I've said it before, and I am saying it again.
We will win in Toronto.
– Masai pic.twitter.com/KJ64UwjZPo
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) August 5, 2021
ESPN Sources: Masai Ujiri – architect of the 2019 champions– has agreed to a significant new deal to become Vice Chairman!President of the Toronto Raptors. Ujiri continues as both Raptors top basketball/business executive and a global philanthropist through his Giants of Africa.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 5, 2021
The model contained more than just scaled downtown high-rises, OVO Athletic Centre, Scotiabank Arena and the CN Tower. The model also included scannable QR codes for prospects to learn more about different locations, highlights and neighbourhoods. Desta and Lewis had some agency over how the room experience played out, allowing them to customize the experience as a prospect’s interest dictated.
Culture is a difficult thing to convey from so far away. Sadly, patties from Bathurst Station were not flown in fresh, and the Caribbean food scene on Eglinton West and sprinkled around the city was something players will have to wait until they arrive to experience.
“It’s twofold. Obviously, one of the videos really went in-depth about the multiculturalism, the different art scenes, and music, and food that is really impacted by the different groups that we have in Toronto,” Desta said. “We were able to give that a little bit more of a highlight. Also, in talking with the prospects over the time that they were there, we get to know them pretty well. We were able to sort of interweave things that we heard them interested about, and sort of link it in with like Toronto. We were able to personalize it a little bit and chat through it as we were giving the tour.”
The experience was a resounding success. Resch credited the fellows for doing “a fabulous job,” offering a helpful Canadian perspective to the execution. The staff in Tampa also appreciated “something familiar in an unfamiliar place” until the Raptors can be back in front of their fans, including children of staff members who got a kick out of the 3-D model. The room was a hit with No. 4 overall pick Scottie Barnes, too, who has been quick to embrace the city and highlight his Jamaican roots.
Barnes may have been the team’s top pick, but there was no bigger test for a Toronto immersion room than a man from Toronto himself. Dalano Banton, the team’s No. 46 overall pick, is from Rexdale and even wears jersey No. 45 for the Kipling TTC bus that ran through his neighborhood growing up. If Banton deemed the experience authentic, the fellows and the Raptors could call it a win. He was won over by the room’s playlist, a mix of Toronto’s best rap music and “not just Drake,” as Desta put it.
“It was exciting to see his reaction to it,” Desta said. “I was like, ‘Okay, I think we got like a stamp of approval from a local Torontonian.’”
The stamp of approval may sustain the project even further. The Raptors intend to keep parts of the experience for future draft cycles, allowing prospects to see and learn more than they might be able to in a short visit to the city.
As we have seen this week, Ujiri’s decision to stay in Toronto is not an elixir for the Raptors as a whole. Even the best executives have weaknesses, and not every market factor can be overcome by way of Ujiri’s unparalleled charisma, at least at the executive level. His fiery nature does not get rid of the snow in the winter or the humidity in the summer, and it could not do anything about the pandemic that put the Raptors at a competitive disadvantage all season long. (Not that we need to be fixated on the plight of sports teams when it comes to the effects — past, future and lingering — of COVID.)
For fans, though, it is a reason to believe that the Raptors will be able to find their way forward from what is a complicated position in the league. They aren’t a team full of stars, doing everything they can do to win this year. They haven’t sold off their prime contributors to the highest bidders, trying to build up an asset base like Oklahoma City, setting themselves up for either a potential franchise-altering trade or continued kicks at the draft can (or both). Instead, they are back as a team with three high-end 27-and-under players and a few younger prospects, but no superstar, or even a player that seems likely to get on that track. It’s not a path most teams, or fans, are comfortable with, but Ujiri has made it work before. His mere presence is hope personified, even if the Raptors are in the same position they were in yesterday, practically speaking.
Ujiri exists as both a man who is extremely competent in his field and a broader symbol of possibility, which is a hell of a thing.
Ultimately, on-court talent is the most important thing in the NBA, a requirement that renders every other aspect of a franchise almost meaningless in its absence. Ujiri’s presence alone does not guarantee the Raptors will be able to amass enough talent to once again become a championship contender. Ujiri has deep confidence in his own and his team’s ability to identify, scout and develop talent, and he’s had far more hits than misses in his time with the team. Still, even he would tell you, in a truthful moment, that the trade for Leonard, the biggest swing factor in that title, developed inside an unreplicable context.
