Few things are tougher than turning around an NBA team that is more used to being at the bottom of the standings than the top.
A perennially losing team typically has a poor culture and a roster devoid of elite talent, which makes the general manager's job impossibly tough.
But can it be done? Can a slick GM manage to complete such a drastic turnaround before he loses his job?
To answer the question, let's look back at the career of the Toronto Raptors' new general manager, Masai Ujiri. After keeping the Denver Nuggets relevant in the post-Carmelo Anthony era, the 2012-13 Executive of the Year is now tasked with making the Raptors into a true contender after 18 years of futility.
This may be unfair to Ujiri, but the answer to the question rests on his shoulders. He's the brightest hope among GMs, and he's already given two clear indications that he's up to the challenge.
A third, which would only come from turning around the Raptors, would affirm the GM's sizable impact.
Few NBA figures show off a bigger combination of intriguing backstory and lack of name recognition than Ujiri. Despite his fascinating journey from Nigeria to the front office of the Toronto Raptors, his name doesn't resonate with the average basketball fan.
Which is a shame.
According to CP-Africa.com, he began his basketball career as a 13-year-old in the streets of the most populous country in Africa, developing a love for the sport and nurturing it every way possible:
It started on the outdoor basketball courts in northern Nigeria where 13-year-old Masai Ujiri and his friends began to play for as long as their parents would allow. On Saturdays his mother bought him a copy of Sports Illustrated or Basketball Digest or any American magazine that could help fill his need for basketball. He and his friends watched VHS tapes of NBA games or basketball movies.
“All of the films,” said Ujiri, who is now the 40-year-old general manager of the Denver Nuggets. “Come Fly With Me, with Michael Jordan, and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, we watched that too.”
Sitting through The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh is the ultimate test of basketball love.
Eventually, his dream would become a reality, as he was given an opportunity to play at Bismarck State College in North Dakota.
He helped lead the team to a 47-16 record over two seasons (1993-95) while averaging 12.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists as a freshman then 16.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists as a sophomore. Those numbers come from Lou Babiarz of The Bismarck Tribune, who also relayed the following quote from Buster Gilliss, Ujiri's college coach.
He was a slasher-type player...He could run and jump, and he was a fierce competitor. On the floor, man, he lined up and played. He was like that every day when he came to practice, too. He was an all-around hard worker and very supportive of his teammates.
Ujiri never became an NBA player, though.
He spent one semester at Montana State University-Billings and then went abroad to play in lower-tier European leagues throughout Belgium, England, Finland, Germany and Greece. He had this to say about his experience, according to Babiarz:
I wasn’t very good, so I was all over the place looking for a job almost every season. But all these experiences really helped me, because I had this little black book where I tried to stay in touch with coaches, I tried to stay in touch with people who had an influence on me basketball-wise. I made a lot of contacts, and that’s kind of how the scouting vision came to me.
The NBA just wasn't in the cards—as a player, at least.
In the following years, Ujiri coached the Nigerian national team, scouted for the Orlando Magic, worked as an international scout for the Nuggets and then joined the Raptors. In Toronto, he was the director of global scouting and eventually became the assistant general manager.
But the next career step thrust him into whatever spotlight exists for NBA front-office members.
He was hired by the Nuggets as the de facto general manager, which made him the first African-born GM ever hired by one of the major American sports teams.
Ujiri's goals have always been twofold: He wants to build a successful NBA team, but he also wants to help promote basketball within Africa. The latter is quite important, but it can't be our focus here because we're using Ujiri as the blueprint of a "slick GM," and the charity efforts aren't tied to his effectiveness in the office.
When he took control of the Denver organization, the team was in shambles. Sure, it was a competitive squad with playoff aspirations, but there were plenty of problems and precious few solutions.
Toro's Ian Harrison went over them in this article from September 2010, right after the Nigerian scout was hired for his new role:
Now all he has to do is keep Carmelo Anthony in Denver, rebuild an injury-riddled frontcourt, and control the combustible J.R. Smith. Welcome to the big time.
Ujiri, the former Toronto Raptors assistant GM and one-time Nuggets scout, officially took the reins in the Rocky Mountain city this week when he was named executive vice-president of player operations, completing a meteoric rise from relative unknown to global basketball savant with connections across the planet, including many on his home continent.
