For Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, this postseason has been one of vindication, for the criticism he received in firing coach Dwane Casey after another playoff flameout last season and for taking the major risk of acquiring superstar Kawhi Leonard as a potential one-season rental for the express purpose of changing the culture of the franchise.
After the Raptors’ first-ever NBA Finals victory on Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Warriors, Ujiri’s master plan to alter the roster has already proven successful.
It wasn’t that Casey was the wrong coach, but Ujiri believed the Raptors needed a fresh voice. And after Casey, All-Star forward DeMar DeRozan was shipped to San Antonio for Leonard, a quiet mercurial star who had played just nine games the previous season.
Leonard has lifted Toronto to new heights, but there’s still no guarantee he will return next season. Yet it was worth the risk. The Raptors have galvanized all of Canada, shaking it out of its hockey stupor with the Maple Leafs having gone 52 years without a championship.
Ujiri was unpopular in NBA circles for firing Casey, making the coach a fall guy when the dysfunction was organization wide. Casey soon was hired by the Pistons, but his legacy of bringing the Raptors to two Eastern Conference finals has not been forgotten.
“To give Dwane Casey credit, he prepared us for this, too. This is not something that started in one year,” Ujiri said. “I want to say that Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan are a part of this, they are part of our journey and how far this has come.
“So I think Nick [Nurse] has done a great job just taking it from there and building his own identity and building a team that he wanted to coach in a certain way and bringing us to this moment. He’s made the right adjustments, I think. It’s been a roller coaster sometimes. We have had tough games, we have had really, really tough games. Sometimes in this game you need some luck here and there. We’re a hard-working team and I think Nick has that persona and that ethic that really translates to everybody and the organization as a whole.”
The relationship between Ujiri and All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry has been terse in the past, especially when Lowry’s buddy DeRozan was abruptly moved. Lowry made it clear he was unhappy with the deal and has kept in constant touch with DeRozan.
But both soon embraced their new teammates and situations. Lowry became comfortable playing with Leonard and with his role as the senior Raptor, and as more of a distributor with the emergence of Pascal Siakam.
“There’s something about [Lowry] that I just believe in. It’s incredible,” Ujiri said. “We have been through so much and he’s a winner. There’s no other way to put it, he’s a winner. He’s been hit upside the head from every different angle and every different angle in the world, whether it’s personal, everything, and he survives it. Like every day he comes, he comes to win.
“Doesn’t matter what mood he’s in, he comes to win.”
“I saw that one day playing in the gym here when this was still our practice facility here and nobody knew I was watching that day — it was like four, five years ago, and they were playing pickup basketball, and the way he just competed, without anybody being in the gym. There was just five-on-five, and a couple coaches in there. It was preseason and he played his ass off, and that’s just how he is. He leads us I think in the right way.”
A conversation the two had prior to this season cemented their relationship and the organization’s vision of becoming stronger mentally and better prepared for the rigors of the postseason. Down, 2-0, to the Bucks, the Raptors rallied with four consecutive wins, something they may not have been capable of accomplishing in previous years.
“Yes, we have gone through — we have had our ups and downs, but I think this year there was a really good moment where we sat down and we really talked about what we wanted to accomplish, and it’s a tough conversation but these are conversations that you have to have,” Ujiri said. “I did understand how Kyle felt when obviously we made the trade, and it was tough. DeMar is his best friend. I do understand that completely. That’s the toughest part of the business that we all talk about. But in terms of Kyle, I’ve seen him grow — I’ve seen him grow as a person, as a leader on our team, and he can only get better from here.”
Nurse was an interesting choice as head coach because he was an assistant under Casey, so actually how different would the approach be? Nurse has been a coaching wunderkind in his first season, using his lighthearted personality to the players the confidence they needed with some tweaks in strategy.
“I think we needed to figure out a way where we played sometimes a little smarter sometimes, the way we defended sometimes, the way we adjusted to games sometimes, our toughness sometimes, just going through those games and having those sweeps or those defeats, that teaches you,” Ujiri said. “Our team may be hopefully a little bit more versatile. I think we saw when we played Orlando or we played a big team like the Sixers, I think we were able to compete with them. Tough series, but we were able to compete. Same thing with Milwaukee. And I think Nick is able to make adjustments in terms of the personnel we have.”