Here is what Ujiri does bring, though, aside from that talent identification: the knowledge that he, and by extension, the Raptors as long as he is in Toronto, will not acquiesce if ownership stops shy of committing whole-heartedly to his vision. He brings a sense of fundamental human decency and thoughtfulness, both of which make the queasiness sometimes associated with caring about pro sports, a little easier to take. He brings a “why not us?” mentality that is necessary when it comes to winning in a ruthlessly competitive league.
None of this promises another seven years of elite basketball, never mind another title. It does promise the relentless pursuit of both. After a few disappointing offseasons, finally, Raptors fans can break out the catchphrase they had prepared for Leonard two summers ago.
But it is unclear how much longer Tanenbaum is sure to remain as part of the ownership group. Some sources indicate Tanenbaum could be bought out some time in the next seven to 10 years.
But MLSE played at the very big table and retained a star, and that should be significant beyond the obvious implications. Toronto has never had an executive figure of this magnitude in any sport, and the fact that Ujiri didn’t run to the United States — where, to be clear, it is easier to win an NBA title in most markets, without having to find players who complain about not appearing on ESPN, and customs — means something. He could have left, and you can make a short list of teams who would have opened vaults for him. MLSE didn’t let that happen.
So can the organization continue to keep up with his vision and ambition? Can he?
Ujiri is the one who pushed Kyle Lowry to franchise icon status, but the decision to let the 35-year-old Lowry leave was made some time ago, and it marked the split between past and future. The future now is the established core of VanVleet (27), Siakam (27) and OG Anunoby (24, and rising) along with as many assets as they can find: No. 4 pick Scottie Barnes (20), newly signed shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. (22) and centre Khem Birch (28), big man Chris Boucher (28), point guard Malachi Flynn (22).
Internally, the idea is that this franchise is now playing for two to three years from now. Collect enough assets and good things happen.
But winning in the NBA takes vision and ambition, and the question will be whether MLSE can match Ujiri’s and keep him happy. Significant funding for his charitable basketball organization Giants of Africa was surely one of those asks. It was the first thing Leiweke mentioned in the meeting that would eventually pull Ujiri to Toronto from the Denver Nuggets in 2013. Building basketball courts in Africa was clearly on the list — it was mentioned in the slick video Ujiri and the Raptors put out announcing his return. His philanthropy, which ranges from GOA to opposition to child soldiers to female empowerment and beyond, was likely on the list.
And none of it works as well if he doesn’t win.
There is no obvious path back to a championship here, beyond hoping that smart asset collection and development puts Toronto in a position to take another Kawhi Leonard-like swing. Without a superstar it’s hard to contend in the NBA and the Raptors, once again, don’t have a superstar.
Ujiri is the closest thing. He’ll have to do.
I can’t say for sure what Ujiri’s new salary will be, but there’s little chance he’s not going to be earning $12 million a year – that’s believed to be the highwater mark set by Phil Jackson during his disastrous tenure running the Knicks – and he could be in the $15 million range.
It would likely make him the highest-paid executive in all of sports.
That said, it’s a sound investment in a league where Gary Trent Jr. – a 22-year-old with a fairly sparse on-court resume across four NBA seasons – will be making $18 million a year.
But what is a vice-chairman?
I haven’t been able to get anyone to explain that to me yet. One source said it means that Ujiri will be able to attend board of governors meetings and make himself heard.
“Everyone knows all the gripes he has with the league; well now he can air them in a boardroom,” he said.
That makes sense, except that Ujiri was already an alternate governor and attended the league’s board of governors meetings. He is a friend and confidante of NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and failing to get a hearing there, few executives in all of sports are more willing and adept at making themselves heard with direct appeals to the public at large.
Does being a vice-chairman (where Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum is chairman) mean Ujiri is something other than a salaried employee? Does it mean he’s an owner?
As the intrigue around Ujiri’s contract status dragged on through the 2019-20 season, the off-season and then all of 2020-21, the question wasn’t so much about whether Ujiri would re-sign in Toronto or not, it became almost existential, along the lines of: “what was important to him, what did he want?”
There was a belief among those close to him that he wanted an ownership position. With the prospect of league expansion looming on an undefined horizon, the thinking was maybe Ujiri would hold out to be part of an ownership group of a team not yet formed. There were all kinds of possibilities to speculate about.
But it was always made clear to me that being an actual owner of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – the company that owns the Raptors, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Scotiabank Arena and Toronto FC – was unlikely, if not impossible.
