The longer uncertainty around Raptors’ Ujiri remains, louder the questions

Although the Toronto Raptors were quick to extend head coach Nick Nurse and are working on a contract extension with GM Bobby Webster, there's no word yet on an extension for president Masai Ujiri. Brad Fay and Michael Grange discuss.

He spoke about everything, the passion flowing, unwavering as always.

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri held forth for nearly an hour to address the season that was, and given everything the 2019-20 campaign encapsulated on the floor and off, he could have gone on for many hours more.

He gushed about Kyle Lowry and Nick Nurse and his team’s guts and brains and heart. He spoke movingly about his experience at the hands of an over-zealous police officer in Oakland last June and how it weighed on his mind over the ensuing months, the doubts that crept in and how seeing what actually happened on video was vindicating, affirming and motivating.

He spoke about the burdens of being in the bubble and mental challenges it posed, but also the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bond with his team, and the powerful platform it created in the fight for social justice.

He dropped some F-bombs, although in fairness one was quoting Lowry.

He spoke about his daughter learning how to use FaceTime when Daddy was away for 11 weeks and how she maybe started to use it too much as she became a co-star on his Zoom calls, or how he knew he’d been away too long when his son had stopped going into their Toronto yard to kick around a soccer ball because his father wasn’t there to join him.

He spoke about the off-season to come, the evaluations that need to be done and the decisions that need to be made.

But Ujiri left largely unspoken the one topic that has its own category of urgency, if not global importance: his future with the Raptors, the team that he’s reshaped in his image for the past seven years.

What form will the team take next year and in the years following, and what Ujiri’s role will be, is the issue that looms over everything, and will until it gets resolved.

Two days after signing head coach Nick Nurse to a contract extension and allowing that the team is ‘close’ to reaching an extension with general manager Bobby Webster, Ujiri punted inquiries on his own future as he heads into the final year of his contract.

“No, I haven’t had discussions, and honestly, coming out of this, things are a little raw,” he said on a conference call with local media. “I’m going to reflect a little bit and we will address it when it’s time to address it. It’s not something I’m going to do in the media and publicly, with respect, but no I haven’t had conversations.

“It’s been an obligation for me to take care of my leadership team, obviously starting with Nick Nurse. Super excited about that, and him. The future is bright. But in terms of me, I haven’t had those conversations and I’ll wait ’til those happen in the future.”

How to interpret all of this?

Well, in the broadest sense, it’s clear that being on campus at the Walt Disney World Resort with his team and the greater NBA community was a galvanizing, life-altering experience — the most intense summer camp ever.

Home for less than a week, Ujiri sound more committed than ever to leverage the momentum of Black Lives Matter and the social justice causes that were so front-and-centre to the NBA’s restart after the hiatus and make sure they translate into real change, in Toronto and Canada and elsewhere.

“Let’s not make any mistake, there’s racism in Canada here. We know there’s a focus on the United States, but this is a global pandemic, this is something we are facing everywhere and as an organization we’re going to face it square on,” he said. “And whether it’s calling people out, whether it’s developing programs, whether it’s hiring people, a focus on hiring Black people, minorities, Indigenous people, we’re going to focus on this. … We’re going to do whatever we can, to continue this conversation.”

Speaking from his home office where he’s putting in a mandatory 14-day quarantine, Ujiri was at times pensive, reflective and exuberant. His favourite thing about the experience in the bubble was riding on the first bus, the one the veterans typically take after team workouts. And how at the beginning of the Raptors’ nearly three-month stay in Florida, the small group on the big coach would be scattered, but as the stay in the bubble stretched on, the group would sit closer and closer together — players, management, staff — eager to talk and connect.

“First of all, we have incredible leaders. I want to say that. I’ll tell you what: I don’t even want to say it’s been up and down anymore with Kyle Lowry. That guy is a stud. OK? I’m telling the whole world that guy is incredible. What he has done for this whole organization. … I don’t want to start pushing him as a Hall of Famer and all this stuff, because I want 10 more incredible years from this guy,” he said.

