Photo courtesy of Ron Turenne/raptors.com

Photo courtesy of Ron Turenne/raptors.com

On Tuesday, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment officially introduced Masai Ujiri as the Raptors’ new President of basketball operations and General Manager.

As usual after a Raptors-related news conference, instead of just transcribing the entire thing (when you can just watch the presser in its entirety at Raptors.com), I’m going to pick out some talking points and specific quotes to discuss.

Without further ado…

- Tim Leiweke started things by making his own statement given that this is his first official week on the job as well, and there were two notable points from his opening statement. One, while Ujiri’s job title was assumed to be simply “General Manager,” Leiweke confirmed that it is also “President of basketball operations.” This goes hand in hand with Leiweke’s assurance that Ujiri is in charge of all basketball operations and will have final say on all basketball decisions, while Bryan Colangelo is the “President” of the business side.

The other main talking point from Leiweke’s opening remarks was the statement that became the theme of the day between Tim and Masai, and that’s that “This is not an organization that wants to make the playoffs. This is an organization that would like to win championships.”

My Thoughts: While every executive ultimately wants to win championships, I can’t remember the last time someone involved with the Raptors came out and boldly proclaimed that making the playoffs wasn’t good enough. Colangelo’s talked about getting to the post-season as the next step of his rebuilding process, but Leiweke and Ujiri have taken it to the next level. Quite frankly, it’s refreshing.

- In terms of how Ujiri plans to get there, he stated countless times on Tuesday that he needs to take the next few weeks to familiarize himself with and evaluate the roster, as well as the overall situation, to decide what the next step will be.

My Thoughts: Ujiri couldn’t commit to an answer about whether he would initiate a full rebuild or not, and that’s understandable. It’s not a matter of dodging questions or remaining secretive. The fact is that the guy has been on the job for less than a week and the Raptors present an interesting challenge. On one hand, there are some intriguing young pieces already in place here. On the other hand, those young pieces don’t seem to be good enough (other than Jonas Valanciunas) to materialize into anything more than a low-seeded playoff team.

If a trade or other opportunities present themselves over the next few weeks which could help Ujiri improve the team’s long term ceiling while also making them more competitive in the short-term, there’s no doubt in my mind he would take advantage of that. But the more realistic option is that after a misguided short-term half-rebuild under Colangelo, that Ujiri might have to become a seller and put this team into a position to cash in on the incredibly talented 2014 NBA Draft (Diggin’ For Wiggins!). Again, I believe Ujiri when he says it’s too early for him to have committed to anything yet, but if you listen to some of his comments about patience and potential hard times, you could also assume that the writing is on the wall.

- Speaking of those patience quotes, when asked if the Raptors would be willing to head into luxury tax territory, here’s what Ujiri had to say: “We are going to build a team the right way. If it takes doing that (going into tax), hey, it’s what we have to do. But we will build a team the right way. Sometimes it’s going to take patience. Sometimes we’ll go through hard times.”

- One of the most glaring things I took from this press conference was just how personable Ujiri is, how passionate he is and how infectious his enthusiasm and energy are. Most of all, he seems genuinely thrilled to be in Toronto again, which he referred to as “home” three or four times in his first five minutes of speaking while the raw emotion in his voice was evident.

“Some way, some how, this was meant to be,” Ujiri said.

My Thoughts: Look, I’m fully aware that we don’t know what went on during negotiations and meetings between Ujiri and Leiweke and Ujiri and the Nuggets, but anyone who wrote that Masai obviously didn’t want the Toronto job because it was taking him too long to decide or that he only took it because of the money probably feel pretty silly right now.

Was a $15 million offer a huge part of the appeal? Of course, but I maintain that the delay had more to do with Ujiri doing his due dilligence and ensuring that he left Denver respectfully than it did with him not wanting to come to Toronto.

- And on the whole “no one in the NBA wants to come to Toronto” topic, Ujiri addressed this a couple of times. Essentially, he has the same beliefs that I do on the subject – if the Raptors build a solid team the right way and look on their way to respectability, then the outstanding market that is Toronto (and essentially Canada as a whole) will do just fine attracting top tier talent.