The complexity of the company’s holdings, the fact that ownership was shared between two publicly traded companies (Bell and Rogers) as well as chairman Larry Tanenbaum and the precedent it would set (very hypothetically, what would Leafs president Brendan Shanahan get if his team ever won the Stanley Cup?) made it a non-starter.
In theory, the benefits of ownership could be conferred to Ujiri via various compensation strategies – bonuses tied to revenues; lump-sum payments in the event of a sale and that kind of thing – but actual ownership was off the table.
Does the vice-chairman title indicate that position changed? Or does it mean Ujiri was given a giant raise and they had to figure out a promotion to go with it?
The news itself shouldn’t come as a surprise, even if it took longer than expected to make things official. Ujiri took his usual hands-on approach throughout the pre-draft process and had final say on the decision to select Scottie Barnes with the fourth-overall pick. He’s been working the phones and leading pitch meetings since free agency opened earlier this week. That never sounded like somebody that was conducting business with one foot out the door. Most league insiders, and even people within the organization, felt like it was just a matter of when, and not if, a new deal would get done.
It’s unclear what took so long. It’s not like Ujiri needed any more leverage, given his profile, his standing within Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, and ownership’s considerable resources. One of his stated goals was to take care of his front office staff before negotiating his own deal, a box that got checked off with the extension for general manager Bobby Webster in February.
Whether it was a coincidence or not, this is interesting timing. Toronto has had a slow and somewhat uninspiring start to free agency. The team and its fans said goodbye to , a franchise icon, whose sign-and-trade deal to Miami will be completed on Friday afternoon. They retained a couple of their own players, Gary Trent Jr. and . But any new additions they make to a team that went a disappointing 27-45 last season could be limited to their return for Lowry – likely intriguing second-year big man Precious Achiuwa and veteran point guard – plus a few depth signings.
The Raptors have lost key members of their championship core in each of the last three summers, so they’ve been trending in a different – and much younger – direction for a while. However, Lowry’s departure feels like a symbolic turning of the page. This is a new era, and if it’s going to be as successful as the last, or anywhere close, there is significant work that needs to be done. That Ujiri remains at the controls should inspire confidence, though.
“On the court, our goal is clear: to bring another championship to Toronto,” Ujiri said in a press release. “Our team is united in that mission. Nothing else will do. We will bring young talent to this city. We will value the veteran players who got us here. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: We will win in Toronto.”
It’s a familiar message, and one that’s hard not to take seriously. There’s a credibility to it that wasn’t there eight years ago.
He’s done it before. Ujiri took an organization that had been an NBA afterthought for almost two decades, a team that was weighed down by the bloated contracts of and , and he turned it into a perennial winner, respected franchise and, eventually, a champion.
They declined to use their potential space, likely operating as an over-the-cap team for a sixth-consecutive offseason, which is not necessarily a mistake. Instead, they played ball with Lowry and the Heat on a sign-and-trade. As of Wednesday evening, nothing was confirmed, but veteran guard Goran Dragic, second-year big man Precious Achiuwa and draft compensation are probably heading to Toronto for Lowry. The Raptors have been trying to send Dragic to a third team, but those talks have not led anywhere productive.
It’s not horrible, even if it further emphasized potential over results in the present, just as their pick of Scottie Barnes did last week. At 35, Dragic has no long-term utility for the Raptors, but his creation skills raise the ceiling of Toronto’s most glaring weakness this coming year, and it’s possible they’ll be able to acquire something for him before the trade deadline as he is on an expiring contract. Achiuwa is a prospect at a position of great need for the Raptors, with his rim protection and rim-rolling up front sorely lacking on the roster. They’ll have two full years before they have to think about extending him and three years before he would hit restricted free agency, presumably, if they don’t. They’ll still have the midlevel exception to use, and it’s likely some of that will go toward bringing back free agent Khem Birch. They also retained restricted free agent Gary Trent Jr. on a three-year, $54-million deal in which the Raptors are betting on his future growth, because it doesn’t seem likely to yield results right away. (Unless something dramatic changes with the Dragic talks, the Raptors will have been unable to put Trent’s small cap hold and quick agreement to use in terms of maximizing their cap space, which is a legitimate gripe regarding what the team did here, especially because they got nothing resembling a discount from Trent. Meanwhile, Chicago’s Lauri Markkanen, a more accomplished player than Trent, remains a restricted free agent, with no obvious teams to drive up the price.)