The biggest difference in the Raptors besides Leonard has been the rapid development of Siakam, a third-year forward who was the 27th overall pick in the 2016 draft. Ujiri, who is Nigerian, saw a young Siakam at the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program in his native Cameroon and wasn’t exactly impressed.
“We all want to act like we know everything, but we don’t. That guy has been incredible and I think his progress you’ve seen,” Ujiri said. “At All-Star [weekend] he elevated. After All-Star he elevated. There was a chip on his shoulder during the playoffs. Everybody said he’s young, a new player in the NBA; he elevated even more. He’s been an unbelievable revelation for us. I know Pascal and we have had these moments of talk, and he specifically said to me a couple years ago that he doesn’t want to be one of those African players that’s labeled, whether it’s a shot blocker or a defender or rebounder or he runs.
“He wants to be a star. He wants to be a versatile player in this league and he wants to be able to do it all. And he’s put the work into it. We all used to hold our breath when he took a 3-point shot. We all used to hold our breath sometimes when he went on the fast break. And now we can’t wait until he does that. Again, it’s preparation, it’s practice, it’s work ethic, it’s that mind-set of winning, and I think he has that mind-set, too.”
It’s all worked out for Ujiri, who like perhaps the Celtics are doing now, learned from his team’s past playoff failures by making daring moves to bring his team on the verge of a title.
Expansion is not on league agenda
Privately, there is regret throughout the NBA that Vancouver was abandoned as a league city too soon, and there’s no question that it would be a viable candidate for a new franchise if the league had any plans to expand.
But it doesn’t. Again, commissioner Adam Silver broke the hearts of prospective NBA locales in Seattle, Kansas City, Vancouver, and Louisville by reiterating that the league has no plans to increase the number of teams. The NBA will stick with 30 teams, and there is no real threat of relocation, although Memphis and New Orleans aren’t flourishing.
“It’s the same as it’s been for other US cities that have expressed interest, and that is that we are just not in expansion mode at the time,” Silver said. “I mean, we’re flattered that some other Canadian cities have expressed interest, as some other US cities have, but again nothing new and I’ve said this before, that we, meaning the NBA collectively, all our team owners, are very focused on creating the best possible competition among the 30 teams. And I’m sure inevitably at some point we’ll turn back to expansion, but it’s not on the agenda at this time.”
When Silver says it’s not on the agenda, that means it’s going to be at least another decade. Silver is the most open-minded of the four major professional sports commissioners — he’s even considering a midseason tournament to determine playoff spots — so his words about maintaining a 30-team league are a crushing blow for those NBA hopefuls.
Silver explained what would encourage league expansion.
“From a league standpoint you’re in essence selling equity in your overall league, and you’re selling a portion of the growth opportunity outside of that market,” he said. “You’re selling the growth opportunity in Africa, and I think what we would be looking at is whether if we’re expanding, not necessarily the short-term benefit of an expansion fee, but is it additive over the long term? Is that franchise adding something to the footprint of the league that the 30 current teams don’t? So that in essence would be the analysis.”
Crowd behavior an ongoing issue
With rapper-actor Drake storming the sideline at Scotiabank Arena and hovering over Toronto coach Nick Nurse, he offers a constant reminder of the pressing issue of fan behavior at NBA games. The league had an issue with Drake walking onto the court and rubbing Nurse’s shoulders during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. There were also problems in Utah when a fan was banned from the arena for yelling racial epithets at the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook. Commissioner Adam Silver said the league will make sure to address the issue but also wants fans to feel comfortable heckling opponents and enjoying their experience, especially with ticket prices increasing.
“What I think we can do is refocus our efforts, as we have this year, on appropriate conduct for fans,” Silver said. “And making sure that there’s a clear code of conduct that’s communicated to fans, that it’s consistently enforced in every NBA arena and that we’re creating a safe environment of course for the players and all the other fans as well. We have redoubled our efforts. We have had lots of conversations directly with the Players Association, the players, because absolutely we want them to feel that they’re in a safe environment and we don’t want them to be distracted during the game or think that they have to take matters into their own hands.
