Masai Ujiri Leaves Denver, Joins Toronto

Executive of the Year is usually one of the more easily dismissed members of the postseason prizes. Perhaps because the moves made by an executive, unlike those of a player or coach, are harder to judge within the context of a single season; perhaps because executives are simply less interesting than those who actually play out the games. Regardless, it is unlikely that you remember who won it more than a year or two back, and unlikely that you will ever need to know.

It is rare, however, for a newly minted Executive of the Year to leave his post, which is exactly what Masai Ujiri did on Friday, accepting a 5 year, $15 million offer to become general manager of the Toronto Raptors over re-upping his deal in Denver. And it’s a move that could lead to big changes for both franchises in potentially direction-altering offseasons.

The move is disconcerting for the Nuggets. Losing a young GM who has already swung some pretty successful deals and has drafted well is bad enough; losing the steward of your ship mid-voyage is another. While this Denver team did very well during the regular season, winning 57 games before the Warriors scorched them to the ground, they hardly seemed like a finished product, only mid-way through a process that traced back to Ujiri in every way.

There are only three players on Denver’s roster who are over 26 years of age. Two of them, Andre Iguodala (29) and Corey Brewer (27), are free agents. Losing any one of them would leave a huge hole at the wing, mostly defensively. Then again, Iguodala is an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, two years after being picked to the all-star team, one year after playing for the US gold medal team. Brewer just played the best basketball of his career, playoffs notwithstanding. Both could demand hefty sums, which does not bode well for a franchise that just let their GM go rather than pay him.

The rest of the roster is stocked with young talent on mostly flexible deals. From JaVale McGee’s 3 years, $34 million and Wilson Chandler’s 3 years, $21 million, and through the rookie deals of Jordan Hamilton and Evan Fournier, the Nuggets have more valuable assets than playing time. Part of this is the aftermath of the Carmelo Anthony deal, but ever since that happened, the Nuggets have been committed to simultaneously running an ensemble cast and lurking in the shadows for opportunities. Be it flipping away Nene right after signing him to an extension, jumping into the Dwight Howard trade to acquire Iggy, or snatching Kenneth Faried as a 22nd pick, Ujiri had done well with such opportunities. A different GM might not be as comfortable tinkering with a cadre of toys, and in an effort to move towards a more conventional roster build, could hurt the value of said pieces.

Not that the new Denver GM must be a hard-headed, my-way-or-the-highway hire. It’s very possible that Denver promotes a member of the current staff to head honcho position, and that the organization as a whole stays the course. Ujiri himself was somewhat of an unknown when he got the GM position, after all. But it adds a level of uncertainty to a team that didn’t need it, coming off a stinging playoff upset, amid the aforementioned upcoming roster decisions and criticism of its long time coach.

As for the Raptors, it would be interesting to see how swiftly and aggressively, if at all, Ujiri reneges on some of Bryan Colangelo’s latest moves. Is Andrea Bargnani a dead man walking? (Presumably, as this was believed to be the case when Colangelo was still in office.) Will Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan still be considered cornerstones, despite games that somewhat contradict new-age analytical NBA beliefs attached to massive deals? Is Dwane Casey still in favor? What will be of Kyle Lowry, entering the final year of his contract, after the first season that saw his game regress since his Memphis days? The roster isn’t bereft of talent post-Colangelo, but it is expensive and flawed, and Ujiri will have his work cut out for him.

The good news are that Ujiri did well to cover for Denver’s flaws under a much tighter budget. The phrase “luxury tax”, a taboo in Denver, will be much easier to throw out as a necessary evil towards improving the team, and Ujiri’s creativity in working the trade lines could be even more impressive once those handcuffs are removed. Of course, management could work as a limiting factor as well, with a group that is believed to be locked-in on a playoff appearance at all costs – the type of endeavor that often sells out future success in the name of a year or two of first round exists.

If nothing else, Raptor fans can rest assured that they will no longer be making moves for the wrong reasons. Ujiri isn’t the type of GM to trade for a player in the name of “star power” or “a little credibility around the league”. He’s shown a knack for signing guys to long-term extensions and immediately swapping them for a better deal, a good omen for any concerns about DeRozan’s long term viability or what happens if a Lowry extension goes awry, and a sharp contrast from Colangelo, who for years held on to Bargnani for no apparent reason other than Bargs being “his guy”.

While it’s a shame the Nuggets felt the need to pinch pennies, a potentially exciting Raptors roster just got a man who could very well mold it into something tangible. This may or may not turn out to be one of those behind-the-scene moves that alter two different franchises, but at the very least, the prospects are intriguing.

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.