Can New GM Masai Ujiri Elevate Toronto Raptors to Playoff Ranks?

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 31, 2013

May 9, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri during the press conference naming him NBA executive of the year at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Masai Ujiri knows a good deal when he sees one.

Backed into a corner by Carmelo Anthony's incessant trade demands—demands that gave the then-first-year general manager of the Denver Nuggets all of one team to work with in order to facilitate Anthony's request—Ujiri found a way to orchestrate a franchise-saving exchange.

He swapped his disgruntled All-Star along with three reserves for a pair of potent wings (Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler), a competent floor general (Raymond Felton), a high-upside seven-footer (Timofey Mozgov), three draft picks and $3 million in cash.

Ujiri's revamped roster ripped off 57 regular-season wins (third most in the Western Conference) a year later, earning the mastermind Executive of the Year honors. But the hardware was chump change compared to what came next.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, Ujiri has agreed to a five-year, $15 million deal to handle the basketball operations of the Toronto Raptors

The offer was reportedly on the table for a week before Ujiri signed up for his new position and left behind close confidant Josh Kroenke, Denver's team president

But while their relationship may have delayed Ujiri's decision, Denver's low-ball approach may have punched the 42-year-old's ticket out of town. Per Sam Amick of USA Today, the Nuggets coughed up just an annual $1.2 million salary in their less-than-enticing offer.

No matter how convincing Kroenke's arguments may have been, they couldn't have been talking nearly as loudly as Toronto's cash:

More than just the money, though, the Raptors offered their own feelings of familiarity. Before Ujiri landed in Denver in 2010, he had served under former Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo as director of international scouting and later as assistant general manager. Colangelo still works for the franchise, but recently moved to the business side of operations.

Those familiar feelings that Ujiri might be headed for may not be felt among the fanbase. And that's hardly bad news:

The Raptors pulled the right personal strings for Ujiri as well. Toronto offered to support his foundations in his native country, Africa.

Of course, a comfortable work environment and charitable contributions were just the icing on the cake. A $15 million cake at that, one that seems to be only a portion of the delectable delights offered by the team owners, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

The organization committed to more than $24 million in salary for next season's payroll by adding Landry Fields last summer and Rudy Gay weeks before the 2013 trade deadline. That doesn't include the $6 million that could be headed to Kyle Lowry (just $1 million is guaranteed), the $10.75 million slotted for former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani or the $9.5 million owed to DeMar DeRozan in the first season of a four-year extension.

Gay—and his 18.0 career scoring average—was brought in to give the young, talented Raptors a path to relevance that had eluded the franchise since Chris Bosh migrated to South Beach in 2010.

But Ujiri proved he can build a team from the ground up before, and it didn't involve an offseason hamstrung by a possible $72 million payroll (via So maybe the franchise doesn't have to concede a postseason berth just because Ujiri could work himself back into position for a second-straight award:

But perhaps Ujiri doesn't need to be thinking dramatic overhaul.

While Gay's far from a media darling (see: 41.6 field-goal percentage, 15.6 player efficiency rating last season), he helped turn a 16-30 team into a .500 club (18-18 after Feb. 1). A .500 record would've meant a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, where the Milwaukee Bucks snagged the eighth seed at 38-44.

But the franchise didn't simply have a playoff berth in mind when it littered the hoops world with blank checks.

The organization wants to see substantial returns on its investments, ones that Ujiri both has enjoyed himself and now must properly piece together.

He's got some things already working in his favor. Gay's an elite-level scorer, DeRozan (18.1 points per game) isn't far behind, Lowry has posted back-to-back plus-17 player efficiency ratings and 2012-13 rookies Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are only going to get better.

But Ujiri has some issues to address, too. He has to find a way to get Bargnani's deal off the books, be it through trade or amnesty. Fields (5.2 million) and Linas Kleiza ($4.6 million) should follow Bargnani out the door.

The Raptors need some floor spacers; Toronto shot just 34.3 percent from long range this season, 25th in the NBA. And they could use some interior depth, with Ed Davis now in Memphis and Bargnani (shooting 39.9 from the floor and pulling down just 3.7 rebounds per game while playing 28.7 minutes a night) lobbying for garbage-time duty.

Ujiri shouldn't be facing anything near the Melodrama he endured in Denver, but he also doesn't have the same level of quality assets. That means his magic moments may not be so apparent, but might not be as necessary, either.

A playoff berth isn't the goal anymore; it's the expectation. And looking through a five-year lens, Ujiri seems ready to once again shatter expectations.