TORONTO – Masai Ujiri still hasn’t signed on the dotted line. He hasn’t even sat down at the negotiating table, but on Wednesday he did the next best thing. He opened the door.
The Raptors president used his 45-minute season-ending press conference wisely. His words were pointed and with purpose, as they usually are, and he wasn’t just speaking to the 60-or-so media members on the Zoom call, or even fans listening or watching from home.
Ujiri sent three very clear and very strong messages.
First, he made his plea to the Canadian federal government, who will have the final say in whether his team is able to play home games back in Toronto next season.
“I think the government knows what they need to do,” he said. “We want to play [in Toronto] 100 per cent. We have no interest in going to play anywhere else.
“We have operated at a very high standard and a very high level [in terms of health and safety], and I think we make people happy. Sports make people happy and keep people entertained in many ways. So, I feel strongly about begging them or asking them to include us in the plans to come back here and play.”
Then, he called out the NBA for not doing more to consider and support the Raptors as Canada’s only team during unprecedented circumstances this season.
“I think we got the basic support we needed,” said Ujiri. “But I think it’s difficult sometimes for the league to always include us in everything because we are the one team that is based outside the U.S. I’m sure sometimes it’s a pain in the [butt] for them. But guess what? That is the business you have put yourself in. You have put yourself on a global platform that you have one team in the NBA that is outside the United States and we have to be considered in every single way.”
Finally, and most importantly in terms of deciphering where his head is at going into his highly anticipated contract negotiations, Ujiri challenged the Raptors’ ownership group, Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment.
Ujiri’s uncertain future with the club has been the dark cloud hanging over the franchise all season. With respect to Kyle Lowry, Nick Nurse, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, the 50-year-old executive is the most important person in the organization; arguably the most important person in its history, and he’s about to become a very high-profile free agent.
He had told MLSE that the plan was to let his current deal run its course before sitting down to craft a new one. First, he wanted to oversee the team’s relocation to Tampa last fall, secure new deals for his staff – many of whom were also on expiring contracts – and play out the rest of the season.
With those boxes checked and Ujiri back in Toronto, formal negotiations will begin before the end of the month. Unofficially, they’ve already begun.
Up to this point, Ujiri has kept his cards close to the vest. Even the most plugged-in people around the league haven’t been able to gauge how this will play out. Many of his own colleagues, folks who work alongside him within the organization, still aren’t quite sure which way Ujiri is leaning.
The question has been: What does Ujiri want? Fiercely competitive by nature, he’s always looking for that next challenge and working towards that next goal. But is that next challenge in Toronto or someplace else? Is it inside or outside of basketball?
If you were listening closely, he answered that question on Wednesday. He wants to compete for and win more championships, and he wants to do it with the Raptors, which is music to the ears of MLSE and the team’s fan base. He also laid out his terms, albeit vaguely. His next contract won’t come down to money; he knows he’ll get plenty of it. The deal will hinge on ownership’s commitment to doing what it takes to chase those titles.
“Everybody says, ‘blank cheque, blank cheque,’ but I'm not as much focused on a blank cheque,” Ujiri said. “We have to move forward as a franchise to compete with the best in the NBA. This is all about winning a championship again. Let me tell you something guys, everybody has forgotten what happened two years ago. Okay, yes, we won, but nobody cares anymore. We want to win another one. That's what you want to do. Not play in the play-in game, not play in the playoffs, you want to win a championship. Everybody's like, ‘Why don't you get into the play-in?’ Play-in for what? We want to win a championship here.
“What are we doing to put ourselves in the conversation with all the great teams and all the winners? That's what we want to do and that's the conversation that I'm going to have with [ownership]. And, yes, I'm going to have asks and I'm going to have a lot of things that I think we need to put forward here to address these things and I think ownership is open to hear this. So, in terms of that conversation, that's going to be had.”
If that’s his criteria, we can end the speculation right now – Ujiri will be back with the Raptors.
Although he wouldn’t go into detail on what specifically he’ll be asking ownership for – he did clarify that they’ve shown they’re willing to spend into the luxury tax when warranted – there’s no reason to doubt their commitment to winning at the highest level.
When then MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke and the Raptors poached him from Denver in 2013, Ujiri had a list of demands. He wanted a G League team. He wanted a state-of-the-art practice facility. He wanted his hand-picked front office staff, which included his close friend and now Orlando Magic president Jeff Weltman, as well as Bobby Webster, Teresa Resch and Dan Tolzman. They delivered everything he asked for. They’ve given him everything he’s needed to run the organization and empower his people.
If Ujiri was going to leave it was never going to be because MLSE balked at the negotiating table. Put it this way, you don’t spend the kind of money they’re going to need to spend in order to keep Ujiri – who will command the richest contract in the history of the league for an executive – unless you’re all-in.
The Raptors are all-in on Ujiri and everything he stands for, which includes winning, and it’s not hard to see why.
Sure, he and his front office team aren’t without their flaws. Few have had more success finding and developing talent through the draft, or even outside of the draft. They’ve made smart and opportunistic trades. However, their track record in free agency is spotty, at best. On Wednesday, Ujiri took responsibility for some of the roster construction issues – most notably the mismanagement of the centre position – that set the team back early in the season.
But many of the qualities that make Ujiri such an irreplaceable member of the organization were also on full display during Wednesday’s presser: his drive, his passion, his ability to command a room – even virtually – and his humanity and heart. When he was told how highly his players and coaches have spoken of him over the past few days, Ujiri got chocked up.
“It's hard for me, because these guys are incredible for me,” he said, speaking through the emotion. “To hear them say that, I sometimes honestly don't know what to say. Our players, the coaches, the staff, they're incredible for me. I’ll go to battle every day with those guys. Every single day. I love them like they are my family.”
“At the end of the day, and I told him this, the only reason I’m still here is because of him,” said Kyle Lowry, also a free agent, who admitted that Ujiri’s decision will factor into his own. “Part of the reason I re-signed here twice is because of him.
“He is the best out there. He should be the No.1-rated president/general manager/president of basketball operations. He is that. He will get his payday and it is well deserved and well earned.”
“He’s shown no signs of anything other than commitment towards us throughout this entire year,” Fred VanVleet said over the weekend. “Contracts are contracts and you gotta negotiate. We’ll see where he ends up on and hopefully he’s back with us.”
After listening to Ujiri speak on Wednesday, there’s good reason to believe he will be.