The Toronto Raptors are moving swiftly to extend the contract of president and general manager Masai Ujiri, nearly two years before his current deal expires.
Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst of ESPN report that Ujiri and the Raptors are in “advanced negotiations” on an extension, one that will keep Ujiri in the fold long-term. Ujiri re-joined the Raptors after winning Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets in 2013 – he was the team’s director of global scouting and assistant general manager from 2007 to 2010 – signing a five-year, $15-million deal. The ESPN reporters aren’t mentioning contract terms yet, but it seems likely the 46-year-old Ujiri is in for a raise on his $3-million average annual salary.
A deal would be a no-brainer for the Raptors and Ujiri alike, and is probably a formality given how solid a match franchise and executive appear to be.
From Toronto’s perspective, they lock up a GM who was sure to be sought after once he was a lame duck, and they do so before any rumors can surface about his potential flight risk. Beyond that, Ujiri’s been at the helm for the best three-year stretch in franchise history as well as its single deepest playoff run, and he’s accomplished those goals while maintaining roster flexibility and keeping an eye toward developing youth at the same time. He was instrumental in the rapid introduction of a D-League affiliate in Mississauga and the BioSteel Centre in Toronto (and shout out to Tim Leiweke, who landed Ujiri and helped a great deal with increasing infrastructure and exposure for the Raptors in his short time), and the franchise recently allowed him commit to head coach Dwane Casey and All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan long-term.
For Ujiri, he gets to stay in a city he loves, with a franchise that’s given him the tools to succeed, as well as to help push his charitable endeavors. He seems a spiritual match with MLSE from a corporate citizenship perspective, and the loss of Leiweke hasn’t led to any change in organizational structure or approach that’s affected Ujiri. He’s the man calling the shots on the basketball side, the organization gives him what he needs (again, see BioSteel and his claims they can spend into the luxury tax once they’re in a cap situation where they’re actually able to do so), and he’s able to freely continue to help build basketball in Africa (Ujiri, the league’s first African-born GM, is actually there right now with Giants of Africa).
From a transaction perspective, it’s true that fortune favored Ujiri when the Knicks balked at a Kyle Lowry trade in the middle of Ujiri’s tear-down, allowing the Raptors to find an unexpected chemistry. Rather than paddle against that current, Ujiri fortified that group, placing an emphasis on culture and continuity but showing little hesitation if a piece (Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams, Amir Johnson) needed to be moved on from, whatever emotional the attachment. He’s been quiet at trade deadlines and had a modest offseason due to salary cap limitations this summer, but he also found bargain deals in Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo, and Jared Sullinger, locked up Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas to what now seem like below-market deals, landed Norman Powell in the second round (it’s too early to judge the rest of the picks he’s made with the Raptors, but insert your Bruno Caboclo joke here), convinced DeMarre Carroll to sign for less than he was offered elsewhere (reportedly), and kept the team’s draft pick war-chest full.
Some were disappointed this summer that Ujiri stood pat, once again valuing continuity and tinkering at the margins while somehow getting even younger, but that was always the likely approach this year, and the Raptors were reportedly close on some more substantial moves that fell through when other dominoes around the league fell. Beyond that, the Raptors are in a good position to make a move during the course of the year if one presents itself, as they won’t be hamstrung by a lack of sizable contracts to match salary this time around (and they own all of their own picks, plus a 2017 Clippers first, as bait). A move may not materialize, but the Raptors should once again be on their way to 50 wins and a chance at a deep playoff run, which is a far cry from where any other GM in team history has had the franchise heading into a season.
Perhaps more importantly than anything else, this echoes the strong signals of stability the Raptors have been sending for some time. Once a moribund franchise known for losing and for its remarkably high turnover – on the roster, behind the bench, and in the front office – the Raptors continue to move forward with the same core throughout the organization. Their reputation has improved as a result, aided by Ujiri’s apparent ability to relate to players and make an impression, plus the city of Toronto’s general growth in popularity, which the All-Star Game only aided. That momentum can take time to manifest into an actual move or competitive advantage, but it would be impossible to argue the Raptors aren’t the healthiest they’ve ever been right this moment.
No, the Raptors aren’t legitimate title contenders this year, and tough decisions loom as to how they’ll get there. For the championship-or-bust crowd, a repeat of the best season in franchise history apparently isn’t worthwhile, but development isn’t linear. The next jump the Raptors have to take is perhaps the hardest for any franchise in any sport – from very good to great – and the Raptors are trying to bet that Ujiri’s the man to take them there.Follow @raptorsrepublic