Ujiri also made it clear that it’s his job to put that attractive team and culture together, saying “We have to create a cultre…We have to create a basketball environment here and that’s my job, to create a basketball environment here to attract basketball players.

- One quote I found interesting was Ujiri talking about how the Raptors need to finally forge a distinguishable identity for themselves. “An identity is what we need,” said Ujiri before later saying that the team has to eventually ask “what is it that when teams come here they know they are going to be punished for?

- On a bit of an ‘I told you so’ level, remember when people were freaking out about Colangelo’s presence potentially affecting Ujiri’s interest in the job or Ujiri’s respect/appreciation for Colangelo leading to Bryan having input on Masai’s decision? Remember how I continually said that everyone was underestimating Ujiri’s own ego and that he wouldn’t leave Denver just to come back here and listen to Bryan Colangelo again? Well here’s Ujiri after one of the couple times a media member tried to drive the Colangelo topic down everyone’s throat…

I’m on the seat now. I’ll take Bryan’s input when I feel it’s necessary…at the end of the day, I’m going to put my staff together and we’re going to figure this all out collectively. But hey, like Tim said, basketball decisions are going to be my decisions. It doesn’t matter who tells me what or how it’s done. At the end of the day I’m sitting right here on the hot seat so it really doesn’t matter.

- Ujiri said that he’s already had good conversations with Dwane Casey and that he needs to sit down with him to discuss their philosophy and to evaluate the current players on the roster. While nothing is written in stone, Ujiri mentioned that Casey has a year remaining on his contract and in terms of whether he’ll go forward with Casey for at least that final year, stated “Right now I don’t see any reason why not.”

My Thoughts: Once again, I took exception with some of Casey’s rotations and his minute allocation to certain players, but as far as I’m concerned, Casey deserves a chance to coach a more stable team that’s properly built going forward and deserves the chance to coach it to his strengths (defensively) instead of trying to meet certain offensive standards that most people assume were set by Colangelo.

If after this final year of his contract, he doesn’t look like the right man for the job, then so be it. But I don’t think right now you can definitively say that Casey’s been given a fair shot.

- When asked if there were any untouchable players on the roster right now, Ujiri replied with this: “The way a General Manager looks at it is you love every player and you hate every player.”

By the way, in case you’re worried about Jonas Valanciunas also being touchable, at a smaller scrum with reporters after the press conference, Ujiri called Valanciunas a “huge piece” and a “fantastic young player.”

My Thoughts: In theory, no players outside of the game’s absolute elite should ever be considered untouchable, and there certainly aren’t many Raptors I’d consider untouchable if I were inheriting this roster. Having said that, JV is the closest thing to untouchable as you can get, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that Ujiri feels the same way.

- I loved Ujiri’s response to the question of why he would want to leave the 57-win Nuggets to come to the “18-year disaster” that is the Raptors – “Why can’t I change it?” he asked. “It’s our job to make it better.”

- On an advanced stats note, Ujiri said that analytics “are a strong part” of an organization and said that he intends to build on an already good analytics system in Toronto. He also mentioned, however, that talent wins in the end.

My Thoughts: I think this is how most fans of the statistical revolution, myself included, view things anyway. These revealing analytics should be taken advantage of and relied upon to a certain extent to gain an edge, but I’d hope at the end of the day that NBA executives also maintain their natural eye for talent, regardless of the numbers.

And speaking of having an eye for talent, Ujiri was sure to point out his scouting background today when stating “finding talent is what I know.”

- Back to whether or not the team will go forward tinkering with this current group or will rebuild, Leiweke mentioned that he and ownership  don’t have a a specific yearly progress expectation from Ujiri, only that the final destination and expectation is to compete for the championship. Said Leiweke, “We’re not going to dictate the road. We’re just simply going to dictate the destination.”

My Thoughts: It’s well put, and also means the team won’t constantly be facing questions about where they are in their specific-year plan. Just ask former Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi and his famous “five-year plan” about that.

- One thing Ujiri says he wants to do regardless of which direction the team goes into is to develop young players going forward so that the team always has guys for the future.

Ujiri also said that he’s already spoken to some of the players and would likely speak to the rest later on Tuesday, saying that “there’s good excitement” among the players.

