Raptors Cage

Weighing the Masai Ujiri rumours

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It’s long been rumoured that the New York Knicks are in strong pursuit of one of the best architects in sports; the Toronto Raptors’ President of Basketball Operations, Masai Ujiri.

Ujiri isn’t your typical basketball executive. He had a unique path to the NBA. He used to be a player, determined to play in the NBA against Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, and the other great shooting guards. Unfortunately, his hoop dreams never came to fruition. After bouncing around five teams in six years in Europe, he decided that it was time to give up on his NBA dream. At least – his dream of playing in the NBA.

As detailed in an article by Trevor Cole, Masai Ujiri had a unique ability for impactfully networking in the basketball world. Having only spent a weekend around NBA executives at the NCAA Final Four in 2002, he made a positive impression on several league execs, and was able to land his first NBA scouting job with the Orlando Magic.

It was far from the modern glamorous NBA scouting gig that we see nowadays. Masai was barely a part of the organization. He wasn’t even being paid, but he had an NBA job. It’s more than most educated North Americans could even hope for. He was titled an international scout and his primary duties were to find international talent for the Magic to look at, primarily through the connections he had established in Africa, and in Europe. In the end, Masai had saved every penny he could on his journey around the globe, but only received $3,000 from the Magic, which hardly covered any of what he’d spent. He made a loss working for an NBA team being a guy who didn’t come from a wealthy background, but he knew that someday, it would be worth it.

Ujiri used his charm, his talent, and his work ethic to land a job as a paid scout for the Denver Nuggets less than a year later. He then bounced around to Toronto as the Director of Global Scouting, before going back to Denver as the General Manager. He would go on to win Executive of The Year in 2013 after making a blockbuster trade revolving around Carmelo Anthony, which would become just the first of two times in which he fleeced James Dolan and the New York Knicks.

Later in 2013, he took on a job to become the General Manager of the Toronto Raptors under the newly appointed MLSE President, Tim Leiweke. The two spoke of bringing championships to a miserable franchise, and surely within a matter of years, they delivered.

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The culture has evolved from shameful to prideful in the Toronto basketball sphere. The Raptors have come from the laughing stock of the league to a model of excellence. Ujiri’s trained a team of front office personnel working under him to be as sought after as he is. He’s led his team to six consecutive playoff appearances, soon to be seven after this season. He’s done it all without landing any marquee free agents. If that’s not a trailblazing architect who has demonstrated his innate leadership abilities both on and off the court, I don’t know what is. Unfortunately though, it couldn’t go undisrupted.

The rumours of the pitiful New York Knicks chasing after Ujiri began last December, immediately after they fired their head coach yet again, David Fizdale. At the time, the New York Post’s Marc Berman reported that the Knicks looked at Ujiri as “The Chosen One”. Bleacher report’s Howard Beck added that sources around the league believed it was “possible” the Knicks could lure Ujiri away from Toronto.

The only issue was that this is the Knicks we’re talking about. Though being one of the most storied franchises in NBA history, they’ve had a tumultuous past six years. The team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013. They’ve perpetually had high draft picks, and fumbled their selections, with the exception of Kristaps Porzingis, whom they ticked off enough for him to ask for a trade… with one of his preferred landing destinations being Toronto. Since Mike D’Antoni’s coaching reign of the Knicks ended in 2012, they’ve gone through six different head coaches in eight years.

Today, the team decided to part ways with Steve Mills, who has been with the organization since 2013, serving as the General Manager, and later on as the team President. Further serving to illustrate the organization’s lack of competency, it was reported by Ian Begley of SportsNet New York that Steve Mills had left a meeting with James Dolan in November of 2019 with the understanding that as long as the team continued upon an upward trajectory, his job would be safe. At the time, the team had won 22.2% of their games – a slight uptick from their 2018-2019 season record of 17-65. Today, the Knicks sit in 13th place in the Eastern Conference having won 29.4% of their games. They’ve drastically improved in a short period of time (despite remaining relatively terrible), yet Steve Mills lost his job. In any another situation, with any other franchise, one could conclude that external factors certainly played a role in Mills’ firing, but with the Knicks, it’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt. Do they really think before they make these decisions? Who knows…

It didn’t take long after the report that Mills had been fired of for ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski to add that Masai Ujiri would be their target to fill that void. Hearing the Knicks chase after stars around the league isn’t necessarily breaking news. Last season, our social media timelines were flooded with photos of Kyrie Irving, Zion Williamson, and Kevin Durant photoshopped into the orange and blue of the mecca, but it seems like there may be some serious traction this time with Ujiri.

The consideration doesn’t stem from the fact that the Knicks want him – as aforementioned, Ujiri is a world talent that any sports organization would be lucky to have – it comes from the subsequent reports that there may actually be some common interest.

