Why fight for Raptors’ NBA relevance could factor in Ujiri’s decision

Michael Grange and Brad Fay go over an emotional news conference by Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri.

There are very good reasons to believe that Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri will be back with the club for several seasons to come.

I recently had someone with close ties to the MLSE board handicap the likelihood of the pending free agent re-upping at 95 per cent.

It’s hard to get better odds than that and I’m not about to suggest the optimism is unjustified.

Barring a completely unforeseen bombshell, staying with the Raptors is the most likely outcome. It’s a great job and – as far as is publicly known – there’s no next great job out there.

And then there’s how Ujiri reacted when I asked him about hearing head coach Nick Nurse, team leader Fred VanVleet and franchise icon Kyle Lowry deliver heartfelt words of praise for his leadership as they reflected back on a difficult season with far fewer wins than losses.

"These guys are incredible for me," said Ujiri, fighting back tears with only limited success at Wednesday’s end-of-season media availability. "To hear them say that, I sometimes honestly don’t know what to say. Our players, the coaches, the staff, they’re incredible for me. I go to battle every day with those guys. Every single day. I love them like they are my family."

But 95 per cent is not 100 per cent.

Would you walk out of your house in a thunderstorm if there was a 1-in-20 chance you would get hit by lightning?

Most likely not. You’d wait until the weather passed.

So, what of that five per cent? What are the issues that could be cause for Ujiri to leave?

Let’s say upfront: money isn’t one of them. Ujiri will become the highest-paid executive in the NBA, probably by a significant percentage over next in line – believed to be Daryl Morey with the Philadelphia 76ers at $12-million annually. If he wants long-term security, he can have that. If he wants short-term flexibility, he can have that too.

"We’re not going to do anything to piss him off," the source close to MLSE said.

Family? That’s a possibility, and something MLSE can’t counter. Ujiri and his wife had their third child recently, a boy. Their older son and daughter are no longer toddlers. Where and how they grow up is a factor. The experience they’ve had in Toronto has been positive; they’ve embraced the city. But raising a family in a familiar environment – Ujiri’s wife holds American citizenship and is from the east coast – can be strong pull. It’s a wild card.

"I hate to talk about options, but I’m just in a point in my life where I have three children now and I have to look at everything completely," said Ujiri while steadfastly declining to provide any timeline for when he might have his future resolved. "But in terms of Toronto, yes, this is going to be important and important with any of the other options and any of the other things that I’ll be looking at."

As well, concerns about MLSE morphing into meddlesome cheapskates are unfounded. Ujiri has always been able to get the money he needed and there’s no suggestion that won’t continue. He has almost unfettered freedom and a trusted management team. That won’t change either and would be hard to replicate elsewhere.

"I think our ownership is strong. I remember coming in here, they told me if I wanted to go into luxury tax at any point in time, they would do it," said Ujiri. "We have to do our jobs too, right, to figure out when the right place and time to do all those things.

"… There are many things we want to do to get ourselves even further ahead [but worrying about] luxury tax isn’t one of them, to be honest. Our ownership has been pretty clear with us: whenever we put ourselves in position to win and get players, they will do those things to give us that chance."

But the pandemic has required all kinds of things to be examined with fresh eyes and in a new light, and that’s where Ujiri is right now as he gets ready to meet with MLSE chair Larry Tanenbaum.

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Running the only NBA team outside of the United States has always created a different set of challenges – "an extra layer" was how he phrased it to me at one point, but never more so than this season.

"We have been incredibly disadvantaged from all of this. The displacement really did not work well against us," said Ujiri, stressing that the problems of a wealthy NBA team pale in comparison with the problems people in the real world struggle with.

Also true is that every incremental disadvantage matters in a league as competitive as the NBA.

"… This was a tough situation because none of us have gone through this before, and our case was even worse than the 29 other teams. "

The issues Ujiri is struggling with, then, are almost existential: can a Canadian team ever be equal in the NBA?

It’s a fine line for Ujiri to walk. On one hand so much work has been done to promote the benefits of Toronto and Canada as an NBA market on par with anywhere else. Winning has helped enormously with all of that. Solutions to tax questions have been wrestled with; they can get the "good cable." As an organization the Raptors have stopped at nothing to make sure players and their families are comfortable and feel at home.

