Few people in life deserve to have good things happen to them more than Masai Ujiri. From paying for his own flights and sharing hotel rooms with players as an unpaid scout for the Orlando Magic 17 years ago, to becoming the President of the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, Ujiri’s determination to succeed in basketball has been nothing short of admirable.
It could be argued that Ujiri’s first steps towards the Larry O’Brien trophy began in 2013, when less than two months after replacing Bryan Colangelo as the General Manager and Executive Vice President of the Toronto Raptors, Masai traded the 2006 first overall pick, Andrea Bargnani, to the New York Knicks for Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, and a handful of picks, one of which became Jakob Poeltl (who was then flipped for Danny Green, and man oh man do we miss them both).
Or maybe it was two years later, when Ujiri swapped Greivis Vasquez to the Milwaukee Bucks for Norman Powell and a future first round pick (our silent son, OG Anunoby), on draft night.
But for the sake of this review, we’re going to focus on the moves that Masai Ujiri had to make after yet another postseason of getting close enough to smell the Finals, but not close enough to taste them.
I never really put much thought into the phrase “May the bridges I burn light the way.” To be honest, I kind of just thought it was something that wine moms passively-aggressively added to their Pinterest boards after Janet and Karen stopped speaking to each other because Janet told Cindy that Karen was lying about her dress size.
Then I got it.
After Toronto was swept yet again by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017-2018 semi-finals, Ujiri knew he was in the hot seat. He knew something had to be done. On May 11th, it was announced that the Raptors had fired their head coach of seven years, Dwane Casey. For many, the change was a welcomed one, as Casey’s sometimes questionable line-ups had fans, players, and staff feeling the familiar sting of frustration. To add insult to injury, Casey was replaced by his own assistant coach, Nick Nurse. For five years, Nurse and Casey had worked alongside one another, with Nurse focusing on the Raptors offense. Now, with Dwane out the door, Nick Nurse would be in the driver’s seat, with all eyes on him like when you’re taking your license test and you’re literally in the driver’s seat with all eyes on you.
For a few weeks, anyway.
In the early hours of July 18th, while the majority of the Raptors fandom was sleeping peacefully and waiting for the beginning of the upcoming season with a new coach and a line-up that was basically the same, with the exception of the departure of Lucas ‘Bebe’ Nogueira and Alfonzo McKinnie, Masai Ujiri was pulling the metaphorical trigger on the biggest trade of his career, and the most impactful, emotional, and potentially unfavourable move in the entire history of the Toronto Raptors organization. Okay, it wasn’t actually a trigger, it was a rolly-ball on a Blackberry, but the point remains the same.
It’s not every day that you wake up at the ass-crack of dawn to learn that the President of Basketball Operations has traded away your star player, but for Raptors fans in mid-July, that’s exactly what happened. Masai had sent DeMar DeRozan, Mr. I Am Toronto, and the all-time leading scorer for the Toronto Raptors, to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Kawhi Leonard. Emotions for Raptors fans ran understandably high. Why would you trade the heart of your franchise, the man who had already played the most games of any Raptor ever, and who genuinely wanted to finish his career in Toronto, for a player who had expressed zero interest in ever even visiting Toronto, and was in the final year of a contract he was expected to opt out of? Was it going to be worth it? What if it didn’t work? What if we lost the man who put Toronto on the map (sorry Vince, but that’s a different discussion for a different day), and it was all for nothing?
Then the punches kept coming, straight to your heart and right through your feelings.
Included in the trade was 2016 9th overall pick, was Jakob Poeltl, in exchange for 10-year NBA veteran Danny Green. Not only did Ujiri break up the league’s most beloved friendship between DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, but no longer would we get to wrap ourselves in the warm blanket of love that was Jak and Skills. The blow of losing Poeltl didn’t smack fans in the emotional face as hard as losing DeRozan, but it made Ujiri’s intentions clear: for the Toronto Raptors, it was championship or bust.
The pain of losing DeRozan (side note: how many more plays did Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ receive after this trade?), and reports that Kawhi Leonard would “not even report” to Toronto Raptors training camp, had fans on edge for months. But because he can sell salt to a slug, Masai Ujiri, with the voice of an angel, settled all of our troubled minds with just one statement on Media Day. “Believe in yourself. Believe in your city.”
Masai Ujiri – "The narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone. I think that's old and we should move past that. Believe in this city. Believe in yourselves." pic.twitter.com/ZaTzXxbLqx
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) September 24, 2018
And we were all in.
In his Raptors debut against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Leonard scored 24 points and 12 rebounds, and just like Masai had promised, we believed. Two games later, “Load Management” was born. Leonard, who was recovering from a misdiagnosed injury the season prior, would sit out 15 of the 56 games before the All Star Break, due to what was dubbed “Load Management” by Ujiri and the Toronto medical staff, in order to maximize his health for a potential post-season run.
By the NBA All Star Break in February, the Raptors, with a record of 43 and 16, currently sat comfortably in second place behind the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference, and it looked like a smooth ride directly to the playoffs. But still, Masai was not satisfied. Rumours of a trade for Memphis Grizzlies centre, Marc Gasol had been rumbling for YEARS, but halfway through the 2018-2019 season, they began to pick up traction, and finally, on February 7th, they came to fruition. On the day he was scheduled to return from a broken thumb courtesy of Draymond Green in December, Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas, alongside Delon Wright and C.J. Miles, were traded to Memphis in exchange for Marc Gasol.
For the first time ever, I was upset with Masai Ujiri. Jonas was finally entering a place in his career where he was comfortable trying new things and not afraid to take risks, thanks in large part to a head coach who believed in him and didn’t penalize him every time he made a mistake. Delon, in his third season, was showing promising signs of becoming a solid back-up guard. C.J., whose three-point shooting had been streaky at best, was the “Bench Dad”. His locker room presence was unmatched, and in his fourteen year career, had never been traded. I had heard the stories of Gasol’s influence on the firing of Grizzlies coach, David Fizdale, and of the discourse in the locker room over his 11 years in Memphis. Why would Toronto want to disrupt the harmonious energy in their own locker room, with the playoffs so close within reach? Was he really that much of an upgrade over Valanciunas?
Boy was I wrong.
Not only did Gasol’s experience, size, speed, and willingness to switch in and out of line-ups with Serge Ibaka benefit the Raptors tremendously, but he fit into the Raptors’ family unit seamlessly.
What Gasol was able to accomplish in the post-season was levels above what Valanciunas would have been able to. Once again, Ujiri knew best. Once again, his gamble paid off. Also, Gasol could have been a minus 85 and it wouldn’t have mattered because he gave us this:
With the playoffs approaching, Raptors fans were growing increasingly anxious, but no one could have been struck with more nerves than Masai Ujiri. Would those bridges he burned in fact light the way? Or would he be left standing on the edge, staring into a fiery mess of his own creation?
I don’t know if you guys know this, but the Toronto Raptors are the NBA champions.
Every single risk, every single move, every single enemy Masai Ujiri made, was worth it.
Masai promised the city of Toronto a championship, and he delivered. Sixteen years of working towards a goal that at some times must have felt completely unattainable, had finally paid off.
He believed in himself. He believed in his city, and damn it, we should too.