Having watched Chris Bosh’s departure from Toronto unfold this summer, Ujiri knows what he’s up against in trying to hold on to Anthony, who can opt out of his contract at season’s end and is already rumoured to be teaming up with Chris Paul and Amare Stoudemire next summer, forming a New York trio to rival Miami’s Big Three.
“I think there are a lot of challenges in this job, but what job doesn’t have challenges?” asked Ujiri. “How can I turn down a GM job in the NBA just because there are challenges with the job?”
Still, the challenges don’t end with Anthony. Karl is returning from throat and neck cancer, Kenyon Martin and Chris Anderson are coming off knee surgeries and Smith is under police investigation for allegedly choking a player during a recent pick-up game at the team's practice facility.
Given that laundry list, it's hard to believe that Ujiri would hold up the Executive of the Year trophy after just three seasons. Quite frankly, it seemed unlikely that he'd even survive the first year of his tenure with a big office in the Mile High City—especially as he was viewed as a Plan B.
The Nuggets originally wanted to hire David Griffin, but the man who still doesn't even have a Wikipedia page turned down the job. If you're curious, yes, Ujiri has a page now.
Looking back, the GM reveals that his plan was rather simple, courtesy of Babiarz:
We figured we would try to go younger a little bit. Is there a way where we could try to bring some young players together where it doesn’t completely fall down, and start to rise again?
That's exactly what he did.
Ujiri's first two moves were rather nondescript.
He signed Melvin Ely and Gary Forbes out of the free-agency pool, and the two would combine to average 7.5 points per game. Those decisions by no means hinted at what would come next.
In February 2011, Ujiri traded away the unhappy centerpiece of the franchise, shipping 'Melo off to the New York Knicks in a massive, multi-team deal. Essentially, the Nuggets' portion boiled down as follows:
- Gave up: Carmelo Anthony, Renaldo Balkman, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Shelden Williams, 2015 second-round draft pick.
- Received: Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Kosta Koufos, Timofey Mozgov, 2012 second-round draft pick, 2013 second-round draft pick, 2014 first-round draft pick, undisclosed sum of money.
Even though the biggest name ('Melo) was headed to a lower elevation, Ujiri still received praise for his actions. Take this quote from Business Insider's Kevin Baumer, for example:
We'll never know exactly how Ujiri bargained during this process, but we do know the end result. Even though it was incredibly obvious that the Nuggets were going to lose Anthony, and that he was going to end up with the Knicks in free agency if not through a trade, Ujiri squeezed three Knicks starters out of the deal in addition to several draft picks, and a ton of cap savings.
Ujiri would have loved to keep Anthony, but that's not how sports work today. When a star player makes it clear that he's moving on one way or another, it becomes the general manager's job to garner the greatest return possible for the star. That's a tough pill to swallow, but when the GM comes up with a coup like this, he deserves to be lauded no matter what his methods were.
Was he done yet? What do you think?
After the Nuggets went 50-32 and were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the Oklahoma City Thunder, Ujiri drafted Kenneth Faried out of Morehead State and then made a trade that swapped Raymond Felton for Andre Miller, Jordan Hamilton and a 2014 second-round draft pick.
He wouldn't stop dealing after that, making two more trades before the 2011-12 season reached its conclusion. After losing Nene Hilario and a 2016 second-round pick, Ujiri reeled in Corey Brewer, Rudy Fernandez and JaVale McGee, bringing some promising young pieces into the Pepsi Center.
And he still wasn't done.
He inserted the Nuggets into the Dwight Howard sweepstakes and was richly rewarded for doing so. By trading Arron Afflalo (who has yet to live up to the potential that the GM convinced the world he possessed), Al Harrington and a few draft picks, Denver picked up a new All-Star: Andre Iguodala.
At this point, he'd been in charge of the Nuggets' player movement for less than two calendar years. In that time, he'd added Chandler, Gallinari, Koufos, Mozgov, Faried, Miller, Brewer, McGee and Iguodala.
Ty Lawson is the only player who averaged at least 18 minutes per game in 2012-13 for Denver and doesn't find himself on that list. Ujiri completely reshaped the team in just 23 months and turned the squad into a bona fide contender.
And he even re-upped with Lawson on a sub-max contract.
It would have been a travesty if anyone else won Executive of the Year following the Nuggets' 57-25 record, which included a 38-3 record within the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center.