- On to some more questions and answers from the smaller post-conference scrum…

The Bargnani question finally came up, to which Ujiri said “He has an NBA skill, in my opinion, that’s very valued in this day and age” before adding that “A shooting big is what every coach wants.” In terms of whether using the amnesty would be a tough decision, Ujiri responded: “I don’t think an amnesty decision is going to be tough at all, whoever it is, and if we do that. I think there’s a good chance we don’t decide to do something like that.

My Thoughts: Between Bargnani and Linas Kleiza, the obvious assumption is that one will be traded and one amnestied, but Ujiri isn’t going to tip his hand this early on in the process. He needs to keep Bargnani’s trade value from dropping even further, and if he were to come out and proclaim that Bargnani is an amnesty target without a prior trade, then interested teams would likely low-ball their trade offers with the expectation that they can get him on a bargain post-amnesty.

- Perhaps the most accurate assessment of why Ujiri was brought on and why Colangelo was relieved of his GM duties in the first place came from Ujiri himself, whether intentional or not. When asked how he can improve the team without a 2013 draft pick or cap space, Ujiri explained that he’s not going to get a GM job where there is plenty of draft picks and cap space because quite frankly, those jobs wouldn’t become available (ie- that would mean the person in charge is probably doing a good job).

He went on to say that jobs like this “are available because they are the way they are.

My Thoughts: Ujiri pretty much nailed it here, and it’s something I talked about when first presenting the case against Colangelo. Simply put, GM’s that miss the playoffs for five consecutive seasons without a draft pick or cap space to show for it after that fifth season don’t usually keep their jobs.

- When I asked him whether he believes the fans and ownership would have the patience to deal with the team potentially taking another step back before ultimately taking one forward, Ujiri said that it wouldn’t be a problem “if you do it the right way” and clearly show everyone what your plan is.

My Thoughts: While I do think there’s some limited potential in the Raptors’ current core, I also think that any sensible basketball fan can understand why a new General Manager would want to go in a new direction. On that note, Ujiri’s right. If he decides that the best thing for the future of the franchise is to take a step back next season, the fans will embrace it granted they see a worthwhile plan being executed.

After all, we’ve dealt with incompetence on the court and irrelevance off of it for the last five years and for the better part of 18 years. If we have to sacrifice another year (or even two?) to finally watch a developing team come together that has a championship ceiling, it’s but a small price to pay.

Welcome home, Masai. Now go get this thing done.

Comments (28)

  1. The problem with that strategy (taking a step or two backwards) is that there’s no guarantee a step forward will eventually come. So you’re hampering your team in the short term for no guarantee of long-term success. I wouldn’t be very happy if the team took a step back next season when they’ve finally started to grow together.

    • I’m not sure what strategy comes with a guarantee.

    • I agree that tanking does not promise you Duncan or Durant, ask the Boston Celtics. I also know that good/smart management will find good talent and a way to maintain it.

    • There are no guarantees for any team building strategy so you can use that logic to argue against pretty much any approach.

      I don’t really see a huge difference between stripping down the roster down (if Ujiri decides to go in that direction) and what we went through throughout most of the Colangelo era.

      I’m not sure what makes some fans so hesitant to “take a step back”, is it the mere acknowledgement of the strategy that people get squeamish about? If you have someone who seems to have a handle on things on Ujiri implementing a full rebuilding plan unlike someone like Colangelo who only did it because he had no other option post Bosh and wasn’t fully committed to it at any point, I think most people will be on board.

      • So how is Ujiri and TL gonna selll that to the fans with their 1st season in control? You really think they’re gonna tank the team for the next 3 yrs and have the fans onboard?? Ratings and sponsors will be at a all time low.

        • That’s already happened. TFC is outdrawing the raps; hell I stopped watching last season and I user to watch all 82.

  2. PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD! CHANGE THE TEAM BACK TO THE HUSKIES! KEEP THE CLAW AND MAKE IT A HUSKIE CLAW, ITS GENIOUS! And then we have maple leaf entertainment and both teams can support the blue and white team colors.
    You want to show up something new is starting here, that’s some pretty hard convincing, I bet to your season ticket holders too.. what would be a good way of making some extra money? Change us back to when we first entered the league. Add a little flair to the unis you should a couple years ago with the huskie claw instead on a Dino claw!. would work perfectly and the fans would appreciate the effort, that’s what this fan base thrives off of, effort.. guys that bring their lunch pales and this would be a way to show you care! NAME CHANGE, NAME CHANGE, NAME CHANGE! I could at least watch a team crap the bed for a couple more season, at least in some new threads!

