Ever since the Toronto Raptors climbed to the very top of the NBA totem pole, winning the NBA Championship in the 2018-19 season, Raptors fans have been prepared for any and all comers to try and pry away their masterful President of Basketball Operations, Masai Ujiri.
The Washington Wizards were the first franchise to be connected to Toronto Raptors President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri after the Raptors won the title, with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reporting during the championship ceremony that sources stated that the Wiz would likely be making a ‘prolific offer‘ to Ujiri.
Ultimately Ujiiri decided that a nice salary and the opportunity to rebuild the Wizards wasn’t enough for him to leave what he built in Toronto. The Raptors are off to an amazing start in their first post-Kawhi Leonard year but with only more season left on Ujiri’s contract, more teams will start to show their interest. And perhaps no team has as much intrigue (in terms of a challenge) as the New York Knicks, who are reportedly ‘obsessed’ with Ujiri.
So ultimately we must address the question on the mind of Raptors’ faithful: Would Masai Ujiri actually consider leaving the Toronto Raptors? This writer wanted to write a quick ‘no’, but of course, things are more complex than that.
The first step in tackling this question is being realistic. And realistically, Ujiri could leave the Raptors for any job that’s appealing. He is under contract through the 2020-21 season, making $5 million a year. But it is obviously known information that the Wizards were all-in with a big offer for Ujiri, an offer that would double his salary and give him the daunting task of rebuilding the Wizards.
Reports have stated that Ujiri was genuinely interested in the Wizards job, and I think most can agree that while the Wizards have a great fanbase, there are not one of the league’s “glamour franchises”. This is why when the Knicks rumors pop up, they should be taken very seriously. For all of the dysfunction that the Knicks franchise has endured over the years, they still have Madison Square Garden and the big-market allure that allows them to be in the running for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving following a 17-65 season.
Of course, Durant and Irving would both spurn the Knicks for the Brooklyn Nets and the former would go on to absolutely trash the Knicks, saying that they aren’t “cool” and “can’t rely on their past accomplishments”.
Ujiri would be faced with an uphill battle in New York but they would also likely be matching or exceeding the reported $10 million a year offer the Wizards posing. And while the Toronto Raptors offer him the chance to continue his amazing run of consistency—like six-straight postseason appearances—the money could (and probably should) be a factor for an executive as accomplished as Ujiri. And on top of that, the Knicks have long been after him, just look at this tweet from The New York Times’ Marc Stein from 2017.
The Raptors organization has said nothing but great things about Ujiri and made it clear that they want him to be around for a long, long time. But at the same time, longtime part-owner and Chairman of the Toronto Raptors Larry Tanenbaum also made it clear that he wasn’t rushing to sign Ujiri to an extension ahead of his contract expiring, as picked up on in these statements made to Postmedia/The Toronto Sun:
Masai has a contract that goes for another two years — this season and next season — so there’s really no need at this point (to re-sign him)
-Larry Tanenbaum on Masai Ujiri’s contract
Tanenbaum went on to call Ujiri “the best” and followed that up with “no team can come to talk to him [Ujiri]. That’s tampering. And every owner knows that. Masai is here to stay.”
That certainly sounds like a man who is very intent on keeping Ujiri aboard no matter what. And after what he delivered to Toronto with his bold acquisition of Kawhi Leonard actually turning into an incredible postseason run and the first NBA Championship in Raptors history, there is no reason to believe Tanenbaum won’t open up the cheque book for Masai.
But there are many other factors, ones that we have no way of knowing that will impact how interested Ujiri is in the Knicks. There is, of course, the big rumor that he wants to one day lure reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to the Raptors and one does have to wonder if he would have an easier time convincing “The Greek Freak” to sign up to be the new face of the Knicks, lighting up Madison Square Garden on a nightly basis. But that is a very, very idealistic way of looking at how these situations play out.
For one, the Knicks would have to give up some considerable form of compensation to the Raptors on top of whatever salary they would be paying to get Ujiri in New York. For a Knicks franchise that really needs every asset they can get, giving them up in exchange for Ujiri might not seem like the most tantalizing idea no matter how highly you think of him.
And secondly, the idea of Antetokounmpo actually wanting to play for the Knicks has not been reported anywhere, it’ simply mere speculation at this point. And so if we are speculating, why would Giannis—who at this point we know cares deeply about winning basketball games—choose to join the Knicks over the Raptors if choosing solely between those two?
Ultimately, the chances of Ujiri leaving the Toronto Raptors are still quite low in this humble writer’s opinion. Ujiri is an immensely proud English-born Nigerian who is proud of his philanthropic work and work with the NBA’s international outreach efforts—he was the director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Africa program and founded the Giants of Africa program—so he likely takes special enjoyment in the success the Raptors enjoy while having a very diverse roster with seven different countries being represented, including the franchise’s fast-rising Cameroonian-born star Pascal Siakam, who was originally discovered at a Basketball Without Borders camp.
And finally to circle back to the idea of the allure of the Knicks’ atmosphere and fanbase. The Raptors, again, fresh off of an NBA Championship, have one of the best fanbases in the league and have shown the ability to play winning brand of basketball. The same type of winning basketball that the LA Clippers played that eventually drew Leonard to L.A. (along of course with the likely more important and built-in factor of him being able to go back home).
The point here is while the departure of Leonard may still sting for Ujiri, the fact that he pulled the move off in the first place should give him the utmost confidence that he is perfectly fine going star hunting in the place his family currently calls home, where he already has one of the league’s best players in tow.
Could Ujiri leave the Raptors? Of course. Will he leave the Raptors? Unless the Toronto brass offers Ujiri an incredibly puzzling lowball offer in 2021 or suddenly decides that a haul of assets is worth more to them than Ujiri’s leadership, then no, Raptors fans should rest easy until Ujiri himself gives reason for pause.