Masai Ujiri can relate to newly hired Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman’s current predicament better than any other NBA decision-maker. Ujiri also took his first job at a tumultuous time for his franchise, with a superstar demanding to be traded – with the New York Knicks on the list – and immediately testing the resolve of the new guy.
The unflinching manner in which Ujiri approached dealing Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets, and the massive haul he harvested despite minimal leverage, quickly vaulted his reputation around the league. Within three years of that trade, he had already moved on to the Toronto Raptors. And within seven years, the same Knicks organization that Ujiri ransacked in the Anthony deal strongly considered him as a candidate to replace departed team president Phil Jackson. The Raptors and their fans were relieved that nothing came of that interest, leaving Ujiri to continue his plan of keeping alive the most successful run of relevance in franchise history.
Before the Cavaliers appeared on the verge of imploding because of owner Dan Gilbert’s refusal to bring back former general manager David Griffin and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving’s stunning trade demand, Ujiri had already decided that the best way to confront the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions was to run it back with the Raptors core rather than rebuild.
LeBron James has ruled the East for seven straight springs – and will still be favored to make it eight, regardless of how the Irving saga ends. Kyle Lowry expressed the helplessness of the conference’s other 14 teams while the Cavaliers were in the midst of their second-round sweep of Toronto when he stated, “nobody is closing the gap on him.” DeMar DeRozan said after the series that the Raptors would’ve won – if they had James. Ujiri is approaching the challenge from another perspective.
“Our job is to beat him,” Ujiri recently told The Vertical. “You have to figure it out. If not, then go play in some other league or something. Go play in Greece. Our jobs, and the jobs of the players, [are] to figure out how to beat those guys. If not, you might as well give them the championship before it starts. I understand how good he is and I understand how good those teams are, but those things end. At some point, somewhere, somehow, we as leaders of our group, we have to figure out a way and motivate our players and give them the confidence to go out there and compete.”
If Ujiri had decided to hit the reset button on the franchise after a feeble postseason run, the decision would’ve been understandable considering the Raptors appeared to have taken a step back from the previous season. Ujiri saw Toronto’s inability to return to the conference finals – or perhaps go further – as an opportunity to double-down on what had been built. Fifty-win teams remain hard to assemble and finding All-Star talents in the draft and free agency the caliber of DeRozan and Lowry requires even more good fortune. Also, the trade-deadline deals for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker never provided the expected impact, in part because Lowry missed 21 games after the All-Star break with a wrist injury.
“I don’t think we took a step back. I don’t like making excuses, but many things didn’t line up well. That was not a good feel,” Ujiri told The Vertical. “There’s no excuses for us. Cleveland was better than us at the time, so we have to regroup, come back and try to get a training camp out of it and grow from there. … There were times when our team was a little funky and we couldn’t get it together. You have to dig in-depth and find out what went wrong, and some of it, I think, it was complacency sometimes. Sometimes, it was chemistry. And sometimes, it was our style of play. Sometimes, it was us, individually. When we go back to the drawing board and address those issues with everybody, and everybody figures out, ‘This is what I didn’t do so well,’ and, ‘This is what we didn’t do so well.'”
Despite the Raptors failing to increase their win total for the first time since he took over as general manager in 2013, Ujiri felt that maintaining continuity with some minor tinkering would be the best way to remain relevant in a beleaguered conference. Ujiri locked up Lowry with a mutually beneficial, three-year, $100 million contract that gave his two-time All-Star point guard a favorable annual salary without a long-term commitment. Ibaka re-signed for three years and $65 million. Banking on the development of backup point guards Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet, Ujiri sent hometown favorite Corey Joseph to Indiana for versatile, sharpshooting forward and locker-room glue guy C.J. Miles. And, recognizing a fit that never was, Ujiri shipped oft-injured forward DeMarre Carroll to Brooklyn in a salary dump, opening up deservedly more playing time for Norman Powell.
Atlanta, Chicago and Indiana have all decided to start over, selling off All-Stars to the Western Conference in the process. The expected decline of three playoff teams inadvertently propped up contenders in the East – like Boston, Washington and Toronto – that made an honest effort to field a competitive team.
“To me, sports is all about expectations. You play to win. Nobody should be afraid of it. If you are expected to win, win. It’s that simple. The people that believe in it, that are expected to win, we must win,” Ujiri told The Vertical. “I think we gave ourselves a two-, three-year window, but I think a couple of teams decided to go the other way. I know people say the East is bad, but every NBA team is good. Even the teams that are rebuilding, that’s a game every night. We lost a bunch of games last year to teams that supposedly you’re supposed to beat. Everybody thinks that the East is going to be weaker. I think it’s because of the teams rebuilding.”
Ujiri and the rest of the league eagerly await how Altman will eventually resolve the Irving situation – whether the Cavaliers do nothing and hope James and Irving can reconcile; make a trade that strengthens the roster with veterans and promising future prospects or accept pennies on the dollar; or decide to wait until February’s trade deadline to move him. The goal for the Raptors will remain the same: solve James before he gets too old or too bored for the exercise.
“I can’t run and hide under the table just because they tell me those [James-led] teams are that good,” Ujiri said. “We want to freaking beat them. That’s the point of the league.”
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