“It seems to me the older he becomes, the better he becomes. It’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that. As a human being, as a person, as a teammate, Kyle was phenomenal. Fred was phenomenal. Our leadership, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, I can’t describe it. … I know it was a tough environment … but I saw everybody grow up a notch, and that was incredible.”

But as close as the team was and became doesn’t preclude Ujiri having to make some difficult decisions. Lowry is heading into the final year of his contract and might be the most valuable trade chip the Raptors have. VanVleet, Ibaka and Gasol are also free agents and it seems impossible that all three will be back. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a free agent and Chris Boucher is heading into restricted free agency and OG Anunoby — who might have more upside that any player on the roster — is eligible for a rookie extension.

Figuring out how to navigate the now while keeping an eye on the future — hefty commitments to VanVleet, Ibaka and Anunoby would, for example, seemingly leave the Raptors on the outside looking in when the loaded free agency class of 2021 become available — will require a steady hand and forward thinking.

Which is why it seems at the very least a little strange that Ujiri is letting uncertainty about his future in Toronto linger.

And let’s be clear: This is not a case of ownership dragging their feet on this. They would sign Ujiri yesterday if they could. Their error — in retrospect perhaps — was not being faster off the mark when the Raptors won the title in June 2019. They probably could have signed Ujiri in the champagne-drenched locker room at Oracle Arena. But given he had two years on left on his deal then and a hefty championship bonus in his pocket and the off-season was compressed as it was, it’s understandable why it wasn’t the first thing on their to-do list after cleaning up from the parade.

But it’s now lingered over a year and it only begs the question: What gives?

Elsewhere in the league, the delay — it seems like a stretch to suggest it’s an impasse at this point, as negotiations haven’t started — is viewed with some puzzlement. “I know he loves it there and he has full support of ownership,” said one league executive. “He can be active in things outside of basketball, which is important to him, so it’s a good fit. And also, there’s no obvious pivot point. There are no jobs out there right now, so where would he go?”

That an extension hasn’t even been meaningfully discussed could be interpreted two ways.

The most benign is that Ujiri simply hasn’t’ gotten around to it and that it didn’t seem top of mind when first the pandemic struck and then he was in the bubble and the chase for a title and social justice issues were at the forefront. Now Ujiri seems to want to make sure his team has been dealt with. First was Nurse, Webster is on deck and then there will be the rest of the management and basketball operations staff.

Looking at it that way, Ujiri simply wants to make sure everyone else eats first, even if there is an argument to be made that stability flows from the top down.

“To me, I have to take care of — it’s an obligation for me to take care of — the whole staff,” Ujiri said. “Yes, Nick Nurse will be concerned about me, he will be concerned about leadership, but he knows [and] I think he understands where we stand with this and I think Nick Nurse has an incredible career ahead of him and this was the next jump point [and] that was a priority for us as an organization. … [So] maybe you take care of the organization first and then you go last, maybe too? Maybe?

It would save everyone a lot of angst if Ujiri didn’t attach a question mark to his explanation. Because another way to interpret his pending free agency even as everyone else gets signed is that he’s succession-planning — making sure everyone is secure and the franchise is in good hands before he heads off to broader pastures doing — literally — almost anything: running an EPL team or reshaping basketball in Africa or working for the UN.

The good news is there really isn’t much urgency on the matter. The NBA Daft isn’t until Nov. 18 and free agency isn’t for another week or so after that, typically.

It would make sense from the owners’ point of view to have Ujiri’s future settled well before then because the big-picture decisions will come quickly, but that is nearly two months away.

So, give it time.

Ujiri just got home. He is just getting reacquainted with his family in real time, rather than FaceTime. There are kick-arounds to be had in the yard. There are other people’s contracts to get signed and there are big human issues going on that require political action and engagement.

At some point sooner than later there will be a time when Ujiri’s future commitment to the Raptors will need to be put on paper in ink.

That it didn’t happy today or hasn’t happened yet isn’t itself a cause for concern, but the longer it goes on, the louder the questions will get.

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