The following is an excerpt from Marc Stein’s Piece in the New York Times, released yesterday afternoon. Proceed with caution, this may be gut-wrenching for many:

“Two longtime Ujiri-watchers whom I trust deeply for their reads on this situation have been telling me since December, when the Knicks fired Coach David Fizdale after a 4-18 start, that Ujiri intends to maneuver his way to the Knicks after his moves helped the Raptors win a championship last season.”

This would appear contradictory to a statement that Masai made on George Stroumboulopoulos’ talk show back in 2014, when he said, “Please clap after this… I hate the Knicks.”

But hold on; Stein’s article becomes even harder to read. He adds that these two accredited sources believe that if Masai is indeed planning on finding his way to the Big Apple, he may try to bring Bobby Webster, Toronto’s General Manager along with him.

This information somewhat adds credibility to Stein’s sources, as it would be a very Masai-esque thing to do. When Masai took over as General Manager in Toronto back in 2013, he completely stripped down Toronto’s front office and brought in all of his own people – from Webster, to Teresa Resch, to Dan Tolzman. There’s no reason why he wouldn’t prefer to do the same in New York.

Disregarding the mess of a franchise that the Knicks are, Ujiri’s move there would somewhat make sense. Ujiri cares deeply about his Giants of Africa organization, which nearly cost him his GM job in Denver after he demanded funding for that program for the Nuggets to hire him. Since his move to Toronto, ownership has been generous in funding the program in an effort to keep Ujiri content, and also because the program has shown that it can pay dividends for the growth of the game internationally. But with the potential that basketball in Africa has, and with Masai’s drive to unleash that potential, it may be true that New York is the place where he’d be able to reach the ceiling.

With the biggest market in basketball, and essentially, the world, the opportunities in New York to gain money and attention for Giants of Africa would be endless – something that Masai is probably salivating over just at the thought of moving to The Empire State.

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On the contrary, could it be so much greater than Toronto though? We saw what the Canadian market was able to do for Kawhi Leonard last year, which pushed him to be a mega celebrity. Since moving to Los Angeles, he’s played in the shadows of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and despite being in a bigger market, he hasn’t gotten nearly as much media attention as he did last year.

Could it be the same scenario in New York if the Knicks are destined to be this bad for the next few years, while Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are dominating just over the bridge in Brooklyn? That could be something to consider.

The other aspect is that the Knicks are a huge revenue source for the NBA. They are one of sports’ most valuable franchises, and with NBA TV ratings down 23% this year, the NBA front office is almost certainly looking for a way to recoup some of that value. Why not focus on the Knicks – a team so valuable, that nobody wants to watch just because they’ve been so bad for so long.

Rumour has it that Adam Silver has quietly been interested in facilitating a union between the Knicks and Ujiri, however that would inspire tampering allegations larger than life against the league, and the well-respected commissioner. Such allegations brought about by Marc Stein were later refuted by NBA Spokesman Mike Bass, who claimed them to be “100% false”.

Whether or not Silver has been involved, the scenario makes sense, and would be the biggest PR move of Ujiri’s lifetime if he were able to save the Knickerbockers. He would achieve what Stein refers to as “basketball immortality”.

One final complication, as well as implication, is that Ujiri’s contract runs through the 2020-2021 season with the Raptors. This means that in order for the Knicks to steal him from Toronto, they would have to provide the Raptors with draft compensation, which Wojnarowski states they’re currently unwilling to do. He later added that if acquiring Ujiri came at too steep a price, or had a timeline too long, that Dolan may look to bring in Rob Pelinka of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Bob Myers of the Golden State Warriors, as well as a “top basketball executive out of the player agent ranks” to form some sort of a superteam in the front office.

The implication of Masai’s deal ending in 2021 and the Knicks looking to get him at that time is that Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has a close relationship with Ujiri, could also become a free agent in 2021 if he doesn’t sign an extension with the Milwaukee Bucks this summer. Giannis has been linked by numerous credible sources to Toronto, if he were to consider leaving Milwaukee, mainly because of his tie to Ujiri. Whether luring Ujiri is the Knicks’ attempt at making a splash in the free agent market with the cap space that they project to have available that summer is a question that remains to be answered. What we can draw from this, is that executives around the league understand the strength of the relationship between Ujiri and Antetokounmpo.

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In December of 2019 after the Ujiri to New York rumours began, MLSE owner, Larry Tannenbaum claimed that “Masai is here to stay” and denied reports that Ujiri had turned down any extension offer made by the Raptors. Of course, it’s been nearly three months since then. While no tables have turned on the Raptors side of things, there are external factors influencing Ujiri’s decision, as outlined above.

Today, MLSE was once again asked to comment on the rumours circulating around the league, but MLSE denied to comment.

With so many conflicting reports, and no quotes from the man himself, we can’t determine too much regarding Masai Ujiri’s intentions, or anything else surrounding that. One thing we know for sure, is that Masai Ujiri is a Raptor, and he’s going to “die trying” to win Toronto another championship. Trade deadline, here he comes.


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