Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Nets’ Kevin Durant lead the NBA’s first All-Star fan voting returns: pic.twitter.com/3812PFdcGb
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Masai’s general approach is rooted in his time abroad. “It exposed me a lot,” he says. “It helped me know the game was going to get global. And once it does, there are going to be players all over the world.” That experience made him see basketball more strategically. “You grow up out there. You’re out there on your own. There’s so many things you have to figure out: There’s language, cultures, different styles of play, learning how it all translates to the game over here. And you learn to judge specific types of talent.” It’s easy to assume Masai had a baked-in advantage for the NBA’s era of drafting international players. But just being there before everyone else isn’t always enough. “It’s not easy, you know,” Masai says. “There’s almost no right or wrong [out there]. You just have to figure it out.”
Agents speak of Masai as if he were a family member. “He makes it feel like I’m talking to an old friend,” says three-time NBA champ turned Wasserman agent B. J. Armstrong, “whether you are in a negotiation or just talking about life or visiting him at a game.” Armstrong says he once told Masai he was passing through town and would say hello if Masai wasn’t busy. “I didn’t expect him to call me and say he was leaving me two tickets, front row, a parking pass, and would make sure someone came and got me at halftime to bring me to wherever he’s at to make sure we say hello. And then,” Armstrong says, almost guffawing, “he asked me if I needed a ride or anything to the game! Like, I didn’t ask for any of that. Who goes out of their way to do that?”
In a business of around-the-clock scouting and player monitoring, plus development and backdoor dealmaking, genuineness—or at least a forthcoming attitude—can make a world of difference. “That’s something people recognize: All you really have is your reputation. Business is a long time, so people remember how they’re treated,” Ernest “Kiki” VanDeWeghe, the Nuggets’ former general manager, tells me. Whether you win a deal or not, folks know what happened in the room. One of the things VanDeWeghe tried to impress upon Masai, he says, was to always consider who’s on the other side of the table.
“One thing we always tried to do in Denver, and I think Masai tries to do this as well, is, before you go, try and make a deal with somebody: You always think about what they need, and if you were sitting in their shoes, what would you be looking for?” he says. “Not everybody approaches a deal like that. Even though he’s trying to make the best deal for his team, he also recognizes you’re going to deal with agents and team executives again. If you treat them well and think about how you can help them accomplish their goals as well…it’s an approach that resonates with people.”
Thorpe says that Masai “knows everybody and has no enemies.” He thinks of him as a “super connector,” endlessly building out “Masai’s Sphere of Influence.” “It was important who he knew on the inside: what assistant coaches, the seven-footer everyone loves that’s really lazy, or the guy that got hurt when he was 17 but could be really good when he’s 20. Inside information is really valuable,” he says. And Masai learned early on, he says, how to wield it as currency. Thorpe says that when Masai was a lower-level executive with the Nuggets, he maintained a home in Phoenix. Thorpe was training several NBA players, and “there was a club in Phoenix a lot of the players would always love to go to. It was a place I did not want my guys to go to the night before a game. So I called Masai,” who said that “of course” he went to that club, because that’s where players went. “Never once did he say one of my players was there, but that doesn’t mean he was telling the truth,” Thorpe says, laughing. “He was also probably loyal to his guys.”
The key to Masai’s success is not just that he can find prospects no one else is looking for, Thorpe says. It’s his ability to build a winning culture. “Look at the Sacramento Kings: You can’t tell me they’ve just picked bad players, because they haven’t. They just have no idea what they’re doing with the talent; they don’t know how to build the culture, pick the right coaches, or do the right player development. They have failed and failed and failed,” Thorpe says. “But Masai can take a player, and if that same player was taken by the Kings, they wouldn’t be the same player they are now, on the Raptors. That’s where his sphere of influence has been the most profound.”
The big thing Masai learned from Colangelo, before he got the Denver job, was how well you have to work the margins and the details that can separate you from your competition. “He knew everything in the building,” Masai says of Colangelo. “Some people criticize that he was too passionate or detailed, but to me, that’s an excellent character trait to have.” Masai found a man who breathed the same air he did. “He lived, dreamed, ate basketball.”
Which meant what was happening in Denver was something he was prepared for. It took months, but Masai never sweated. He sent Melo to New York, and the Nuggets, using the bounty Masai had secured, sprinted to the playoffs and instantly became a consistent contender. In 2013, he was named Executive of the Year, the only non-American ever to achieve that, and the third Black person to do so this century.
Yet none of that really made an impact.
“To be honest,” he says, looking away from me and toward the ceiling. “I was still in it. I was chasing a championship. I didn’t even see at the time that I won Executive of the Year or all the records. All that came to my mind was: How do you do it again? How do you go forward? How do you win? How do you continue to excel? How do you evolve?… At that time, what I did, that’s not success.” He takes on a condescending, self-deprecating tone. I cannot tell if this is Masai Ujiri or his mother criticizing her son. “Oh, you won so many games? You won Executive of the Year? That’s not really success. You are trying to get to here,” and he raises an invisible bar above his head for effect. “Anything under there?” he says. “It’s ordinary.”
