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Until Masai Ujiri decides he is leaving, he is not leaving. Simple. The president of the Toronto Raptors is in the first year of a five-year contract, and he promoted 32-year-old Bobby Webster to general manager on Wednesday, and as Webster said, “not only the front office, the coaches, the travel staff, you know, we believe in Masai and Masai believes in us. So we’ll keep it going.”
But until Masai Ujiri says he is staying the door isn’t closed, and he hasn’t said he’s staying. That’s not an accident. The New York Knicks fired team president Phil Jackson Wednesday after three years of pure uncut bumbling comedy, and the Knicks are coming for Masai. Tim Leiweke, the former president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, is an adviser, which means he is the recruiter. The idea of this overture, as first reported by Frank Isola of the New York Daily News in 2016, has quietly been in the works for over a year.
And for the first time since he assumed control of the Raptors, Ujiri’s future is actually a question. The organization is quietly projecting confidence that Ujiri won’t leave, but that’s either overconfidence or naiveté. Last year, Brooklyn inquired through intermediary parties about Ujiri, but it never reached any formal stages, bottomless resources be damned. A second team called last year and was politely rebuffed. Those weren’t serious.
This is. Yes, the Knicks are a mess, in perpetuity. The Jackson era in New York mashed as many hilarious buttons as possible, culminating with multiple reports that the hall of fame coach fell asleep during a draft workout. Seinfeld hasn’t been on the air since 1998, but Jackson with the Knicks was like watching George Costanza, the sitcom’s hapless idiot, trying to get fired from the Yankees.
Still, Phil got rich, and the final two years of his five-year, $ 60-million U.S. deal were guaranteed in April of this year. Ah, Zen.
All that just makes the Knicks more desperate for a new saviour, and league sources indicate the Knicks are already confident Ujiri is coming to New York. When Ujiri came to Toronto from Denver he was lured by the city, the geography — it is easier to get home every summer to Africa, where Ujiri pours his soul every summer into his Giants of Africa charity — the resources, and the challenge of fixing a franchise that had never been fixed.
Any of that sound familiar? New York has stubbornly buried a lot of good basketball men, made them laughingstocks. But Ujiri loves a challenge.
Yes, MLSE treats Ujiri well. The Raptors signed him to the contract extension in September of 2016, and elevated him to president of basketball operations. The belief is that he is paid top-five money among NBA team executives. The organization supports his work with Giants of Africa, which is as dear to his heart as anything. He has autonomy, and political capital.
But this is serious, and the organization may need to decide how far it is willing to go to keep a star executive. Ujiri hasn’t been perfect. The core of his winning teams — Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, coach Dwane Casey — were here when he arrived. The team was trying to shed the onerous contracts of Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll at the draft last week. The prospect of re-signing the 31-year-old Lowry or starting a longer rebuild — or retool — is staring the organization in the face, and the options aren’t great.
Ujiri is still considered one of the few executives in the NBA with real aura, star power and deep connections, and that’s why the Knicks will chase him. Where MLSE would go to replace him is an open question, too. Before you dismiss them as the stumbling, bumbling Knicks, remember: Leiweke is the man who built MLSE’s current competitive structure: its rising hockey team, its stellar soccer team, the Raptors. He knows the owners, knows Ujiri and what pushes his buttons. Ujiri loved working for him. Leiweke pried Ujiri out of Denver in the first place, and as one MLSE official put it, “don’t forget that (Leiweke) wants to stick it to these guys.”
The idea of New York is a powerful one, as is the idea of bigger dollars when you have a charitable organization that can use every penny. As well, the NBA would love to see the Knicks fixed: commissioner Adam Silver and Ujiri are on excellent terms, despite past wrist-slapping fines, and you can bet the league is interested in this.
Now, Ujiri wouldn’t be working for Leiweke in New York: he would be working for James Dolan, in his hereditary mad idiot kingdom. The culture at Madison Square Garden has been toxic for a long time. Ujiri knows. After all, he’s the one who unloaded Carmelo Anthony there, and who fleeced them so badly on the Andrea Bargnani trade that Dolan nixed a Lowry trade in 2014. Funny how things work out.
But if Ujiri decides that he can handle Dolan, dig out that culture and fix the Knicks … well, that might be insane hubris, but it’s possible. It wouldn’t be the end of the Raptors, but it would leave a 32-year-old rookie GM in charge, and in all likelihood a dive into a rebuild, with franchise-changing decisions everywhere.
Free agency opens July 1. As of Wednesday evening sources indicated the request had not been made, but that can change with a phone call. Despite the contract, sources indicate Ujiri can leave if he wants to leave. It’s really up to him.
So Ujiri has a decision to make, and the tall foreheads at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment do, too. They could try to cut this off by asking Ujiri what else it would take to end all speculation, and delivering it. They can hope he loves it here and distrusts Dolan enough to stay. That is all possible.
Or they can find out what Masai Ujiri is worth to the Toronto Raptors, after he leaves.