Lowballed by the Nuggets, Getting Paid by Toronto
While a small group of people felt that Ujiri's contributions were overvalued, the Nuggets still had to be disappointed when the GM joined the Toronto Raptors for five years and $15 million.
The link above—taking you to an article from The Denver Post's Adrian Dater—reads like a bitter letter to a significant other right after a breakup. It represents the shortsighted view of the Ujiri detractors.
For example, Dater never mentions Gallinari's torn ACL and the effect it had on the 2013 postseason run.
A salary of $3 million per year is huge for a front-office member and represents a massive raise in pay from Ujiri's previous job. But that's also an indication that NBA teams still don't feel as though general managers hold too much value. That would be a mid-level salary for a head coach, after all.
He was earning less than $1 million with Denver, which made him one of the lowest-paid executives in the game. In fact, the Nuggets have earned a reputation for underpaying their front-office members, which might explain why they've had so much turnover behind the scenes.
The Nuggets had a chance to match but chose not to. As The Denver Post's Benjamin Hochman reported, team president Josh Kroenke wasn't thrilled about losing the shining star of the brass:
Obviously Masai is a big loss for the organization. However, his departure doesn't change anything about my intense desire for success. We have an outstanding young roster and I fully expect us to continue to compete at an incredibly high level. Fifty-seven wins is a tremendous accomplishment, especially for a young team. But make no mistake, we want more and we won't stop trying until we reach championship caliber.
That's my goal and I know I speak for all of our players and coaches when I say that is their goal too.
Of the past five EOY winners (Ujiri, Larry Bird, Gar Forman, Pat Riley and John Hammond), Ujiri is the only one to switch teams, and he did it directly after winning the award.
At first glance, this may appear to be an indictment of a general manager's value. The Nuggets saw firsthand how valuable a great one can be, and they still didn't splurge. However, we have to dig deeper, because it turns out that Denver is right in line with the rest of the NBA in the belief that a GM has a monumental impact on success.
The following quote comes from NBA.com's transcript of Kroenke's press conference after the decision:
Masai and I are very close friends and colleagues here at the Nuggets. I’ve known Masai for a number of years dating to his time here as a scout. Masai, he and I had an agreement. The (prior) agreement that we came to was the number that he asked for. I said yes. So he and I had an agreement moving forward. We were very comfortable and focused on our jobs to make the team better.
When Toronto came calling, that was the one opportunity that I knew he might leave us for. That resulted in Masai and I having a conversation. I said, 'Look Masai, I don’t know what the exact situation is up there, but they did call and ask permission. I’m not sure of the offer that’s going to be awaiting you if you’re their No. 1 choice, but you and I have an agreement and this is the only team I will let you out of our agreement to go discuss. If anybody else called, you and I are on the same page that we were doing this together going forward, but I’m well aware of the relationships involved here and in Toronto.'
It wasn’t a black-and-white situation, which I think a lot of people try to make it around the contract and the money. I don’t think it was a situation regarding money at all. I know people say that all the time because of the dollars that are thrown around in this league, but there are a lot of close relationships involved as well. I think Masai really enjoyed working with me. It was a tough decision for him, but I think to be named the head of basketball for the team that gave him the first real shot in the front office was a tremendous opportunity for him and I wish him the best.
While it would be interesting to learn the exact details of the original agreement, it sounds like Kroenke was just trying to do the right thing. In a way, it's a refreshing piece of management in an increasingly cutthroat sports world, but the decision still harms the Nuggets well into the foreseeable future.
If Kroenke is to be believed, then there's only one takeaway from Ujiri's contract negotiations: The Raptors believe that he can transform them from a perennial NBA doormat into a true contender.
Up to this point in Ujiri's career, that's the second strong testament.
While he didn't technically turn the Nuggets around, he averted disaster. 'Melo leaving without bringing back anything in return would have thrust the Pepsi Center residents to the bottom of the NBA totem pole, but Ujiri didn't let that happen.
And now he's already working on what could become the third testament.
Ujiri took over as the head of all basketball-related activities for the Raptors on May 31.
One month and 10 days later, his first major move was confirmed. He sent Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks for Marcus Camby (who was waived), Quentin Richardson, Steve Novak and three future draft picks.
