Masai Ujiri has his work cut out for him | Basketball | CBC Sports

NBAMasai Ujiri has his work cut out for him

Posted: Friday, May 31, 2013 | 10:43 PM

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Newly minted Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri is the NBA's reigning Executive of the Year. (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images) Newly minted Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri is the NBA's reigning Executive of the Year. (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

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The city of Toronto didn't exactly sit on pins and needles for the past week waiting for Masai Ujiri to become the Raptors' newest general manager, and on paper, he seems like the definition of a good hire.
The city of Toronto didn't exactly sit on pins and needles for the past week waiting for Masai Ujiri to become the Raptors' newest general manager

But buried behind the surrealism of the mayor of the fourth largest city in North America being accused of smoking crack cocaine -- and all that story's subsequent fascinating trimmings -- a familiar narrative took shape in local sports media and the domestic version of Al Gore's invention, the Internet: Why would anyone want to come to the Raptors?

Following word that incoming MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke had offered the reigning NBA executive of the year a lucrative contract to take over the GM reigns in Toronto -- within earshot of his former boss (and still Raptors president) Bryan Colangelo -- last Friday, the wait began. 

By Tuesday, newspaper columnists and antsy fans were already comparing this Raptors offer to the ill-fated (thankfully, from a basketball perspective) attempt at landing a 38-year-old Steve Nash last summer.

But that's sort of how it works in Raptorland. Pile on the franchise until they do something optically positive, then sit and wait (again) to cynically pick apart the results.

And there is no question that the 42-year-old Ujiri has his work cut out for him. He's leaving a 54-win Denver Nuggets team he molded himself after departing from under the wing of Colangelo as Raps assistant GM in 2010. 

A few months into his job in the Rocky Mountains, he turned the seemingly untenable situation of Carmelo Anthony's trade demand to basically one franchise (the New York Knicks) into a virtual coup, landing Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler among others.

With his first Denver draft in 2011, he stole power forward Kenneth Faried at No. 22 and picked guard Evan Fournier in the second round. 

Wheeling and dealing

He managed to swap a ridiculous big man in Nene Hilario to Washington for a more slightly more entertaining ridiculous big man in JaVale McGee (good NBA trades are often about relative correction) and landed the Nuggets Andre Iguodala in the Andrew Bynum three-team deal last summer by giving up Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington and draft picks.

In other words, right now he looks like a prodigy.

So why leave Denver?


Reports indicate Leiweke was true to his word when he said he was throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the Raptors (or whatever they will be called in 2016), the Ujiri contract worth a rumoured $15 million US over five years. 

As the indomitable Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! reported earlier, Stan and Josh Kroenke, owners of the Nuggets, weren't going to come anywhere close to that. As Wojnarowski pointed out, Wal-mart (the heir of which Stan Kroenke is married to) didn't become a multi-billion dollar operation by overpaying employees. 

And while the delay in Ujiri accepting the Raps' offer caused the predictable panic in some Toronto circles, he surely felt some loyalty to the Kroenkes. This is why he waited until well after they introduced Patrick Roy as coach of the Avalanche --which the Kroenkes also own -- Tuesday (on an aside, it's a safe bet Roy will not be paid anywhere close to what Ujiri left for, no matter how many Stanley Cup rings Patrick has in his ears).

Low-hanging humour aside, it raises a valid point. Did the Raptors once again overpay for another "saviour"?

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It says here Colangelo was also given a similar five-year deal among similar fanfare seven years ago. And he actually came with a longer resume and more pedigree. And while he legitimately excited Raptors fans immediately by trading Rafael Araujo for two living, breathing human beings in Kris Humphries and Robert Whaley, it wasn't long after the franchise's only division title in 2007 that he began the osmosis into pariah.

Ujiri has work cut out for him

Being a NBA GM is a veritable minefield, and it gets harder when you have a roster like the current Toronto one, constructed by Colangelo. 

Dealing Andrea Bargnani is Ujiri's first priority. But there's also a theory out there that MLSE may want to blow this whole thing up, hence the renaming rumblings. So is tanking for Toronto's own Andrew Wiggins or others in the deep 2014 draft in play? If that's the case, trading Kyle Lowry now might be a good place to start.

And how will Ujiri's relationship with Colangelo work now? It's easy to predict the latter will be on his way out of town soon enough, but what if that doesn't happen? Colangelo gave Ujiri his start in personnel management work, so is it reasonable to wonder if there will be any deference?

"I have already developed a great relationship with Tim Leiweke and I can't wait to get back to Canada to build a team that is poised to take the next step in the NBA," Ujiri was quoted in a team media release Friday night.

As Leiweke told everybody in the media recently, the new Raptors GM answers to him and not Colangelo.

Yet it wouldn't be Toronto if it wasn't riddled with questions. Who is "Slurpy" for instance?

But as it always does, time will tell how this new Raptor arrangement works. Yes, Ujiri is the definition of a good hire: A young, switched-on person who has already achieved impressive success, albeit in a small sample size. And for now, for better or for worse, his former boss is just down the hall.

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