Leonard was sent to the line up two with 0.9 seconds left that the locker room staff felt comfortable hustling it all in for the bash. It took about that long for the corks to come off to start a party 24 years in the making.

But how long will the party last?

It is the ruthlessness of the NBA machine that even as the streets of Toronto were filling with revelers and the locker room floor at Oracle was a puddle of cheap bubbly, the barbarians were at the gates.

In the wee hours came a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis is planning to make an offer to Ujiri that would pay $10 million annually, a potential equity stake and give him control of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Wizards, the Washington Capitals, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and the Verizon Center, among other properties.

According to sources, the offer is for six years, although Candace Buckner reported in the Washington Post Friday that the team has no immediate plans to contact Ujiri.

The Raptors executive has two years left on his current deal as president with the club and it’s believed he is already one of the highest-paid executives in the NBA, with some sources pegging his annual salary in the $6-8-million range.

Ujiri was given a five-year extension in 2016 when rumours began swirling that the New York Knicks were eying him as a successor to then-Knicks president Phil Jackson who set the bar for executive compensation with an astounding five-year, $60-million deal back in 2014.

At the time Jackson was the NBA’s most decorated head coach, but a front office rookie who looked the part before he was fired in 2017. The Knicks came calling on Ujiri at that point and MLSE stiff-armed them although they were careful to make sure Ujiri had the resources he needed in Toronto, both on his own deal and to build a winning team.

Maybe that’s why — with the champagne flowing and the Larry O’Brien trophy being passed around – MLSE chairman and minority shareholder Larry Tanenbaum sounded almost defiant when asked about the possibility of the Wizards poaching Ujiri.

"I know Masai. He’s like my son," Tanenbaum, who spearheaded the drive to have the NBA expand to Toronto in the early 1990s and has been a driving force behind the franchise’s growth, said to a small group of reporters. "There is no chance he’s leaving Toronto …."

What would you do to keep him?

"I think if you ask Masai he’s got everything he wants."

The Wizards will still try to top that. There’s the fact Ujiri’s wife is from the D.C. area; the access to power and resources in Washington to bolster his passion project, the Giants of Africa Foundation and the idea that the Wizards and all their dysfunction would provide Ujiri some runway and a new challenge, whereas he’s already met the ultimate challenge in Toronto.

Ujiri has told other teams that have come poking around – it’s believed the Los Angeles Lakers made serious back-channel approaches to help them right their ship – that he believes he’s got the best job in the NBA; there’s nothing here that he’s eager to move on from.

In any case it’s almost inconceivable the Raptors would let Ujiri walk now and if he somehow he insisted on being allowed break his deal – something he’s never done in his career – the demands for compensation the Raptors would make on the Wizards probably would be difficult to meet.

But that the news of the Wizards intention leaked out even as the championship celebration was going on should be more of a signal than anything else:

The NBA never sleeps and all winning guarantees you is that you are probably behind where the other 29 other teams are in their preparation for the season to come and that they all have their minds set on knocking you off your pedestal almost before you set foot on it.

The other domino that may or may not fall – and could be intertwined with Ujiri’s future — is the future of Leonard.

The NBA Finals MVP’s season north of the border could not have gone better. He was healthy. He got exposed to a fan base unlike any other. He clearly seems to have connected with his teammates and they with them – a process that evolved slowly and organically over the course of the regular season. There was a big hug on the floor with Alex McKechnie, the team’s director of sports science and the architect of the ‘load management’ strategy that helped Leonard get back to full health after missing 73 games in San Antonio last season.

As well there no question that if the Raptors run it back — with a return to health of OG Anunoby, continued improvement from Pascal Siakam and the kind of rotation tweaks championship teams can make by adding ring-seeking veterans — they would be early favourites to repeat in 2019-20.

But as Leonard was on the floor at Oracle warming up for Game 6, still hours away from his MVP trophy and champagne shower, a Raptors executive acknowledged that they still don’t know what Leonard’s intentions are in free agency this summer.

They can only be confident that they have done everything conceivable to make the best possible impression on the player that will swing the balance of power in the NBA with whatever choice he makes – stay with the Raptors or venture elsewhere, with the Los Angeles Clippers still viewed as the chief competition.

Leonard said that his plan upon arriving in Toronto was to "make history."

Mission accomplished, but the story continues to evolve.

What the next chapter is for Ujiri, for the Raptors and for Leonard is still to be written. A championship is forever but winning is temporary.

In a quiet corner of the Raptors locker room, watching the party was Raptors special advisor Wayne Embry, an NBA pioneer. He won an NBA championship as a player with the Boston Celtics in 1968 and then another as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks front office in 1972.

Embry has worked in the NBA ever since, making history as the league’s first general manager. He put together great teams in Milwaukee and then Cleveland before joining the Raptors as an advisor in 2004 but could never win another title.

Until Thursday night. When the horn sounded he didn’t celebrate. He was moved to tears.

"The old man cried buddy," he said to me. "You’re just so happy for everyone involved."

No one knows more than Embry how hard it is to win, how rarely everything lines up, and how a dressing room filled with empty bottles champagne-soaked hugs can be a lifetime in the making.

But even as the champagne dries and the sun comes up, there are forces around the league trying to rain on the Raptors parade.

It’s the NBA way. The price of winning is everyone lining up trying take away what makes you great.


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