6/4/13

Mood In Raptorland Has Changed As Masai Ujiri Returns To Toronto


It had the feel of a Media Day, but that is still months away and Masai Ujiri will make many important decisions between now and then. Today was just the beginning of what is expected to be five years for Masai Ujiri running the show in what he affectionately referred to as his home in his opening remarks. What is clear is Masai is passionate and far less forthcoming than the man who hired him for his first tour of duty Bryan Colangelo.

What was the same was the talk of the goal being to win a championship which I am fairly certain Bryan Colangelo had when he arrived. There was a lot of the standard talk of what a great organization that MLSE is. If you are thinking it was all the same it clearly wasn’t and that is not just with Ujiri who after answering several questions about how he and Bryan would get along put an end to it by saying there is “ zero” issues between himself and Bryan Colangelo. That he “is on the hot seat” as Ujiri referenced several times in his remarks. Maybe to drive that point home Ujiri’s title is President of Basketball Operations and General Manager of the Toronto Raptors.

It was not just Ujiri that was impressive today it was also Tim Leiweke that just recently officially took the reigns at the head of MLSE. He made it crystal clear that the era of spin and false expectations was over and this was an ownership group that was committed to winning an NBA Championship. Something that Ujiri said was essential to be the goal of the organization. To simply make the playoffs and be competitive is not the goal.

The mention of no spin almost felt like an indirect shot at the Colangelo era in which almost everything seemed to be spun and re-spun in the past. Expectations were often set to be too high over the years. One of Colangelo’s major failures was his handling of the Chris Bosh situation. One of the things Chris Bosh said on his way out the door to Miami who will be in the NBA Finals for a third straight season was his belief that you had be a luxury tax team in order to truly compete for a title. He was right and it was something this organization under Colangelo was very unclear about their intentions in that regard. They always claimed to be willing but never followed through with the action to take this team to another level in terms of spending.

Today when the question was asked about if the Raptors intend to be a tax team the answer was much clearer. Ujiri said he was assured that this organization is willing to spend beyond that limit if need be. This was echoed by Tim Leiweke. It makes the massive task ahead for Ujiri a little less of a burden and gives him a lot more options in a situation that if things stayed the status quo would have been much more difficult.

Don’t be confused in the fact there is a lot of things to do and get done for Ujiri. He was asked about the future for Dwane Casey and while he would not commit to it 100% it certainly seemed he was leaning and willing to let Dwane Casey play out his deal. He would not commit to that fully and said he need to continue to have conversations with Casey and exchange their visions and philosophies to the game. Bryan Colangelo in a similar situation would allow Sam Mitchell that chance to save his job. He took full advantage and one the Coach of the Year award and forced Bryan’s hand to re-sign him. Ujiri wasn’t here at that point but he could follow a similar path here with Casey and roll the dice.

He talked about developing some younger players with the back end of the roster. That is in vast contrast to the vision Colangelo had talked about with adding veterans to this core group. The plan has obviously changed now but to what remains to be seen. Masai Ujiri did however say that the direction they are heading will become clear.

It is a stark contrast to hear Ujiri speak in comparison to Colangelo. He was far less forthcoming but far more passionate and emotional in what he does say. He says what he wants to nothing more and nothing less. He talks about trying to be positive. He says he is well aware of the problems from taxes to immigration and other things that are said about the Raptors. To that he said he doesn’t care and basically said it was his job to establish a new identity and not get caught up in these things or use them as excuses.

You walked away with a crystal clear vision of who is running the show. Ujiri was and he had Tim Leiweke backing that up on the part of ownership.

In 18 years we have likely heard it all and have likely rightful become jaded which Tim Leiweke seems to understand. He can’t do anything to erase the past but he seems extremely focused on making up for that past and offering a much more honest and focused future.

Will see how it all plays out but Ujiri clearly is a different type of animal from Bryan Colangelo and if you didn’t walk away with that understanding from the events of today I can only assume you didn’t watch or feel asleep.

At the very least from what we have seen since Tim Leiweke as arrived he has earned the right to be given a fresh page to write on. Same is true for Masai Ujiri. He talks about the passion he has to succeed based on being the first to do what he has done from Africa where he is from. It seems to drive him more than anything. In his mind he can not afford to fail. That is the type of attitude you can respect and get behind.

Raptors have had many New Days in their 18 years in league. Another one is here and more than many in the past I find myself desperately wanting to believe in this one.  Maybe because a lot of things I have expressed over the years about the Raptors seem part of this platform or vision that we have been given an early glimpse of.

Still, the mess that Bryan Colangelo has left behind is a tough hole to climb out of. It will not be easy and it will take more than a couple miracles to make it happen. Who better to perform them than a true pioneer for his country and continent? A man that walked into Denver and was predicted to be doomed based on the “MeloDrama” that awaited him. Questioned and criticized along the way as he refused to have his hand forced to trade his star player.  In the end coming up with a trade that helped the Denver Nuggets not just survive life after Carmelo but thrive without him. This is a guy that is not afraid to stick to his guns no matter what you think, I think or anyone else thinks.

Can he truly be the Raptors Messiah that Colangelo was supposed to be? Only time will tell but I am left to wonder if this guy can’t get it done at this point can anyone? Will see….Will see.

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