Bumped into Masai Ujiri and a bunch of second-round picks just fell out of my pockets.— Seth Rosenthal (@seth_rosenthal) July 19, 2013
That would be a fantastic haul for an overrated power forward even if the picks were all going to come late in the second round, but Ujiri managed to steal away a 2016 first-round selection from the Knickerbockers—one that's sneaky valuable.
Let's go over the value of that pick before returning to Bargnani.
Given the current makeup of the roster, it's easy to assume that the first-round pick (which is unprotected, but can be swapped with the Nuggets' first-round pick) will come late in the proceedings. However, that may be a faulty assumption.
At the conclusion of the 2014-15 campaign, every single salary leaves the Knicks' books. Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, J.R. Smith, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Metta World Peace and everyone else will hit free agency, although some of the smaller contracts have option clauses.
There's no guarantee that New York will even be remotely competitive in 2015-16, which means that the Raptors might have turned Bargnani into a lottery pick down the road. Again, there's just no certainty in either direction, but Ujiri is at least getting a top-30 pick out of the deal with potential for more.
And can you imagine how upset the Knicks would be if they traded their future after a lackluster season for a year of Bargnani's services? And at what point does New York realize that it's playing the same role as that guy in your fantasy league whom everyone rips off?
Shouldn't Ujiri be arrested for theft at some point?
While dealing with persistent injuries, the 7-foot Bargnani averaged 12.7 points and 3.7 rebounds, shooting just 39.9 percent from the field during his final season in Canada. As shown by Basketball-Reference, the Raptors allowed four more points per 100 possessions and scored 2.2 fewer when he was on the court.
No matter how deep you dig, nothing about Bargnani's game looks positive other than his ability to space the court. He's an inefficient scorer and one of the worst per-inch rebounders in the Association, and he doesn't even pretend to understand the concept of defense.
He might turn his career around in New York, but he was becoming a benchwarmer in Toronto, the kind of player you trade for a second-round pick and call it even.
Instead, Ujiri got three picks (including the potentially ultravaluable 2016 selection) and one of the best sharpshooters in basketball in Novak.
So much for calling it even.
What Comes Next?
Since trading away Bargnani, the Raptors have added summer league standout Dwight Buycks, Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin and Austin Daye, hoping to acquire depth to a team that could compete for a playoff spot.
But that's not good enough for Ujiri, as relayed by the National Post's Eric Koreen:
I'm on the hot seat now, and I know what it takes to be on the hot seat. That's life. If you choose to be in this position, you have to put yourself in this position and go out there and attack. A championship is what the goal should be here.
You can rest assured that he'll make moves, but we can't predict what they'll be.
Ujiri thinks outside of the box, doing unorthodox things like inking Nene to an extension and then trading him the very next season.
It may take a departure from the standard to take the Raptors to the next level. Since their inception in 1995, Toronto has had only four winning seasons. The best record in franchise history is just 47-35 (both in 2000-01 and 2006-07), and the squad has advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once.
Ujiri will do something radical. Maybe he'll make a controversial draft pick or trade a star like Rudy Gay. But he'll do something, and that's what it usually takes for a GM to turn around a franchise.
The 6'4" man with a great basketball mind has his work cut out for him. It's hard to say it better than The Star's Cathal Kelly: "He had a hill to climb in Colorado; he exchanges it for a canyon wall in Toronto."
I'd substitute "14er" for "hill," but that's beside the point.
Denver hired him to rescue a deal. Toronto is hiring him to rescue a franchise.
As before, he’ll be afforded some time. As before, he has one chance. Given the failures of those who’ve gone before, we’ll forego wishing him luck. If it was down to luck, this team would’ve fluked its way into decency at some point.
Rather than luck, we’ll wish him to be as good as he seems. If Ujiri manages it in this performance sinkhole, he’ll never have to prove anything again.
Having a savvy GM who makes sound decisions, doesn't panic and sticks to a plan is going to be a HUGE adjustment for Raptors fans.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) May 31, 2013
Now Ujiri will somehow turn Gay and Fields into young talented players on flexibile contracts.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 31, 2013
And it should be noted that both of those tweets came on May 31, the same day that Toronto hired Ujiri and long before Bargnani was on his way to Madison Square Garden.
But he has more on his shoulders than just turning around the Raptors and changing the basketball culture in Toronto. If he can do so in a realistic time frame, he'll set a new precedent for general managers and prove once and for all that a savvy front-office member can revive a franchise.
Everything in his career says that he can achieve it.