We’ll see how this series of moves, designed to once again maintain as much flexibility as possible, pans out compared to trying to make a more significant splash in free agency. (As for the lack of commitment: Trent’s deal is only three years, with a player option after two. There has been some consternation among Raptors fans because Trent and Norman Powell, who were traded for each other in March, wound up signing for the same annual salary. The retort the Raptors would give is they guaranteed three years to a player who, if he picks up his option, will be 25 at the end of the contract, while the Trail Blazers guaranteed five years to a player whose contract will end just before his 33rd birthday.) It is the eschewing of the potential cap space, the building of which was the guiding principle of last offseason’s parade of unguaranteed second years on contracts, that is interesting.
Ujiri’s worst mistake with the Raptors is also the only time he signed a player away from another team for significantly more than the midlevel exception. The Raptors signed DeMarre Carroll to a four-year, $57.9 million deal in 2015, but he was plagued by injuries during his two years in Toronto. He had his moments, but in the end, the Raptors had to attach two draft picks to Carroll and take on a contract they chose to use the stretch provision on to unload the forward to Brooklyn. Of the bigger deals Ujiri has handed out to players leaving other NBA teams, only Cory Joseph (almost $30 million over four years) represented a better-than-average return. Carroll, C.J. Miles and Aron Baynes, who was waived on Wednesday, were all bad signings.
It is understandable, then, that Ujiri didn’t want to play that game this offseason once the clear difference-makers were gone. (The deal for Holmes looks good, but his sample size as a starter is low enough that being squeamish about paying him more than the midlevel exception, all while losing the rights to use that exception, is reasonable enough.) Simply put, Ujiri, like many other executives, has failed to find value in free agency, with even most of his contracts for incumbent players not working out.
It’s a nice payday for the 28-year-old Birch, who joined the Raptors last April on a deal that paid him less than $4 million last season. The six-foot-nine Birch averaged career highs of 11.9 points and 7.6 rebounds in 19 games with the Raptors after being released by the Orlando Magic, and his new starting salary will be well above $6 million.
Whether it fits into one of the salary-cap exceptions the Raptors will have, available space under the cap or perhaps a traded player exception won’t be known until Friday afternoon, when the moratorium on signings is lifted by the NBA. That’s when the deal that sends Kyle Lowry to Miami will get final approval and the financial repercussions of it will be fully known.
Regardless, the Birch signing is no surprise. The Raptors were intrigued by his athleticism and rebounding in his short stint and impressed with the solid shooting he had not shown in Orlando. With Toronto, Birch was 9-for-31 from three-point range — not great, but far better than he had ever shown in Orlando, where he only attempted 21 threes in almost four full seasons.
Birch will go into training camp as the favourite for starting centre, barring any major off-season moves that president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have left to make. Seeing how the Raptors have no other true centres under contract, Birch is going to have a substantial role whatever else transpires.
After a year away, Las Vegas Summer League is back!
The annual showcase will take place Aug. 8-17 and, of course, your Toronto Raptors are participating. This article is an annual get-to-know for the Summer League roster, which usually has some familiar faces and some, uhh, lesser-known fliers.
But first, a quick look back at the recent relevance of Raptors 702:
- 2015: Norman Powell earns a multiyear deal as a second-round pick, Delon Wright debuts, Bruno Caboclo shows some growth and a handful of players become the core of the first Raptors 905 team.
- 2016: Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl debut, Caboclo and Wright play, Fred VanVleet plays and is eventually signed, three others end up in training camp and four non-Raptors eventually land on Raptors 905.
- 2017: Siakam, VanVleet and Poeltl portend breakouts to come by dominating, Alfonzo McKinnie plays and gets signed, Malcolm Miller gets a two-way deal before getting hurt, Jordan Loyd impresses enough to be kept in mind for 2018 and Kennedy Meeks lands with the 905.
- 2018: OG Anunoby and Malachi Richardson show some development, Miller does the same before getting hurt, McKinnie gets cut shortly after, Loyd fights his way to a two-way deal and Chris Boucher earns a camp invite that he eventually makes the most of.
- 2019: Terence Davis II earns a contract (via Denver), Boucher and Miller take their first steps toward securing roster spots for 2019-20 and Oshae Brissett, in Vegas with the Clippers, impresses enough to be signed by Toronto later.
- General: Powell (twice), Boucher, DeMar DeRozan, Andrea Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas have all earned All-
- Tournament team honors, and Valanciunas won tournament MVP in 2013.
There’s a lot on the line this year too. With so few guaranteed contracts committed for next year, a few of the Vegas Raptors are playing for their guarantee, their roster spot or their start as pros.