Featured image by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
A week after the Washington Wizards allegedly denied their pursuit for Masai Ujiri, the Raptors president of basketball operations reinforced his loyalty to Toronto in a June 25 press conference. “It’s always been about Toronto,” he said, before adding in his wife’s love for Toronto and the city’s own reciprocated love for him. Although Kawhi Leonard is being hailed around Canada as a deity and cashing in on marketing gold, it’s easy to forget the executives working behind the scenes. Masai Ujiri is a name all old Toronto Raptors fans will know, and one that all new fans should become familiar with. Masai turned the franchise around, sparked the We The North movement, and turned the Raptors into a championship team in six years.
WARNING: STRONG LANGUAGE
Executive of the Year
Before Masai directed profanities at The Brooklyn Nets during the birth of Jurassic Park, he was the GM for the Denver Nuggets from 2010 to 2013. The Nuggets’ franchise player, Carmelo Anthony, reportedly wanted out of Denver. Masai responded by trading Anthony, Chauncey Billups, along with role players in a multi-team deal for Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Galinari, Timofey Mozgov, and Kosta Koufos. Although it appeared that Denver traded away most of their stars, the transaction actually improved their depth. The team finished with 50 wins, despite losing some of their best players. The 2012 off season brought in Andre Iguodala and the Nuggets finished with a franchise-record 57 wins. Their regular season effort, however, wasn’t enough to overcome the up-and-coming Stephen Curry. The Nuggets eventually lost the series in six games in an upset against the future champs.
The Notorious Bargnani Trade
Masai launched his first move as the Raptors’ GM with a move that sent Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks for Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, a future first-round draft pick, and two future second-round picks. Offloading Bargnani’s contract freed up a ton of cap space, while giving the Raptors the opportunity to build their depth through assets and draft picks. The Rudy Gay era in Toronto came to an abrupt end after a 6-12 start to the season. Masai traded Gay, Quincy Acy, and Aaron Gray to the Sacramento Kings for John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, and Chuck Hayes.
The ‘We The North’ Era
The Rudy Gay trade worked wonders for the Toronto Raptors. Not only did the trade build incredible depth for the Raptors, but it also brought stardom to the backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The Raptors finished with a franchise-record 48 wins, going 42-22 after the trade. The Raptors launched their We The North campaign before their first-round match-up against the Brooklyn Nets. From there, a movement was born.
President of Basketball Operations
After the Raptors finished their best post-season run by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals, Masai Ujiri extended his contract in Toronto. He gave the General Manager title to Bobby Webster, and rose to become the Raptors’ President of Basketball Operations. The Raptors continually finished strong in the regular seasons that followed. The 2017-2018 season was the Raptors best season in franchise history with 59 wins. Much of their regular season success was attributed to their depth, made up of young draft picks like Delon Wright, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, as well as undrafted Fred Van Vleet (dubbed ‘Bench Mob‘). However, it wasn’t enough to fend off Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who swept the Raptors two seasons in a row after 2016.
When James left the Cavaliers in free agency to join the Lakers, nonetheless, ‘Lebronto’ ceased to exist. Masai Ujiri saw an opportunity for the Raptors to claim the Eastern Conference, trading away their franchise star, DeRozan, Poeltl, and a future first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for a ‘disgruntled’ Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The Raptors then bolstered their championship run by trading for former Grizzlies center, Marc Gasol, a big man who could stretch the floor, pass, and defend.
With the Larry O’Brien trophy in Toronto, and Masai announcing his desire to stay, it is clear that the Raptors’ future will remain bright.