“I actually think, especially not just looking at this year but over my tenure in the league, things have gotten much, much better in arenas than they were in the old days, but there’s always room for improvement.”
The NBA would prefer fans enjoy their experience, jeer opposing players if they choose, but keep it classy. But, of course, alcohol consumption and lack of character can spark offensive comments and behavior from fans. The NBA is the only major sports league in which the fans are mere feet from the action without a barrier of some sort, and issues with overzealous spectators are going to continue, regardless of how much the league dissuades fans from unruly behavior.
“I think there’s always more we can do, and I think standards in society have changed in terms of what’s appropriate for people to say,” Silver said. “I think there is a legitimate expectation that you buy your ticket, you go into an arena, I’m only searching for the right word, call it heckle, that people would say, yes, you’re allowed to yell and scream when a guy’s on the free throw line or whatever else. But then there’s something else that we call hate speech, which is clearly impermissible.”
“And I think the issue is, if we just made a list, we know we wouldn’t capture everything, and there’s some aspect of you know it when you see it. And there’s also some words that otherwise aren’t incendiary, it’s the way they’re said or if they’re said in a threatening manner.”
In Boston, a young fan was banned from TD Garden for screaming a racial remark at Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins. The team and the league reviewed video, identified the fan, and levied the punishment.
“We spend a lot of time talking to security people, ushers in arenas, and a lot of our arenas, or most arenas, now they even put up text hotlines so that a fellow fan can communicate to the arena if somebody next to them is bothersome,” Silver said. “So I think there’s more we can do and we’re very focused on it. I mean, these are incredibly unfortunate incidents, but I also want to send a clear message to those small, tiny minority of fans who might engage in that sort of conduct that it absolutely won’t be tolerated, and also that we’re going to catch you because in every one of our arenas now not only are there numerous high-definition cameras pointed at stands so we’re going to see it, but also there’s 18,000 fellow spectators who are holding high-definition cameras in their hands.”
“So there aren’t many incidents now when a player points something out and says somebody did something, where we’re not going to be able to get tape and see exactly what happened and ban that fan from the arena if necessary.”
The naming of Juwan Howard as the University of Michigan coach is a great move for the school after John Beilein left to become coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Yet it’s another indication that many NBA assistant coaches are growing impatient with going after head jobs and are going to the college ranks. Howard is the second notable ex-NBA player to take a college job this spring, following Vanderbilt hiring former Memphis Grizzlies assistant Jerry Stackhouse in April. Howard and Stackhouse sought out NBA jobs but couldn’t turn down the opportunity to become a head coach at a major school. How they fare will likely determine whether Power Five schools pursue NBA assistants and former NBA players to become head coaches. It didn’t work out with Mike Dunleavy Sr. at Tulane, and Terry Porter has had his share of struggles at the University of Portland. Damon Stoudamire is trying to revive the program at the University of the Pacific, and Utah Valley just hired former Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen . . . The Celtics’ assistant coaching opening is a desirable position among NBA assistants and even former head coaches who want to work with Brad Stevens and the team’s roster. Stevens interviewed former Memphis coach J.B. Bickerstaff, but he took the top assistant position with the Cavaliers under Beilein. One to watch in the search is former Celtic James Posey, whose contract expires with the Cavaliers on June 30. Posey, who is not expected to be retained by Beilein, has a strong reputation as an assistant coach and also served as a head coach with G League Canton. Also available on the coaching market: former Raptors coach Sam Mitchell, ex-Celtic Kendrick Perkins, and former Rockets assistant Roy Rogers . . . The Washington Wizards are still without a general manager three weeks before the draft and with some major roster decisions to make this summer. The club whiffed on its quest to lure the Nuggets’ Tim Connelly, who decided to remain at his current position in Denver as president of basketball operations. The Wizards could make a run at Masai Ujiri, who not only constructed a Toronto team that has reached the NBA Finals but had also rebuilt the Nuggets. What could influence Ujiri to leave are: 1. money and 2. the chance to resurrect another moribund franchise.
Ujiri has shown no desire to take over another club, but he could be swayed by an opportunity for full control and taking another franchise to new heights.