This article also appears on Raptors Republic.
Masai Ujiri has finally accepted the Raptors 5 year, $15 million offer to run the basketball side of the team and wasted no time putting his own stamp on the team. Why he took so long doesn’t matter now, so I don’t see the point of dwelling on it.
While Ujiri’s hiring is definitely reason for optimism among Raptor fans, considering what they’ve been through lately (or really for most of their 17 year existence), history tells us we probably should temper those expectations. For a couple of different reasons.
When Bryan Colangelo was hired to great pomp and circumstances back in 2006, I was one of the many Raptor fans applauding. I knew he’d never built a team that had made it to the Finals, and was well aware of his disregard for defense, despite the overwhelming evidence that you need to be good at it if your really want a legitimate shot at winning a title. But he also had great success in Phoenix, drafting four All Stars including an MVP, with the highest pick being 9th, putting together a team that went to the Conference Finals twice and tied a franchise record with 62 wins, in 2005, the year he won his first Executive of the Year award.
Despite the flaws of his teams, and thus in himself as a General Manager, there was reason to be optimistic when he came to Toronto. Especially considering the act he followed.
By any measure, Colangelo had a better resume when he took over the Raptors organization than Ujiri does right now.
Like Colangelo, Ujiri won an Executive of the Year award building a high performing regular season team that was too flawed to be a real title contender. In fact, even Ujiri himself admitted, before the playoffs, that Denver wasn’t a contending team despite winning 57 games, which was good for the third best record in the West and a franchise record.
Ironically, the Denver team Ujiri built seemed to be a more successful model of what Colangelo was trying to do in Toronto. An athletic, starless team who could outscore most of their opponents and entertain the fans. Unfortunately, history tells us that’s not how you build a true contender.
And coincidentally, Colangelo and Ujiri were both wooed away from running other successful teams with a 5 year, $15 million contract.
Now I am not suggesting that history is about to repeat itself, so there’s no reason to jump to any conclusions. What Ujiri has over Colangelo is that Ujiri understood Denver was not a real contender, despite winning all those games. Colangelo has never shown himself to be that much of a realist. While Colangelo is known for his ability to sell the moves he makes as better than they actually are, Ujiri is known more for his “refreshing honesty“. In that way, they couldn’t be more different.
Of course, there are other differences that give Raptor fans reason to be optimistic. Ujiri is already apparently looking to trade Bargnani, something Colangelo never did. That in itself should be music to many fans’ ears.
Ujiri also is known to have the patience that Colangelo has lacked over his tenure in Toronto. And while Colangelo certainly liked to push the narrative that the Raptors were on the forefront of analytics, reality has shown things to be somewhat different, at least in practice. Ujiri, on the other hand, has been a regular attendee of the MIT Sports Analytics Sloan Conference, and has been known to take a strong interest in analytics.
And trading for a rather unpredictable player, like JaVale McGee, is also something Colangelo probably would not have done, although it’s hard to say whether or not that’s a strength, especially after giving McGee a 4 year-$44 million extension that now looks like a bad deal.
That does bring up a few more similarities between the two, unfortunately. Like Colangelo, Ujiri hasn’t been shy about handing out big contracts to players that don’t always deserve it. As mentioned, he overpaid McGee, who promptly fell out of the starting lineup. He then gave Danilo Gallinari a four year, $42 million extension.
While Gallinari is a good player, he’s not worth the borderline All Star salary that he’s currently making (what is it with Ujiri and Colangelo overpaying tall, jumpshooting Italians?). Next year, Denver will be paying four players more than $45 million, and not one of them made the All Star game this past season, and may not make it next year, either.
It is very difficult to predict what Ujiri will do and how he will do as General Manager of the Toronto Raptors, though. Colangelo’s tenure in Toronto looked nothing like his years in Phoenix. Joe Dumars went from looking like a genius who built a “starless” Championship team (I would debate the starless part) to a guy who would fit in nicely in Bill Simmons’ non-annual Atrocious GM Summit without even changing teams. Grantland recently had an article talking about this very thing.
The fact is that Ujiri has been put in charge of a Raptors roster that looks nothing like the one he was given in Denver. Denver won 53 games the season before he took control. They’d made the playoffs the previous seven seasons, and featured one of the best players in the NBA, Carmelo Anthony. The Raptors are an overpaid, underperforming team who couldn’t make the playoffs in an Eastern Conference that featured an 8th seed Milwaukee team basically going door-to-door asking teams to overtake them so they wouldn’t have to face Miami in the first round.
We have already gotten a glimpse of what might be up Ujiri’s sleeve, with him basically gutting the front office of the team, including the team’s longest serving employee, Jim Kelly, and the guy Colangelo was recommending take over his job, Ed Stefanski. It’s hard to imagine him getting rid of everyone that put this mess together and then decide to stay the course with the guys on the floor.
Dealing Andrea Bargnani is Ujiri’s first priority. But there’s also a theory out there that MLSE may want to blow this whole thing up, hence the renaming rumblings. So is tanking for Toronto’s own Andrew Wiggins or others in the deep 2014 draft in play? If that’s the case, trading Kyle Lowry now might be a good place to start.
It’s no secret that a complete teardown would make me happy and, at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see that happen. Ujiri has the security of a five year contract, which should give him enough time to blow up the team and build it back up the way he wants.
It is important, however, to keep in mind that Ujiri has never built a contender, and he’s never worked in the front office of a team that has ever made it past the first round of the playoffs. He doesn’t have the Championship pedigree that a guy like Sam Presti had before taking over the Thunder organization. That’s not to say Ujiri doesn’t know how to build a contender or isn’t the right man for the job, but for those of us that remember how similar the mood was when Colangelo took over seven long years ago, we shouldn’t just assume he’s going to be the Mesai(ah) of the Toronto Raptors.
Just to stoke the fires of speculation, a little, there was this little tidbit…
Memphis has given permission to coach Lionel Hollins to speak to other teams, league source tells Y! Sports.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) June 2, 2013
And for those waiting for the Underrated portion of my recent series, it’s coming, but more pressing things have pushed back the release date a little.