Ujiri’s dangerous game pays off for Raptors
The Toronto Raptors overcame years of hurt and wounded expectations when they annexed their first Eastern Conference title with a 4-2 defeat of Milwaukee Bucks. The feeling of euphoria that enveloped Toronto cannot be compared to the gloom that covered the city a little over a year ago when Masai Ujiri, just before the President of Toronto Raptors, made the first of four key moves following the heartbreaking loss to Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 Conference Finals.
Ujiri fired Dwane Casey.
The Indiana native had just led the Raptors to their most successful regular season record: a 59-win run that remains their best mark. Casey was thereafter named the NBA Coach of the Year and the National Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year for 2018. It took guts to make that call. Had Ujiri waited it out and given Casey another chance, there would have been no backlash, but the Nigerian native made the call, and pulled the plug on Casey’s reign. But Masai wasn’t done taking risks…
He promoted Nick Nurse to Head Coach.
After the sacking of the man that was already consensus Coach of the Year, the Toronto Raptors President was largely expected to name another high profile coach as replacement; because his ambition was clear. Masai wants the Raptors to be the best in the East, and compete at the NBA Finals. Surely he would go for ‘experience’? Nope. Instead, Ujiri moved the next piece in the complicated chess game only he understood. His next move wasn’t any less risky…
The Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard.
Now, on the face of it, this was a good move. Many would say brilliant, but for the drama that had followed the player: and the fact that Toronto wasn’t a preferred destination. Kawhi had sat out almost the entire 2017/18 season with an injury that had mysteriously refused to heal. He had a contract that was expiring, and had made his preferred destination (not Toronto) clear. So trading for him was a huge risk. There was no way San Antonio would let a Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP leave for cheap. The price would be steep; all for a player that may decide to walk away after 10 months. But Masai made that call, and in doing so, he took an even bigger risk, one that had double implications, because to get Kawhi…
Masai sent arguably the best player in Raptors history to San Antonio.
DeMar DeRozan had just upgraded to the All NBA Second Team in 2018; he was All NBA Third Team in 2017, is a four-time All Star – including the last three years. He had been in Toronto for nine years and loved the city. Plus, along with Kyle Lowry, they formed a partnership that had taken the Raptors to five straight Playoffs. They are good friends. But to get (the risky) Kawhi, Masai broke this partnership. It led to a cold war between the President and his All Star player in the early part of the season. In fact, during an interview with ESPN, with both player and President on set, Lowry openly told ESPN that he ‘just works with’ Masai. No friendship, no communication.
The Kawhi trade could have disrupted the dressing room of the Raptors, who had an inexperienced coach coming in. That was the size of the risk Masai Ujiri took. But the Leonard trade, and the Nurse appointment had proved to be inspirational.