TORONTO RAPTORS MASAI UJIRI

With Ujiri taking the reins, and very quickly putting his mark on the franchise (by Stefanski and a ton of folks in the front office) I realized the only things I know about Ujiri were the trades, draft picks and free agent signings he made over the last few years in Denver. Since his philosophy, decision making ability, and negotiation skills will shape this team for the next five+ years, I thought it interesting to get a sense of who he really is, what motivates him and where he lies on the team-building spectrum.

[Related: Tempering Expectations on Ujiri]

For that, I’ve recruited Kalen Deremo from Roundball Mining Company (they have a great roundtable piece on him today) to give us some of his insights into Masai’s handling of the Nuggets the last three years.

Sam Holako: First of all, thank you, Second, why didn’t Denver resign the guy? You recently talked about them having all the time in the world to get him locked down long-term, but nada. The Raptor pessimist in me sees that, and wonders why ownership lets the GMOY walk.

Kalen Deremo: Yeah, it’s understandable from a Raptors fan’s point of view. As a cynic, I’d likely be a bit skeptical as well. But here’s the thing that should give you guys confidence: (A) He did win Executive of the Year in only his third season as GM, and (B) Pretty much everything he touched in Denver turned to gold. You have to remember, when Ujiri arrived in Denver three years ago the Nuggets were a team destined for a rebuild and years of ineptitude. Melo wanted out and half the team was free agents; yet somehow Ujiri parlayed that into countless assets that he’s been able to maneuver ever since. The reason Ujiri left is because Nuggets ownership has NEVER payed their executives top-dollar salaries and the Raptors were offering $15 million. It’s really that simple. If the Nuggets matched, all reports said Ujiri would return to Denver. They didn’t and he happily accepted $15 million to go elsewhere.

Sam: The Melo trade was an interesting one: from my perspective, it seemed as though Ujiri did a masterful job of pitting Dolan’s idiocy against Prokhorov’s limitless resources. In the end, you really couldn’t have asked for more for Carmelo than the Nuggets got (Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, the Knicks 2014 first-round draft pick, the Warriors’ 2012 second-round pick, the Warriors’ 2013 second-round pick and $3 million in cash AND they got Chauncey off the books…lol). If he didn’t follow that up by somehow unburdening himself with Nene’s and Okafor’s massive contracts, I’d say the Melo was more Dolan than Masai, but I’m thinking otherwise now; put me out of my misery, how would you rate his ability to engineer a trade?

Kalen: From a fan’s standpoint, it’s hard to know who’s really doing what in an NBA front office — especially the Nuggets, who once had three GMs working at the same time. But if there’s one thing I’m almost positive was Ujiri’s doing it was negotiations. Ujiri is such a charismatic, amiable guy, that it’s almost impossible to imagine him not doing the negotiations. When you watched The Association on NBA TV a few years ago, it was Ujiri who was working the phones, making the deals happen. There’s a chance he relied on other people to scout players, but he executed the deals and every deal he executed in Denver the Nuggets came out more than victorious. If you ask me, Ujiri’s rhetorical skills are some of the best in the entire league in terms of executives — if not, the very best.

Sam: It seems as though the team he put together was a better version of what Colangelo tried to do in Toronto: athletic swing players who could run and shoot. In your best estimation, is that his philosophy on how to build a team, or did he wiggle his way to this make-up based on the strengths of the players he inherited from the previous regime?

Kalen: I don’t think Ujiri has a philosophy like that. Perhaps there are some things he believes in more than others, but they weren’t too evident in Denver. The reason the Nuggets had so many athletic wings is because that’s the most abundant type of player available in today’s NBA. Ujiri also tried to tailor the roster to fit Karl’s run-and-gun style of coaching, which could likely explain why the team was so athletic. But in general, it seemed as if Ujiri was always looking to get the best player available whether it be by trade, free agency or through the draft.

Sam: Shifting to the draft, the Nuggets haven’t had that many picks over the the last few years, but we can all agree that Kenneth Faried was an absolute steal. He went 22nd, but you could make a case that he is a top-8 player (probably higher depending on how you value some of the other bigs that went ahead of him). Hindsight is 20/20, but with respect to the draft, finding gems when the talent is thinner later in the draft is something worth more than its weight in gold. What were the factors when Faried was selected at 22 considering the Nuggets had a fairly deep front court with Nene, Mozgov, Anderson, etc?