    • I’m all for the re-brand back to the Huskies and think it makes perfect sense.

      However, I’m afraid if MLSE decides to re-brand that we might get a name even worse than ‘Raptors.’ Or some ugly-ass jerseys that are supposed to ‘represent Canada & the Maple Leaf.’ If they do decide to re-brand, I hope they fucking do it right!

    • “PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD! CHANGE THE TEAM BACK TO THE HUSKIES! KEEP THE CLAW AND MAKE IT A HUSKIE CLAW, ITS GENIOUS!”

      Absolutely NOT!

      Why?

      It is NOT genious at all. It is overhyped, about to become badly overhyped.

      And what is this effort you mean? I hope it’s not the effort of making change just to make change. Read my reply to SR to learn why I think it is misguided.

    • MLSE are a JOKE. They’ll probably change the name to the Toronto Maple Syrups!

  3. Good read, JC. I remember reading a few articles about Masai not wanting to come here just cause he was taking a few days to consider his options and give a fair chance to Denver. Ridiculous, considering it’s a life & career-altering decision. But watching the press conference just showed how much he wants to be here. Some might say he’s here cause of the money, but the guy was actually choked up and emotional when he talked about coming back.

    He’s like the anti-Colangelo, wasn’t given anything and had to work his ass off for everything he has now. His passion, work ethic and drive is refreshing… I really hope he’s the guy to turn this franchise around.

    • Agreed on the anti Colangelo comment. Fingers crossed anyway. While he’s pretty handcuffed- at least this year with moves he can make etc – Hopefully he can be less of an “I’ll pay you no matter what cause we’re in Canada” figure head which is pretty much what BC turned into. Any type of culture change from that is an improvement and it sounds like Masai is on the right track.

      Also not really feeling the rebrand to the huskies but that’s just me.

  4. I wouldn’t mind a change to the Huskies and blue and white. But I don’t mind the Raptors either.

    As far as amnestying Bargs goes, talking about it doesn’t really mean other GMs will lower their offers for the guy. If anything, it gives MU a better option than just flipping him for some other team’s bad contracts. If any other team thinks AB can help them in some way, then they obviously value his talent and know MU isn’t going to take hot garbage back for him. Not when he has the huge ‘amnesty to free up massive cap space’ option about a month from now.

    I think MU will be looking to make some creative trades. Personally I wouldn’t mind a deal with Minny: Love and Kirilenko for AB, DD and the 2014 first.

    • As much as i would “love” Kevin Love in Toronto ur dreaming bro! No way Minny EVER accepts that deal!

    • I’m not sure why people are so adament about the name change. I don’t mind Huskies but Raptors aren’t bad either. I even think our Jerseys are pretty nice. A team name gains respectability through winning over several years. What difference does it make if the team is called the Huskies and wears blue and white jerseys if they suck ass?

      • Replacing the dinosaur logo (still the official logo) with the claw (actually the secondary logo) in most places has helped a lot, and I don’t mind the claw + red and white, but I still find it mildly embarrassing to be named after a goofy movie. It was also a major oversight to pass over the actual bit of authentic NBA history (as brief as it was) this city has with the Huskies. Besides, as great as it is to watch the Raptor rollerblade down the stairs, I’d like to see somebody ride a dog sled down the stairs next.

        • “but I still find it mildly embarrassing to be named after a goofy movie.”

          Forget the movie, consider this. Would you approach, let alone pet a disciplined and friendly-looking husky or a predatory reptile? You may be embarrassed by the name all you want, but it should have everything to do with the on-court product and nothing at all with a motion-picture film.

          “It was also a major oversight to pass over the actual bit of authentic NBA history (as brief as it was) this city has with the Huskies.”

          Not oversight. Can’t remember the exact article, but I recall reading that the initial intention was to resurrect the Huskies name when Toronto was first awarded the current franchise, but similarities to the Timberwolves proved difficult.

