The Raptors 43-year-old President of Basketball Operations and General Manager, the club’s fifth GM, has used a series of measured moves to re-position the team.
He signed rambunctious reserve Tyler Hansbrough and traded centre Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks for a package that came down to three-point shooter Steve Novak, a first-rounder in 2016 and second round picks in 2014 and 2017.
Ujiri retained head coach Dwane Casey, albeit with a reconfigured coaching staff and brought in depth players D.J. Augustin, Austin Daye and Julyan Stone.
But if the Raptors are to return to the playoffs after a five-year hiatus it will be through evolution not revolution. The trade of Bargnani paled in comparison to the deal Ujiri pulled off in Denver where, as a rookie manager, he sent franchise player Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks.
The Raptors will rely on proven scorer NBA Rudy Gay, veteran point guard Kyle Lowry, the continued development of fifth-year pro DeMar DeRozan and youngsters Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas.
Raptors.com caught up with the reigning NBA Executive of The Year to ask him about returning to Toronto, the meaning of toughness and his expectations of the club this season.
Mike Ulmer: You’ve been on the job for five months and spent long hours on the phone in your first days. What have your first months here been like?
Masai Ujiri: When you first take over a job it’s a whirlwind because you are trying to do 100 things at the same time. It’s begun to slow down. You start to figure out things around the organization. We’ve changed the things we felt needed changing and left some of the stuff we felt didn’t need to be touched. So it’s been a whirlwind, but fun.
Ulmer: When MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke first pursued you he was given little chance because you had enjoyed success in Denver and had only been at the job for two years. What was your first reaction when Leiweke made the approach?
Ujiri: The first thing you feel is happy that someone would approach you for a job as good as this one. Anytime you’re wanted is a good thing but I was very comfortable in Denver. So you feel honoured and humbled but then conflicted. I was very close to Nuggets President Josh Kroenke and the Kroenke family had given me a great opportunity.
Ulmer: How did being named the 2013 NBA Executive of the Year change your standing within the game?
Ujiri: I honestly don’t think it changes how people view you. For me, it wasn’t about the award so much as being humbled that it was the GMs who chose me. The Executive of the Year Award is voted on by GMs. For me, an award like that is about the situation: the players, coaches, the organization, they all contribute to making that award possible. The players were unbelievable, (then coach) George Karl was unbelievable. It was a great partnership with all the people who worked with me.
Ulmer: What are the comparisons between the task you inherit in Toronto and the one you walked into in Denver where the Nuggets has made the playoffs for seven straight years when you took over?
Ujiri: Well, they’re big challenges but that’s why we do the job. You have to face the challenge and try to figure it out. They’re different situations but the challenges are quite the same.
Ulmer: One of those challenges will be to add a level of grit to the organization. What are the elements of resilience you are trying to instill?
Ujiri: Just to be tough out there. You have to believe in yourself. I don’t look at other teams and say, ‘hey, they’re better than me.’ I respect other teams and other players but I think inside us we have to figure a way to be tough, to motivate ourselves and believe in ourselves. To me, that’s a good first step: when a whole team goes out and believes they can play and win.
Ulmer: How aggressive will you be in the reshaping the roster if the team has a slow start?
Ujiri: We’ll figure it out when it comes. It’s going to dictate itself. What I’m going to be looking at is how we progress and grow as a team. If there are things that need to be changed we’re not going to be afraid of that.