Masai Ujiri will need to be every penny a $15-million genius to turn around the Toronto Raptors. It’s one thing to move one franchise player; another to have to essentially dump an entire roster of mismatched players most of whom wouldn’t be able to start for a good team.
First things first, however. When the Toronto Raptors formally introduce their new general manager next week, it will be fascinating to see whether it’s a three-man dais.
You’d have to think the new Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ltd., chief executive officer, Tim Lieweke, would want to be beside Ujiri. Leiweke officially begins his new job on Monday. It is his first hiring. But where the hell are they going to hide Bryan Colangelo, who has retained the title of president despite being fired as G.M. and who is considered to be something of a mentor to Ujiri?
Maybe the Raptors can conjure up a scouting trip to Italy or something, because having the personification of five years without a playoff berth sitting next to the bright young thing isn’t exactly going to reinforce the idea that Colangelo is a step or preferably 20 steps away from the decision-making process.
All we can do is trust Leiweke on this one. If hanging on to Colangelo really is what some observers see it as being – a sop to Larry Tanenbaum or maybe the NBA office, looking after one of its favourite sons until some other team gets fooled into hiring him – then it ought to be easy to have him standing off to the side, and Colangelo ought to be smart enough to avoid interviews. Four easy words, Bryan: “This is Masai’s day.” That’s all it will take. But if Colangelo’s all over the newspapers or television, it’s not going to look good. It’s going to look like same old, same old, and raise the spectre that Colangelo’s already trying to erase the boundaries Leiweke put in place.
Ujiri has some quick decisions to make, and here’s hoping he doesn’t consult the guy who made the mess. As G.M. of the Denver Nuggets, Ujiri had the luxury of working with George Karl, and do not under-estimate the role Karl played in turning the dozen or so new players Ujiri gave him – most of whom arrived in Ujiri’s masterful handling of the Carmelo Anthony hostage situation – into a 57-win team.
People who have known Ujiri since his days as Raptors global scouting director and assistant G.M. say that patience is a hallmark but he needs to decide whether he can be patient enough to bring Dwane Casey back as coach. Casey’s a good defensive mind who has one-year left on his deal and has a roster dotted with players who can’t play his style. Bad mix.
If Ujiri decides to bring Casey back, it will most likely mean a slow re-build. If Casey is let loose and Ujiri brings in a new man, it might suggest the new G.M. plans on backing up the truck.
Andrea Bargnani is the immediate concern, but the fact is Ujiri needs to make a call on point-guard Kyle Lowry, who can be brought out of his $6.2-million (all figures in U.S. currency) contract for $1-million within the next two weeks.
Lowry is a poor decision-maker down the stretch and is not the type of point-guard a team can build around, but what are the options for a team over the luxury tax?
Truth is, the only player on the Raptors roster who ought to be unavailable in Jonas Valanciunas. He’s big, he’s young, he learns – and he cares a ton.
Amir Johnson gets a lot of love in this city and plays hard and it is true that he is pretty much all the Raptors have in terms of an emotional core but would he be the same way with an entirely new group of players?
DeMar DeRozan has the contract and bits and pieces of a useful offensive game but the fact remains that he is something of a default cornerstone. That’s not unusual: when a team is as poorly constructed as the Raptors, all sorts of voids are created and players tend to appear better or more valuable than statistical analysis or the mind’s eye suggests.
Exhibit 1-A is Rudy Gay.
Much of the media build-up to Ujiri’s return has focused on his love for the city of Toronto and understanding of the reality of building an NBA team in a city that’s fun to come and party in but otherwise considered something of a frozen outpost by the game’s big personalities.
That’s all fine and well, but there are a lot of us who are more interested in finding out what Ujiri thinks of this roster. That might be his biggest strength; that he has seen Colangelo’s handiwork from a distance, and likely heard from his peers what they think of, say, Bargnani.
The clock has started on Ujiri: five years less a day or two. Watch his first moves; they will tell us a great deal.