          Anyway, I don’t think the Huskies are anything worth tripping over yourself for. This isn’t the Bobcats reverting to Hornets now that said name has become available (I’m very excited about that move for them. I’ll argue that Charlotte should have agreed to build a new arena for the Hornets in the first place, especially seeing that they eventually built one anyway in order to get the Bobcats in the first place). It’s not even New Orleans’ move to Pelicans, Louisiana state bird to represent a more home feel, which they probably never got in Hornets. I should also mention that they got the Hornets from Charlotte 23 years after losing the Jazz to Salt Lake.

          Those excuses don’t work here. The Huskies were one and done. Few players and no coaches from that team saw any NBA work after that. The Raptors have surpassed everything the Huskies ever did, and the franchise started in Toronto, not relocated from another city. Not to mention that I hate adopting soft animal names in general (which was why I thought Pelicans was a stupid name to replace Hornets) and overcommonly used names that you can find in at least one or two schools per school district and collegiate sports conference. D you really want to be the same as everyone else to look cool? I think the Raptors should stand out and be unique.

          “Besides, as great as it is to watch the Raptor rollerblade down the stairs, I’d like to see somebody ride a dog sled down the stairs next.”
          To be fair, I think it would be cool to see the Raptor ride a dog sled down the stairs

    • Big vote in favor of Huskies. It has history, a quasi-Canadian link, and it’s a cool breed of dog. Raptors are silly.

      • “Big vote in favor of Huskies. It has history, a quasi-Canadian link, and it’s a cool breed of dog. Raptors are silly.”

        History? Sorry man, but Raptors have way surpassed Huskies in every way, especially historically. And Raptors is a much better name than it gets credit for. It is much better than Huskies, who aren’t ferocious, are an overused name, and who are being overhyped based on a history that lasted only ONE season (and not a successful one at that). This is desperation at its finest. Read my replies to SR and Evan.

        • Why do you insist on responding to everyone in favour of the Huskies name? Telling them to read your reasons about why it should stay Raptors instead (which aren’t even good reasons by the way). Obviously you’re the odd one out if you’re the only one preaching it. Huskies is a FAR better name than Raptors, and makes so much more sense.

  5. Dear Mr. Ujiri,

    Please for the love of god, DO NOT extend Rudy Gay’s contract.

    • Why not extend rudy after his contract is up at a lower price point??

      • Even if it were for a lower price point….i would imagine it would still be very close to max dollars, further hampering this teams ability to improve dramatically – and a dramatic improvement is what we are all hoping for in a few years, is it not?

        • … I forgot to add that yeah rudy has a player option after this year …which he probably will not decline (making him the highest paid player after Kobe’s contract is up). So this isn’t even the year or the time to discuss a potential gay contract. Again though why not resign him after its up assuming he has done well over the next two years and get him on a cheaper contract like 10-13mill per year or what ever you want

  6. Great article Joseph. You can tell this guy knows what he’s doing (although we all thought the same about BC when he first arrived in town). He has a lot of work to do, and it will be interesting to see in what direction he goes with this team. Having Ujiri on board is reason for opimism folks!!!

    Re: Changing team name
    It’s not necessary and it won’t change the product on the floor. It also won’t change the perception people have about Toronto’s basketball team. The product on the floor is the only thing we should be worrying about, because its the only thing that will bring respect to this franchise.

  7. Blow it up. Keep the rooks. Right now we have a typical middling Raptors team that’ll be shooting for 8th or 9th. A team that might make the playoffs and get destroyed in the first round or get a crappy lottery pick. NBA purgatory.

    Go slow build through the draft. Hopefully Ujiri has the freedom and patience to do this.

    • Didn’t Ujiri build a Denver team that can’t make it out of the 1st round? Didn’t he do that by not going through the slow rebuild.

      • True, but it was a surprise that Denver lost that series. Would you be surprised if Toronto lost to Miami or Indiana in the first round next year?

        All I’m saying is the team needs to get better and I’d rather try to do that through the draft and acquiring young players. Until the NBA stops rewarding mediocrity by giving the worst teams the best shot at the best picks the best strategy is to tank hard and hope you end up with some franchise players. ‘Cause you sure as shit won’t get them through trades and we don’t have the cap space to get any decent FA’s.

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