After he’d turned the Toronto Raptors over his knee and given them a postseason paddling, LeBron James didn’t bother with a follow-up lecture.
James nodded briefly at some “that’s a good team over there” blandishments and then shuffled off like some enormous B-movie lizard to level another city. Rubbing it in would have seemed excessive.
Instead, Golden State’s Draymond Green did it for him.
“I thought [Cleveland’s playoff opponents] would compete a little harder,” Green said. “I like to watch good basketball. When you watch Cleveland play, you’re only watching one side of the good basketball. That’s kind of weak.”
So after four years of careful construction, stay-the-path management and regular-season success, there’s the NBA’s verdict on where the Toronto organization is at: “Kind of weak.” It riffs a little off the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s two-word entry for planet Earth: “Mostly harmless.”
In the immediate aftermath, the key players didn’t do much to dispute the tag. According to them, it’s all very disappointing, but, you know, the answer is hard work, perseverance, commitment … what’s another word that means “work”? I forget, but you get the point.
The building’s coming down around them and the Toronto Raptors are standing in the lobby repeating “please remain calm” into a bullhorn.
On one level or another, all of those people are trying to protect their jobs. The one man in the organization who has zero worries on that score sees it differently.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri does many things well, but the secret of his success has relatively little to do with basketball. It is instead a sort of urgent empathy. In conversation, Ujiri locks eyes with you and smiles in the right spots and reaches out to rub your arm during the important bits. If you spend enough time with him, he will perform regular, radical check-ins – stopping whatever he’s doing to focus every iota of his attention on you and say things like, “What about you? Are you okay? Is everything all right?”
Inevitably, you were just standing there thinking about why you pay so much for car insurance, so you’re caught off guard: “Um, sure?”
But you do come away from it feeling enlivened, even – awful word – special. Ujiri’s undivided regard has that effect.
On Tuesday, he turned his sympathetic lasers on the entire Raptors fan base in what might be called an anti-press conference. The fourth wall came down; the obvious questions were anticipated and subverted; your sense of where this was all headed switched back on itself several times – this was the usual locker clearout reimagined by Eugène Ionesco.
“I’m going to say the famous words that you guys don’t like … I feel like talking now is BS. It’s absolute BS that we need to do this today. Maybe talk to me in a month. Why do we need to do this today? I can’t tell you I’ve made a decision on anything yet. I’ll take the questions, but I know what the questions are going to be – I hate to be like this – but I would be a bad leader if I came to you today and decided that …” – and began rattling off a long list of things that might or might not happen.
It went on like that for almost an hour. Ujiri said it might best be called “a day of excuses.” Then repeatedly said that he didn’t want to make any.
The pull quotes might be these three: “We need a culture reset here”; “All I know is that what we have been doing has not worked”; “We have to go a different direction now.”
Buried in this disorienting froth was a (not terribly emphatic) commitment to coach Dwane Casey. Though not quite the kiss of death, it may yet be.
There was also the unsurprising notion that, “We want [Kyle Lowry] back.”
Of course, the question isn’t whether or not you want Kyle Lowry back. It’s how badly.
That wasn’t addressed (though Ujiri repeatedly set up a situation in which Lowry chooses to leave of his own accord – which would mean either for less money or to a less accomplished team. Lowry isn’t likely to prefer either scenario unless he is pushed).
Asked if the MLSE board is willing to spend over the yet-to-be-determined salary cap limit to keep the current team together, Ujiri said, “100 per cent.”
Asked if those same suits can countenance a tear down and restart, he said, “Absolutely.”
All in all, it was a masterful example of rhetorical either/or-ism. Ujiri committed himself to the general idea of change without giving a single concrete example of how that would work. It’s a philosophy you might call “progressive Trumpism,” if sports bosses hadn’t been doing it since Christ was a cowboy.
What Ujiri did most importantly was capture and redirect a growing sense of frustration with the Toronto basketball team. It is on the cusp of becoming the Eastern Conference’s Los Angeles Clippers – a club that is reliably successful when it doesn’t count, and just as reliably stumbles when it does.
The only way to do that is to absorb and then mimic the criticisms.
One of Ujiri’s reliable feints – and one he hit again and again on Tuesday – is that he takes personal responsibility for the team’s failures. It’s never stuck. While his team dithers about in the top third of the NBA, Ujiri’s own reputation continues to grow.
It’s been a long road up from working as an unpaid, couch-surfing talent scout to one of the four or five most admired executives in basketball. Ujiri has largely managed the climb by force of personality.
That steady ascent plateaued Tuesday. This summer, Ujiri will be judged entirely on his basketball decisions.
Now he has to decide what he is – a builder or a caretaker. Regardless of which direction he heads, Ujiri will be out there at this same point next year, taking responsibility for everything that’s happened. And that time, it will stick to him.Report Typo/Error
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