Kalen: Again, it all goes back to selecting the best player available. I think at the time Ujiri knew Nene wasn’t the answer to the Nuggets’ problems in the frontcourt. He also knew Mozgov and Andersen were never going to be anything more than bench players. Still, Faried was clearly the best player available and that’s why Ujiri took him. If the best player available had been a point guard, I have no doubt Ujiri would have taken him too even with Lawson at the helm.

I’ve always said the best way to evaluate an executive’s worth is looking at how well he does in the draft. That’s where talent evaluation is at its purest. It’s where you essentially have an open market of crops to chose from and which ones you select says a lot about your abilities to recognize player worth. Ujiri has absolutely destroyed his competition in this regard. Do the 2011 Draft over again and Faried’s a top 10 pick. Do the 2012 Draft over again and Fournier likely goes at least five spots higher in what was one of the deepest drafts in history. Then of course you have late first and early second-round picks like Quincy Miller and Jordan Hamilton whom Nuggets fans love, but who haven’t had a chance to play because of how deep Denver’s been at the wing positions recently. I can tell you right now with near 100 percent certainty that both Quincy Miller and Jordan Hamilton are guys who, once they get some steady playing time, are gonna have really good NBA careers. If either of those guys was on a team bereft of talent, they’d likely be franchise pillars for those teams moving forward.

And this isn’t even mentioning guys whom Ujiri reportedly had interest in but who he didn’t get a chance to draft: guys like Canada’s own Andrew Nicholson, John Henson, Bradley Beal and Tobias Harris, all of whom have looked great in their brief NBA careers.

I’ve always liked the draft but never have I been so enthralled with it until Ujiri came along. He’s made studying the draft my favorite part of the season because I know for a fact that when David Stern calls the Nuggets (now Raptors) selection to the podium each year, you can immediately label him a steal. I will sincerely miss this part of the season and can’t wait to see how the Raptors begin to improve through the draft each year, the way all the best sports franchises have always done throughout history, and the way the Nuggets have done over the last three years.

Sam: And cap-management? How well has he been navigating the CBA?

Kalen: Well, that responsibility has pretty much fallen on assistant general manager Pete D-Alessandro, by all accounts. He’s supposedly one of the most informed and intelligent cap guys in the league. So it’s pretty hard to say what exactly Ujiri had a hand in and what he simply left for D’Alessandro to handle when it came to cap management. The only real visible “scar” on Ujiri’s financial record in Denver was re-signing JaVale McGee to a four year, $44 million extension. There’s quite a few people who see that as a mistake; however, I do not. Look at the market price for big men right now. It’s absurd. If you’re athletic, talented, stand at least 6-11 and have half a brain (which McGee certainly makes you question at times), then you’re gonna get overpayed come free agency. That’s just how it works. As the Pacers are showing right now, you need rim protectors to win in this league. Throw in the fact that Karl can’t stand McGee and only plays him a fraction of the time he likely deserves and you can see why some fans think it was a bad move. In my opinion, it wasn’t. Once Karl moves on and McGee get tutelage from a coach who believes in him, he’ll likely thrive and prove his contract to be apt for his abilities. For more proof of this sentiment, see: Smith, J.R.

Recap:

  • Masai Ujiri wasn’t retained by the Kroenke’s because they are cheap and took the relationship for granted. If there were more front office openings, it could be assumed that Ujiri would have had multiple offers in the same ball-park; so the Raptors didn’t land him because they pulled out the check book
  • Ujiri is a shrewd negotiator who gets a lot of value in the deals he makes. His deals also have his team coming out “winning” (I say winning because while the Melo trade landed the Nuggets lots of talent and cash, the Knicks got their ‘face of the franchise’ out of it)
  • The best player available will be drafted. Not because he fits a philosophy, not because he has potential, but the best talent. Period
  • He has an eye for talent, and a proven track record of grabbing guys lower in the draft
  • His team building philosophy takes into consideration what talent is there, what is available on the market/draft, and who’s coaching the whole damn thing. These decisions are not made independent of each other
  • He’s not a CBA expert, but knows enough to bring in trustworthy, competent people who do

We’ve been lulled by swill merchants in the past, and while the previous regime had a history of excellence under the thumb of a father figure who has undeniable credentials, this new world order is being ushered in by a young exec who has already demonstrated that he can build a winner on his own. I haven’t been this excited for the Raptors future since BryCo took over.

TL:DR: Masai Ujiri comes as advertised