Even if the awards didn’t satisfy him, they pointed out obvious inequities in the game. The fact that there aren’t enough Black folks on NBA sidelines and in C-suites, let alone taking home those awards? Well, that pissed him off. “We just don’t get the chance. That’s the honest truth. Why is that?” he asks, beginning to heat up. “If you really wanted to hire a Black coach or scout, be intentional! Go and find the best ones! Do the homework!”
He starts slamming his hand on a table. “Don’t just say these are the five candidates, and there are no Black people there!… It’s embarrassing when people say that I was the only Black president in all of sports. There were a few GMs, but the only Black president in all of sports? That’s disgraceful! Sports are dominated by Black people. It shouldn’t be this way. We should be given a chance.”
Justin Champagnie: The Raptors should only draft undrafted players.
Champagnie just knows how to play. He hit four 3s against the Spurs, which isn’t going to happen most nights. However, he has a sense of where to place himself offensively, whether it is a cut off the ball or tracking down a rebound.
“He’s out there impacting the game like crazy and I’m sitting over there thinking, ‘Jeez, I gotta get OG back here. I gotta get Scottie back. … Gary’s over here (on the bench) and … I don’t really want to take him out because he’s getting a bunch of loose balls and all that kind of stuff,’” Nurse said. “But that’s kind of the role. He’s a young guy, but he’s just doing what he does, man. He’s got an incredible nose for the ball.”
In Champagnie’s 39 minutes over the past four games, the Raptors have outscored their opponents by 26 points.
According to the NBA’s on-off court stats, VanVleet is the team’s most important player by at least one measure. With VanVleet on the floor, Toronto boasts a net rating of 6.1 – meaning they outscore their opponent by an average of 6.1 points per 100 possessions. With VanVleet on the bench, they’re a dismal minus-12.3. That’s an 18.4-point differential per 100 possessions, by far the most dramatic swing on the team. That wouldn’t be a problem if VanVleet could play 48.5 minutes a night.
Alas, reality. And so go the perils of employing the NBA’s least productive bench. VanVleet’s indispensability is an indictment on the performance of Toronto’s would-be backup point guards, Dalano Banton and Malachi Flynn. Both have shown flashes of promise, sure, and for a lot of this season Banton, the rookie second-round pick from Rexdale, looked to have leapfrogged Flynn, a 2020 first-round pick, in the rotation. But lately Nurse hasn’t seemed particularly enamoured with either. Neither Banton nor Flynn has managed more than six minutes of playing time during Toronto’s current four-game winning streak. Neither got off the bench in Wednesday’s victory in Milwaukee.
If that’s going to be the case going forward, maybe it calls into question the wisdom of allowing the other backup point guard on the roster — 35-year-old veteran Goran Dragic — to essentially take his ball and go home on a team-approved leave of absence. After all, if you’re not using the minutes Dragic left vacant to develop Banton and Flynn, what are you using them for? If you’re a serious playoff team — and the Raptors occupied seventh place in the East heading into Thursday’s slate of games — the lack of reliable depth at such a key position has to be a concern. So maybe, if the Raptors continue their push toward sustainable credibility, there’ll be a trade in the offing to address the weakness.
As it is, the Raptors are using the black hole at backup point guard as an opportunity to try something completely different. Nurse spent a lot of the nine-plus minutes with VanVleet on the bench in Milwaukee using a lineup that didn’t include a single guard, let alone a traditional point guard. Instead, the look featured five forwards: Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher. All five players ranged between six-foot-seven and six-foot-nine, which made it a big lineup by the standards of a typical NBA backcourt and a small one by the measure of most NBA front lines. And while Siakam and Barnes were essentially the primary ballhandlers, the idea was that almost anyone could slot into almost any spot, one through five, both on offence and on defence — a positionless, switchable fivesome.
“I think it gives us a lot of flexibility,” Siakam told reporters. “We’re able to switch one through five. Guys are about the same size, about the same wingspan or whatever the case may be, just being able to switch on hand-offs, pick-and-rolls, whatever the case may be, and just playing out the offence, scramble, run around, get rebounds …”
Not that anything was set in stone. Nurse called the look, a version of which he rolled out in Sunday’s win over the Knicks, “pretty experimental.” And Boucher was swapped out for Gary Trent Jr. more than once in a nod to the deployment’s obvious downside. On a team that struggles to create and make shots in half-court situations, Toronto’s guard-free unit is undoubtedly short on shooting. Which has already led opponents to the obvious counter: Play zone defence and watch Toronto’s guardless unit struggle to score.
“It’s like the first time you’re (using that lineup), you’re looking at that on paper and wondering how that’s gonna function,” Nurse said. “I think there’s a lot of learning to be done there. There’s some possessions they go zone on us, which we’ll probably see quite a bit with that lineup.”
Still, Toronto’s counter to the counter is obvious enough: Use the lineup’s combination of energetic athleticism and disruptive length to create turnovers and snag rebounds and run the break to its quick-strike advantage.
Bryan Hayes, Jeff O’Neill and Jamie McLennan are joined by The Athletic’s Senior NBA writer Sam Amick to discuss the perception of Scottie Barnes from outside the Toronto market.