Ujiri coming out and complaining about how tough it is to win in Canada undermines almost everything that has been built to date. But pretending there’s not that "extra layer" is failing to acknowledge reality.

An example: when Ujiri came to Toronto, one of the things he wanted to do was to have a dedicated G League franchise.

It wasn’t a new idea. Former Raptors president Bryan Colangelo had wanted one and there had been musings about having a team in Hamilton, but the push to make it happen didn’t come.

Ujiri pushed and then-MLSE president Tim Leiweke backed him. But the next obstacle was the NBA itself.

They were happy the Raptors wanted a team, but their first instinct was to have it in Western New York – Buffalo, potentially. They saw the border as an obstacle and wanted to avoid the added complication of having players – some of whom wouldn’t automatically have passports or even some who might have other legal issues coming to Canada – need to deal with it.

Having a G League team in the U.S. was thought to be easier and simpler than having one in Canada.

Ujiri wasn’t having it. He made the point that if the NBA wanted all 30 teams to have their own G League franchise, a team in Canada, adjacent to the Raptors, was a must and whatever added difficulties – practical, logistical or otherwise – would simply have to be accepted as part of doing business. He made his point loudly.

The league acquiesced and Raptors 905 were born.

But the story illustrates a larger issue. Ujiri feels like he’s fighting to change what people think – both within MLSE and at the NBA offices. He feels like he’s fighting a fight for the future. If the NBA – an ambitious global business – can’t make having a team in Canada seamless, how will having one in Mexico City work, if that day ever comes? What about expanding to London or Shanghai?

The point has often been made that one reason the Raptors don’t get more coverage and attention from the NBA’s TV partners is because Canadian viewership numbers don’t move the needle for ESPN or TNT. A 100,000 viewers in Minneapolis – in theory – are more important than a million Canadians.

Ujiri is the type of person to ask why. If the league is made of up 30 partners, why should one of them be an afterthought?

"I think it’s difficult sometimes for the league to always include us in everything because we are the one team that is based outside the U.S. I’m sure sometimes it’s a pain in the (butt) sometimes for them. But guess what? That is the business you have put yourself in," said Ujiri. "You have put yourself on a global platform that you have one team in the NBA that is outside the United States and we have to be considered in every single way. There are difficult decisions that have to be made based on this. Adam Silver has been very considerate. The league has been very considerate on all levels whether it’s basketball operations or even … the marketing group. I think they have all really treated us with respect and maybe, in some cases, sympathy here.

"But, yeah, there is a lot of work to be done honestly. I don’t want to call out anybody here. But there is a lot of work we need to address. And to be honest, me being back here, there is going to be a lot of things I have to address with ownership in terms of some of those things we need to really address with Toronto."

When Ujiri meets with his owners, it’s safe to say one of the things he’ll be expecting – beyond the pay day and the commitment to spend to win – is a determination to fight to make the Raptors a bigger part of the conversation, of the league’s vision.

It helps that Tanenbaum is the chair of the NBA’s board of governors – "he pushes for us as much [as possible]" – but, as in all things, Ujiri demands fighting against complacency.

"[We] are just one team and that becomes challenging," said Ujiri. "Putting us on television becomes challenging. Everything you want to consider becomes challenging. Lots of complicated issues, but we need to grow in our minds.

"We need to be visionaries. We need to think big in this league on how we consider these things. We are trying to make the game really big and global, which I think the NBA is doing an incredible job of, but there are many issues that I think we have to address in terms of us."

It’s Ujiri’s biggest fight yet: how to make Canada matter more to the NBA.

It’s a battle that takes heart, energy, passion and time. It would be easier not to fight it at all, to take the pay day and shut up about it; or work somewhere that it wasn’t part of the self-composed job description.

That’s the five per cent that might factor into Ujiri leaving the Raptors behind, the freedom of no longer having to fight that fight.

Fortunately for the Raptors and frankly for the NBA, Ujiri is not one to shy away from a scrap.

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