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.