The pressure is on Masai Ujiri this summer
If there’s one true hero of this five-year run to the playoffs, it’s Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri.
We’ve seen enough of every other core piece to fall in and out of love with them over this half-decade. In Toronto sports, you either die a hero like Bismack Biyombo, or you live long enough to overstay your welcome like Dwane Casey. That time is also coming for DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas, if it hasn’t already.
The last remaining universally beloved figure is Ujiri, who rightfully draws immense praise for bringing respectability to an otherwise ignored city. Criticism of the Raptors falls short of the top man, either because the bar for success is too low, or because Ujiri stays detached since he was never the architect of this team.
But those excuses ring hollow after five years at the helm, especially since Ujiri re-signed every core piece that he inherited to a second contract. Expectations of the Raptors have also changed, as fans are no longer happy with inflated regular season runs that predictably end with crushing playoff humiliation. (This paragraph was brought to you by Eric Jr.)
Ujiri has to make his mark on the Raptors this summer, and he knows it. He gave another signature rallying speech after starting the offseason by tossing Dwane Casey’s head to the angry masses, but that alone won’t satisfy anyone.
“I think there are many ways to get better,” Ujiri said with his usual emotional inflection. “It’s on me. Put it on me. Forget all the other stuff that you guys are talking about. Put it on me. We’ll get better. We’ll get better here. We believe in this city, this country, this team here and move forward. I put it on myself.”
The way forward for Ujiri won’t be easy, but at least he will have enough internal and external support to back any decision he makes.
Raptors fans can only agree on one demand this summer: change. Ujiri can either retool with a third star, or he move the veterans and turn the keys over to the young core — so long as the result next April isn’t as predictably embarrassing the fans will be relieved.
Ujiri isn’t at the stage of his career where he needs to play politics. His job isn’t on the line — his job is to find the best step forward for the Raptors. The only problem is that he locked himself to a three-year window last season, so change won’t be easy.
David Thorpe, a development coach that helped Ujiri land his first NBA gig, recalled during a recent Count the Dings podcast that Ujiri wasn’t thrilled when the two sat down for lunch last summer. Thorpe said Ujiri was seriously contemplating a dramatic rebuild after the first sweep by Cleveland.
He ultimately settled on retaining the team for a three-year window while developing the young pieces and changing their style of play. It was supposed to be a gradual process, but the prospects blossomed faster than expected and they delivered the best-case scenario by winning their first №1 seed in franchise history, and so expectations swelled.
That’s what made the second sweep by Cleveland so painful — the best case scenario of the Raptors went against the worst supporting cast around LeBron James and the results were still the same. That rendered the three-year window obsolete, because it spoiled the payoff at the end that turned out to be no payoff at all. If everything is in your favor and you still lose, then what’s there left to hang your hopes on?
LeBron’s humiliation also had the double whammy effect of ruining the trade value of the Raptors’ veterans. Lowry scored four points in Game 4 and couldn’t buy a basket during the fourth quarter collapse in Game 1. DeRozan was a combined minus-74 in the last three games and left the series by angrily undercutting Jordan Clarkson. Ibaka dribbled a basketball like a baby dribbling breast milk and he got flat-out benched in Game 3. Jonas Valanciunas showed heart and pieced together brief stretches of dominance, yet Cleveland picked him apart on switches as always.
That’s not to say Ujiri couldn’t firesale his roster and get 75 cents on the dollar for his veterans. Half of the league don’t have the luxury of worrying about DeRozan’s playoff shrinkage since they need to get there in the first place and they could use a two-time All-NBA guard that averaged 23–4–5. Lowry’s price tag is enormous but he made the third-most threes this season behind Paul George and James Harden and his skillset would fit any team in the league. The only piece that carries negative value is Ibaka, but even he could do a job if he played center more often.
