How Masai Ujiri built the champion Raptors where every piece mattered

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Jun 13, 2019; Oakland, CA, USA; Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri celebrates after the Toronto Raptors beating the Golden State Warriors in game six of the 2019 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 13, 2019; Oakland, CA, USA; Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri celebrates after the Toronto Raptors beating the Golden State Warriors in game six of the 2019 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

During last year’s nightmare second-round series against the Cavaliers, C.J. Miles addressed reporters at morning shootaround ahead of Game 4 in Cleveland, the final game of the DeMar DeRozan-Kyle Lowry-Dwane Casey era. Miles was in a reflective mood.

The team had won 59 games in the regular season, earned the No. 1 seed in the East and the belief of many experts entering the postseason was that this was the Raptors’ time to break through. Instead, their season would end just as the previous one, a sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavs. Miles sat by the stanchion, getting his gear ready to head back to the hotel, and reflected on how difficult it was for the Raptors to pry open the hypothetical door to a championship. It had once again been slammed shut, perhaps more emphatically than ever before.

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Throughout Masai Ujiri’s tenure in Toronto, that door has been slammed shut on every trip to the postseason. The playoff disappointments accumulated, but Ujiri was always a patient man. He built the foundation of a contender by accumulating talent on the roster, and also by adding players to the team via the draft and trades so the Raptors were always on two simultaneous tracks: as a perennial playoff team in the East but also with younger players on the roster that would allow him to make a quick pivot to rebuild if necessary.

Last summer, when Kawhi Leonard became available, Ujiri swooped in and made a difficult trade from an emotional standpoint, but a no-brainer as an upgrade to Toronto’s ceiling as a championship contender. He pried the door open. In giving up DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick for Leonard and Danny Green, Ujiri had landed the superstar he coveted. A mid-season trade for Marc Gasol solidified the starting lineup and gave Toronto the pieces to put together an elite playoff defense against the top offensive teams in the league. Those two trades helped bring a championship to Toronto.

That would be the Cliffs Notes version of how Ujiri’s team building finally paid off. It’s also the version that would ignore all of the groundwork that had been laid to make the 2018-19 season possible. When Ujiri first took the job to run Toronto’s front office in 2013, the Raptors were mired in mediocrity. They had missed the playoffs for five seasons in a row, and hadn’t won a playoff round since Vince Carter led the Raptors to the second round in 2001. Toronto was led by a core group of Lowry, DeRozan and Rudy Gay. A team that was capable of winning 40 games and perhaps a round in the playoffs. The exact no man’s land no team wanted to be in.

The original plan was to tear down the roster and get into the draft lottery, where Canadian-born Andrew Wiggins appeared to be the prize, the next franchise player who could turn the Raptors around. Even Ujiri’s first trade, moving former first overall pick Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks for a first-round pick, ended up helping the Raptors lift the Larry O’Brien trophy this week. The pick turned into Poeltl, who ended up helping the team acquire Leonard.

Ujiri’s next big splash was moving Gay to Sacramento. It appeared Lowry and DeRozan would be next. But then, a Lowry to the Knicks trade appeared to be complete, to the point where the 33-year-old guard admitted he had his bags packed and was waiting for the call to head to the airport. The Knicks backed out of the deal. Lowry stayed, and together with DeRozan, they made a push to the postseason, starting a run of five consecutive playoff appearances and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016.

As the playoff disappointments accumulated, Ujiri kept giving his backcourt another chance, but he didn’t stand pat otherwise. In the meantime, the Raptors continued to grow as an organization, opening up a new practice facility and bringing a G-League team to Mississauga, which helped fast track the progress of players like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell, all of whom played an integral part in becoming the first team to win a championship without a single lottery pick on the roster.

Ujiri also nailed every trade he made. Greivis Vasquez, a backup point guard, was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Powell and a draft pick that turned into OG Anunoby. Serge Ibaka, who came up huge several times in these playoffs including Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers when no one outside of Leonard could hit a shot, was acquired for Terrence Ross. Lowry and Ibaka were considered centerpieces of a contending team in Toronto, and were paid accordingly, but Leonard’s arrival helped push them into the supporting role they were better suited for.

To acquire Gasol, the Raptors needed the development of Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright to pan out, and they were good enough to be part of an appealing package for a rebuilding Memphis Grizzlies team. The only major moves that didn’t pan out in Ujiri’s championship building exercise was the signing of DeMarre Carroll and the team’s failure in developing Bruno Caboclo, who joined the Grizzlies this season and appears on track to be a regular rotation player in the NBA, something he was nowhere close to being while with the Raptors.

Building a championship team requires more than just tinkering with the roster. A well-documented midseason conversation between Lowry and Ujiri this season helped the two sides clear the air on any animosity from the DeRozan trade and helped them move forward toward a common goal. Ujiri also made the move to fire Casey and chose rookie head coach Nick Nurse in his place. Nurse rewarded his faith by earning the trust of his players with his game planning and willingness to make adjustments throughout each playoff series. Every single piece matters, and Ujiri was responsible for putting all of them together. It ended up in a championship for Toronto.

Leonard’s free agency decision looms large as to where the Raptors will go next. If he returns, it will give Ujiri an opportunity to continue tinkering with the roster. Siakam has emerged as a potential top-15 player in this league once his game is fully developed. Anunoby missed the entire playoffs after an emergency appendectomy on the eve of the postseason, but has flashed the potential to be an intriguing up and coming talent in this league. Those players might be Leonard’s supporting cast as the rest of the roster ages and turns over, or in the scenario Leonard leaves this summer, the building blocks of a rebuild, or trade assets for a re-tool. There are options.

Where Toronto goes next after this championship is unclear and will depend on what happens in free agency in a few weeks, but what is certain is that Ujiri has delivered on his mandate of turning the Raptors organization into one of the best in the league. He has shown the willingness to make bold moves when it is required and exercise patience when necessary, and he’s brought the championship mentality he has preached from day one to the entire franchise.

Toronto has reached the top of the mountain. Remaining there will be a difficult task, but regardless of what challenges lie ahead this summer, they have the perfect man to steer them toward their next championship window.

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