Masai Ujiri’s name has become a kind of magic spell in the NBA.
Is your team terrible and terribly run? Have you stitched yourself up for years by trading away all your picks? Are you lost and alone in the standings?
Then … Masai Ujiri.
Certain owners think that if they say it loudly enough to the right people, Ujiri will appear in their midst and solve all their problems.
The latest has him (once again) taking a boatload of money from Knicks owner James Dolan and moving to New York.
Dolan has had a thing for the Toronto Raptors president ever since he called off the Kyle Lowry trade (helping Ujiri) and called on the Andrea Bargnani trade (really helping Ujiri).
Dolan thinks Ujiri tricked him. He didn’t. Dolan tricked Dolan. Dolan chooses not to see it that way. Which is part of the reason his team is such a mess.
During this first bout of media footsie, Ujiri never got an actual offer. He had no interest in the job and told people that. Dolan didn’t want to be embarrassed with a “No,” so he called off his bird dogs.
This year, the Knicks are horrendous again. They have nothing good to tell their customers. So what do they tell them? Masai Ujiri.
The usual practice when these rumours kick up is to text Ujiri and get his pro forma denial.
“You going to the Knicks?”
“I’m going to [the Raptors’ farm team] 905,” Ujiri replied on Monday night.
You could practically hear him sighing through the phone.
Ujiri is going to the New York Knicks like I am going to Pyongyang Gazette. Because there are some people no one wants to work for, regardless of how good the pay is.
There is a world in which this would be flattering and fun. That the guy running your team is considered so brilliant that just saying his name aloud conjures up visions of a winner.
Except that these phoney flirtations can have irritating consequences.
The last big rumour of this sort landed at almost the very minute the Raptors won the NBA championship back in June. The speculative deal was unique – the Washington Wizards were apparently prepared to give Ujiri huge money, full control and an ownership stake in the team. That last bit is the one that caused problems.
Though the report was refuted almost immediately, it had already caught hold of the NBA’s imagination. Ujiri was so good, Washington owner Ted Leonsis was prepared to make him a partner. No amount of saying it wasn’t so would stop people from talking about it.
It caused problems with Kawhi Leonard’s camp just as Ujiri was about to begin negotiating with them. Was Ujiri coming or going? Was he getting a piece of the Wizards? Was that a thing now?
It caused problems with the NBA, who were alarmed to hear their franchises might be carved up like Christmas hams in order to lure talent. A move in that direction would render the salary cap meaningless, and encourage the worst instincts of very rich people with very poor impulse control.
Ujiri didn’t want to go to Washington. He didn’t get an offer from Washington. But because Washington planted a rumour, Ujiri had to deal with the fallout from it.
There is one way to put a pin in these stories. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment should make Ujiri the Raptors president for life.
It’s not often done in modern sport, but there have been seminal figures at ambitious clubs who transcend board interviews and end-of-season appraisals.
Sir Alex Ferguson had that sort of job when he managed Manchester United. The Scottish manager agreed a deal whereby he would always be the highest-paid employee of the club. If a player got a raise above that amount, Ferguson’s salary automatically increased.
“It was simple. We just agreed that no player should be paid more money than me,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography. “We agreed in less time than it takes to read the previous sentence.”
Ferguson was that extreme rarity – a non-player more important than the people who played. He was a winner. He just had that magic. He made the people around him winners, too. When he retired from United, the team fell apart. He’d been holding it together by force of personality.
I would suggest that in Toronto, Ujiri has cast that same sort of spell. He is the most indispensable Raptor.
Ujiri is nearing the end of his second contract in Toronto, signed shortly after his initial burst of success.
In the normal run of things, this would involve a bit of haggling. There’s no question MLSE wants to keep him, but there are targets to set and comparisons to make before paperwork can be shuffled.
I would suggest it not make them.
It is an easy thing for MLSE to make Ujiri the highest paid executive in the NBA. The Wizards were apparently willing to give him US$10-million a year. That’s a decent starting point.
Ten million may sound like a lot to you, and it is. It’s a ridiculous amount of money. But the Raptors are already paying US$10-million to Norman Powell. And that is a lot more ridiculous.
Tell Ujiri that he has the job for as long as he wants it. No contract years or set amounts. No paper. Just a handshake on a forever job in which he is perpetually guaranteed to be the highest-paid executive in the NBA.
If New York blows someone’s doors off with a US$15-million offer, the Toronto boss gets a dollar more.
Ujiri has proven he’s worth it. MLSE can afford it. The coaches, players and fans would be unanimously for it. And it puts to bed this carousel of ‘Desperate Owner Invokes Ujiri’s Name’ bulletins.
All it will cost is money. And money is the one thing every NBA team has in abundance.
What every team is constantly searching for is magic. Imagine securing some of that commodity forever?