But cutting bait just to break the habit is senseless asset management, and the Raptors aren’t exactly a destination city that could easily recoup its losses. Handing the reins to the prospects is one thing, cutting off the whole hand to treat a paper cut is another. Taking the loss on this roster that Ujiri had just committed to would be a curious decision that could only invite bad press.
That’s why it’s more likely that Ujiri will retool this summer, and try to make another go at it with a different coach.
After window shopping for a month in places as remote as Lithuania, Ujiri decided on Casey’s assistant Nick Nurse, which smacked of desperation even if there was merit behind the move. Ujiri cautiously married himself to Nurse on a three-year, $10-million contract that ranks among the cheapest deals in the league.
Nurse could very well be a brilliant coach, but there are almost no paths to success in his first shot at the NBA. Not only will Nurse have to rewrite existing relationships and establish control over familiar players, but his predecessor just took the franchise to 59 wins and will likely earn Coach of the Year honors in a few weeks.
(Ironically, it was Nurse’s offense that helped them win 59 wins, and yet it will be Casey that gets the credit. At least it got Nurse the job, though.)
Meanwhile, Nurse will also face immense pressure from Ujiri as his first coaching hire to bring more out of a roster that might have already peaked. Nurse faces an uphill battle in convincing Lowry he’s not a pushover (it took Casey at least three years to win that respect after he initially benched him over Jose Calderon) and for DeRozan to show any effort on defense. Salvaging what remains of Ibaka will be nearly impossible.
As for the roster itself, there isn’t much Ujiri can do. Re-signing Fred VanVleet should be simple, except the Raptors have $126 million in guaranteed salaries and going into the luxury tax (currently set at $123 million, barring some immediate revenue from newly legalized betting in certain U.S. states). Ujiri also doesn’t have any draft picks, so he’ll be relying on his scouting staff to pan for gold with another undrafted free agent like VanVleet.
Ujiri could be backed into a corner by trading one of his core pieces. Dealing away Valanciunas would be easiest, although it would also be both unpopular (at least the hive would be pestering another fanbase) and unproductive, especially since Nurse’s offense figures to benefit him most. Dealing away Lowry would essentially be pivoting into a rebuild, although the Raptors at least have depth at point guard. Moving the face of the franchise in DeRozan for salary purposes would be wildly unpopular, especially given the difficulties that DeRozan is facing off the court.
That leaves Norman Powell, who saw more airtime during commercials than game play. Powell couldn’t find a role on the deepest rotation in the league after the emergence of VanVleet and OG Anunoby, and teams would probably want another sweetener in the deal to recycle Powell’s contract, of which the Raptors don’t have.
The only way out would be for Ujiri to pull a rabbit out of his hat. It will require creativity and salesmanship, but that’s how Ujiri made his name in this league. He’ll need to show that brilliance once again this summer, otherwise he too will come under fire.
On a team full of likable characters, I root for Ujiri to be successful. And so I admit that it was hard to write this piece and to consider the difficult decisions he must make this summer.
He oversaw five of the winningest seasons in franchise history, he swindled the Kings and Knicks for Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani, he brought a level of sophistication and modernity by constructing a state-of-the-art practice arena and a wildly successful G League team, he brought the All-Star Game to the city and he assembled a young core that will inherit the franchise once his current crop of stars fade. He doesn’t need to prove shit to nobody.
Moreover, Ujiri was the type of leader that captured the imagination of a self-congratulatory city like Toronto. Ujiri is who people from Toronto believe themselves to be — cultured, self-made, selfless, brilliant, charming, and humble yet brimming with muted swagger. He spends every spare moment on charitable and humanitarian causes because Ujiri cares deeply about improving the world around him, and that unwavering belief in growth informs how his team operates. Ujiri leads good people who believe in the right things, and that matters immensely, especially in this city.
Ujiri has won enough goodwill over the last five years to run for City Hall someday, but for now, his project will be to improve the Raptors. I wish him all the best in what’s shaping up to be a difficult summer.