Masai Ujiri left one of the NBA’s biggest success stories this season to salvage a team that has never tasted triumph.
And when the new Toronto Raptors general manager was introduced to the media on Tuesday, he summed up his decision with two simple words: “I’m home.”
“It was a tough decision to leave Denver. It was an easy decision to come here,” Ujiri told a jam-packed news conference at Air Canada Centre. “I’m home. I love Toronto. I love this place.”
The NBA executive of the year with the Denver Nuggets replaces Bryan Colangelo, the man who was once Ujiri’s mentor in Toronto. The 42-year-old Ujiri was an assistant GM with Toronto for three seasons before leaving for Denver in 2010. Colangelo remains the Raptors’ team president in a non-basketball role, while Ujiri is president and GM of basketball operations.
The Nigerian-born Ujiri has been tasked with turning around a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in five years, and has only advanced past the first round once in 18 seasons. But he said he sees a “sleeping giant” in Toronto.
“Why can’t I change it? It’s not all bad, there’s plenty good about it,” he said. “It’s our job to make it better. It’s our job to create a winning environment and that’s why I’m here.”
Besides, his sense of responsibility to Africa is so strong, he has “no other choice but to be successful.”
“That’s the only place in my life where I actually feel pressure, for a continent that big and that great, and to have this opportunity here...,” said Ujiri, the first African-born GM in North America’s four major sports. “For me, it’s an obligation, I have to (succeed), I have to do well for my continent.”
One of Ujiri’s first decisions concerns the fate of coach Dwane Casey, who has a year left on his contract. Ujiri said he won’t rush his decision.
“I’ve talked to Dwane Casey a couple times and we’re going to sit down and I want to understand what his philosophies are and I’ll tell him what my philosophies are or what I think needs to be changed,” said Ujiri, who added he didn’t see “any reason” why Casey wouldn’t coach the team next season.
The new GM said he owes a lot to Colangelo, who gave him an opportunity to be an NBA executive, but when asked if he’ll seek basketball input from his former boss or from Raptors senior adviser Wayne Embry, Ujiri made it clear who’s in charge.
“I’m on the hot seat now,” Ujiri said. “I’ll take Bryan’s input when I feel it’s necessary, Wayne has always been a great mentor to me, but at the end of the day, I’m going to put my staff together and we’re going to figure this all out collectively,” he said. “But basketball decisions are going to be my decisions, so 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.”
Ujiri emphatically denied suggestions the relationship between the current and former GM could be awkward.
“There’s no issue with Bryan Colangelo,” he said. “No issue. None whatsoever. Zero zero issue. None.”
Ujiri will have some tough decisions to make right off the bat with a Toronto team that has no pick in either the first or second round of the NBA draft, and is currently over the league’s luxury tax threshold. He will also have to decide which of the Raptors’ burdensome salaries to eliminate — if he will indeed eliminate any — using the amnesty clause.
Ujiri says he’ll evaluate the talent at his disposal in the coming weeks but believes “there are good pieces on this roster,” he said. “There are phenomenal players on this roster (but) we have some things we need to correct.”
One pressing concern is the future of much-maligned Italian forward Andrea Bargnani. He’s a player whose welcome in Toronto has long been worn out, but one who Ujiri believes possesses a valuable skill.
“Shooting big is what every coach wants, and how you use it and how you do it is left to be said. But he has that skill,” Ujiri said. “My thought on Andrea is he’s one of the better shooting bigs in the NBA.”
Ujiri has had some success with tricky manoeuvring in the past, earning respect for his handling of the Carmelo Anthony trade to New York. Ujiri cobbled together a Nuggets team that won a franchise-best 57 games this season despite having no all-stars. Denver went an NBA-best 38-3 at home to finish third in the powerful Western Conference, helping Ujiri garner the league’s top executive honour to go with George Karl’s coach of the year award.
He remains a huge supporter of African basketball, and said his new job in Toronto — where he reportedly signed a five-year contract worth as much as $15-million — will give him the financial flexibility to do even more in his homeland.
“I can go and help more people, we can build more courts, we can do more camps, we can help more kids come to school in the States, and I can continue to help with the NBA and the platform they’ve created with Basketball Without Borders (the NBA’s global outreach program),” he said.
Ujiri represents the first major hiring for Tim Leiweke, the recently-appointed president and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. Leiweke says Ujiri was his top pick for the job from Day 1 — despite the belief around the league that Ujiri would never leave Denver for Toronto.
“Some of the comments from other people in the league, especially league office, was ‘Do you think you could set your sights any higher?“’ Leiweke said.
The MLSE president talked about creating a new culture in the Raptors, and praised his new young GM for his “juice” and “energy.”
When asked why fans should believe the latest positive spin on the struggling franchise, Leiweke said: “I inherit, I didn’t create.”
“So this is today, and we move forward from here,” he added. “I know the team (Ujiri) is putting together, I know the staff he’s putting together ... you’ll see. I think it’s time for this organization once and for all to stop spinning and just go do our job.”
Ujiri wouldn’t elaborate on what his new management team will look like, except to say he prefers small staffs. The Raptors’ front office has already felt his presence with the firing of Ed Stefanski, executive vice-president of basketball operations, on Sunday, among others.
Leiweke said the team is also considering rebranding — meaning potentially a new look or even a new name — but emphasized a major change isn’t a given, but that it will be part of the conversation.
“We have to honour the tradition and history of what the Raptors are,” he said. “But we also need to hear the fans and what they want to see.”