Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri joins The Woj Pod to discuss the NBA’s restart in Orlando, his global perspective on America and race, solutions for so few black executives in the NBA, how President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau impact his thinking and how that Raptors championship impacted his life.
“One of the other perceptions is, let’s get a Black assistant coach that’s gonna talk to the players. He’s the relationship guy. He’s the token guy … It’s all in there. Trust me, I’m in it. I’m at fault too. Let’s take responsibility for it,” Ujiri said.
Ujiri also challenged his peers in the NBA to continue their efforts in addressing racism. He suggested that in addition to efforts undertaken by the league, that individual teams should also make a concerted commitment to diversity hiring practices. Ujiri also stressed the need for continued action, spanning beyond the upcoming plans to restart the season in Orlando, to maintain the momentum generated by the current protests.
“It’s a unique time. I look at all these protests. You look at all of them. Normally before you would see all Black people, and people would say, “Oh, it’s Black people.” It is people from everywhere. You almost see more white people. Because the youth of today are tired of this, they are more outspoken, and they want the next generation to be better.
“This is a different generation now. They are going to speak, they are going to talk, they are going to have action, they are going to be educated. We (people) from 50 years ago, men or women or people that cannot change their mind, mindsets, or their thoughts. We have to think of these youth, now, and we have to give them opportunities, now,” Ujiri said.
Props to my old colleague Bruce Arthur, who immediately identified the Kapono signing as the first misdeed of the Colangelo era. The deal was worth the full mid-level exception, which seemed like a minor overpay but not an egregious one at the time.
The problem: Kapono was not who the Raptors needed on the wing, especially after it turned out that Jorge Garbajosa’s injury would be career-ending. The division-winning Raptors finished 10th in offence and 12th in defence in 2006-07, shooting 34.9 percent from 3-point range in the regular season (17th in the league) and 36.8 percent in their playoff loss to the Nets. Paying that much money for a one-dimensional player — even if that dimension is shooting, arguably the most important dimension that exists — is almost always a mistake. (See also: C.J. Miles.) Also, had Colangelo known more about Garbajosa’s injury, he might have thought differently about his free agency targets. Colangelo ultimately brought Alex McKechnie to the Raptors, during a lockout no less, so maybe the Kapono mistake was a helpful one after all.
Conversely, Carroll did address an obvious need for the Raptors in the summer in 2015, as a wing rotation of DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez was clearly not stout enough defensively in a sweep at the hands of the Wizards. Carroll (along with the acquisition of Cory Joseph) was a pure fit move. Injuries erased the possibility that the Carroll signing could ever produce positive value compared to the cost, although those injuries were not necessarily unpredictable. When Zach Lowe came out with his column about finding the next Carroll in bargain-bin free agency and named it after Carroll, signing the actual Carroll at a huge pay raise did not seem like the best idea.
What, though, is the unifying lesson here, other than not to overpay for role players? You do not have to spend money just because you have it. In both situations, the Raptors found themselves in the same position — as a playoff team trying to become more than that. Whereas a non-playoff team might not feel the pressure to use all of its resources, a playoff team can become hellbent on the idea of linear improvement. It doesn’t look good to not go for it, but the truth is short-term deals at that price point work out well about as often as long-term deals do.
Now, it’s possible to see overmatched GM Rob Babcock’s (RIP) thinking on this. Mourning had been one of the preeminent centres in the East over the past decade. He was a seven-time All-Star and two-time defensive player of the year. And though he had declined after missing a season due to a serious kidney issue, he still had a lot of veteran know-how and toughness. More than that (particularly to that version of the Raptors), Mourning was a name. People knew and respected him, both in and out of the league. Yes, this style of thinking is what led the Raptors to gamble on Antonio Davis (which worked out) and Hakeem Olajuwon (which did not), but it was also all they had.
The truth is, the Raptors were dealing Carter from a position of extreme disadvantage. He’d sulked his way through the last couple of seasons and put Toronto on the back-foot for any possible deal. It’s unlikely even a Jerry West-type GM, one loaded with clout, could have pulled off a better trade. Everyone in the NBA — including Mourning — knew this. Which made it easy for the Nets to pull the trigger on the deal, and made it even easier for Mourning to just say no. What was Toronto going to do?
In this, I admit, Zo still seems like something of a jerk to me. Yes, I get that being traded to Toronto under the cloud of Carter’s departure was not the kind of comeback Mourning was looking to make. While he was no longer an All-Star player, averaging 10.4 points and 7.1 rebounds for the Nets over 18 games, the then-34-year-old Mourning was obviously hoping to help a team compete and contend. That he found his way back to the Heat and won a championship in 2006 seems proof enough of that.
Still, the entire fabric of the NBA — and pro sports — is often based around the transactional nature of the business, for better or worse. For a team like the Raptors, a team with no leverage or ability to attract or retain better players, trades like this one were all they had to even try to compete and contend. Sure, Mourning had his reasons for not reporting, but it wasn’t like the Raptors had set out to ruin his life. They were just trying to do what they could to salvage an awful situation.
Which leads us to our punchline here: the Raptors eventually waived Mourning on February 11, 2005, deeming him unfit to play for the team. Just over two weeks later, on March 1, Zo signed with the Heat, where he’d go on to appear in another 186 games.
Editors Note: FUCK Alonzo Mourning and Rob Babcock(RIP)
“I can envision us playing very big [with what] we like to call our jumbo lineup with OG (Anunoby) at the two and Pascal (Siakam) three and Serge (Ibaka) at the four and Marc (Gasol) at the five,” the coach said. “I can envision that coming in handy here in this year’s playoffs.”
Gasol, Ibaka and Siakam started two games this season — the Raptors won both — and while breaking up an excellent starting backcourt of Lowry and VanVleet would be a huge gamble and counterintuitive, being able to use the “jumbo” lineup for stretches of games could create matchup advantages.
And given Toronto’s roster adaptability, and experience at figuring things out on fly, it shouldn’t be too disruptive.
The key will be Gasol’s health. The veteran centre, who looked in prime shape in a social media photo that caught the attention of fans, has been in and out of the lineup all season dealing with a hamstring issue that first popped up in December. The 35-year-old has played only one game since Jan. 28. His ability to make quick, effective decisions at full speed in games makes him invaluable.
“I think he’s a huge pillar on both ends,” Nurse said last week. “He’s back there on defence directing traffic, protected the rim, talking, getting guys through screens. He just does everything back there defensively and most of it’s with his experience and his IQ.
“And I’ve said this 1,000 times but I don’t get tired of saying it: our offence, whenever we’re in trouble, I say throw the ball to Marc and everybody start cutting. And usually good things happen and that is a tremendous luxury to have that settling force.”
There isn’t going to be much time to get ready for a playoff season of up to four seven-game series for any team and that might suit the Raptors well since they have experience with so many different looks that might be necessary depending on their opponents.