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Chisholm: Money talks
Money Talks: Ujiri’s In |
June 1, 2013
Money Talks: Ujiriís In
Once you saw the money that MLSE was willing to throw at Masai Ujiri to convince him to come to the Toronto Raptors, you knew it was only a matter of time before he accepted their overtures. The Raptors sextupled Ujiriís 2012-13 salary, taking him from $500, 000 to $3-million per year, and tagged five years on the contract as the cherry on top of the sundae. In this league, thatís as close as you get to true job security without being R.C. Buford, and it should come as no surprise that Ujiri took it when it became clear Denver wouldnít come close to matching that offer.
For Ujiri, though, money was only one (albeit large) part of the story. In Toronto, Ujiri will have total autonomy to run the basketball operations for the Raptors. He was part of a larger superstructure when he was with the Nuggets, and if he chooses he can recreate that kind of environment in his new job, but it would be his choice to do so. If not, he can run a one-man operation and be left totally alone (so long as heís successful). Ujiri is a basketball obsessive, and there can be little doubt that control played a significant role in his decision to relocate.
How he will exert that control in Toronto, though, is at the forefront of everyoneís mind.
While in Denver, Ujiri never really had to deal with the kind of clean-up job that heís now facing with the Raptors. In Denver he got to make his roster moves from a position of relative strength. Teams coveted Carmelo Anthony, for instance, so much so that he could play New York and New jersey off of each other to get the best possible package for the Nuggets in 2011. He managed to turn NenÍ into JaVale McGee and Arron Afflalo into Andre Iguodala because people wanted his assets. That makes trading a lot easier. He didnít have massive dead-weight contracts that he had to excise, instead he got to engage in trade talks with teams knowing that he had players that other teams coveted.
In Toronto, heís got guys like Andrea Bargnani, Linas Kleiza and Landry Fields eating up massive amounts of cap room and no one lining up to give meaningful pieces back in exchange for them. Heís got two highly paid wings in Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan that put up a ton of shots, hit a low percentage of them and canít knock down threes. Heís got a point guard that spent most of last season struggling to co-exist with his head coach. Heís got no backup point guard, no backup bigs, precious little three point shooting and no money to spend to fill any of those holes this offseason.
Were it not for Jonas Valanciunas, it would be exceedingly hard to see where Ujiri would even start when it comes to remaking the Raptors.
Fortunately Valanciunas gives him a base. Heís the teamís rock. He is the guy that the Raptors need to start tailoring their roster around. It doesnít meant that Valanciunas is their franchise player or will even be their best player when all is said and done. When Ujiri was re-imagining the Nuggets, he used Ty Lawson as his epicenter, creating an up-tempo roster to suit Lawsonís speed and aggressive style of play.
Similarly, assembling a roster that makes Valanciunas as effective as possible is at least a tangible goal that Ujiri can get to work on starting next week; it can bring focus to a terribly unfocused roster. It will probably take more than one summer, or even one year, to put all the necessary pieces in place around him, but having that as a goal at least gives the team a direction to move in going forward.
That means that this team is going to need floor spacers to give Valanciunas room to operate in the post. They need players who know how to throw entry passes. They need cutters who know how to exploit defenses that overcommit when Valanciunas has the ball. They need guys who know how to run an effective pick-and-roll. They need defenders that know how to steer their opponents to help keep Valanciunas from picking up cheap fouls trying to cover for the guys in front of him.
All told, they need a significant remodeling job, which technically we already knew or else Bryan Colangelo would still be running the show instead of Ujiri.
What we donít know is how Ujiri is going to go about remodeling this team. In Denver he was the ultimate opportunist. Anthony wanted to be traded and so he extracted the best deal he could find when he moved him. McGee had worn out his welcome in Washington (as Andre Miller had in Portland) and Ujiri exploited those developments to his advantage. Iguodala was a loose pawn in the larger Dwight Howard-Andrew Bynum trade and Ujiri snuck in a stole him when he sensed an opportunity to get one of the leagueís elite perimeter defenders.
In Toronto, though, heís going to have to be more proactive. He has a lot of detritus heís going to have to clean out before he can start waiting for opportunities to fall into his lap. Getting rid of Andrea Bargnani has to be priority number one. The shadow he casts over this organization is long, and Ujiri needs to remove it as soon as possible. However, heíll be dealing from a position of weakness, as Bargnani did so much damage to his reputation this year itís hard to imagine any team being eager to take him on without a sweetener. Heíll also need to decide whether or not to amnesty Kleiza this summer and figure out how he can address the inefficiency on the wings.
Fortunately for him he inherits one of the leagueís best analytic crews, which might help give Ujiri a leg up when it comes to searching for creative ways to address Torontoís problems. If he basically has to take back the same salaries that heís sending out, he can at least look for guys that can provide value to his club, if not inherent value to the rest of the NBA. Itís like when the Spurs picked up Stephen Jackson last season. The Spurs desperately wanted out from under Richard Jeffersonís contract, and while Jackson would have been a terrible fit with most teams, he gave San Antonio exactly what they needed upon his arrival. The Raptors arenít going to turn Bargnani into Kevin Love, but if someone elseís trash fits Torontoís roster better than Bargnani does then it helps the club inch forward, which is how Ujiri will probably go about remaking his new team Ė one inch at a time.
Ujiri doesnít have the itchy trigger finger that Colangelo had. Heís active and heíll make moves, but he doesnít have that same compulsion to make moves that saddled Colangelo with so many bad deals. Colangeloís gunslinger mentality was exactly what Toronto wanted back in 2006 once Rob Babcock became shell-shocked after a string of embarrassing transactions. However, his need to be active in the marketplace saw him spend too wildly and too recklessly far too often. Thatís not a problem that Ujiri has. Heís going to nip and tuck. Heís going to assess the problem areas and then scour the league for possible solutions. He wonít try and force through bad deals, heíll wait until a deal that benefits the Raptors makes itself known and heíll push it through. There should be no doubt that a couple of those moves will not sit well with fans because they will only be seeing step one or two of a ten-step process, but Ujiri wonít let that phase him. His name was dragged through the mud when he was perceived to be stalling on the Anthony front, at least it was right up until people saw what he got for Anthony, then his patience was lauded and his franchise was setup for the next several years. If nothing else, Ujiri demonstrated mindful patience while with the Nuggets, which was no doubt a quality the Raptors prioritized after the go-go-go Colangelo administration.
Itís funny, then, to look at the parallels between the situations that brought both Colangelo and Ujiri to Toronto Ė especially considering how strongly the Raptors want Ujiri to diverge from Colangeloís now-abandoned plan. Ujiri got basically the same five-year, $3-million-per-year deal that Colangelo got when he was first hired by the Raptors back in 2006. Ujiri was available because, like Colangelo, he was being lowballed in contract talks with his current employer. Both were effectively hired to be an antidote to the man they were replacing (of course, the Raptors didnít keep Babcock on as president when they originally hired Colangelo), and both were effectively handed the same mandate: turn a struggling franchise into a winner.
Ujiri, though, is no Colangelo, which is why he was pursed so hard and is being paid so lavishly. It will be very interesting to watch him make his first moves as the general manager of the Raptors, to see him begin to dismantle a roster that Colangelo was so high on only two months ago. Ujiri will meet with the Toronto media for the first time next week and then heíll get to work as the fifth GM in team history. The Raptors continue to build on their track record of luring top executive talent north of the border, now they just have to hope that their latest acquisition can do a better job of building a winner than the man he is replacing could manage.