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Lewenberg: Ujiri faces ironic challenge as Raptors GM

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Josh Lewenberg
6/1/2013 4:07:06 PM
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The Toronto Raptors have finally decided on a new path, one they hope will lead them to greener pastures with a familiar face manning the controls.

Masai Ujiri, the reigning NBA executive of the year formerly with the Denver Nuggets, has signed on to become the fifth general manager in the franchise's embattled 18-year history.

Ujiri, 42, returns to Toronto where he spent time as director of global scouting and assistant general manager under his predecessor and mentor Bryan Colangelo from 2007-10.

"To come back to the Raptors, to live in such a great city and work in an organization that has committed all the resources necessary to win championships was a huge factor in the decision," Ujiri said in a press release Friday evening. "I can't wait to get back to Canada to build a team that is poised to take the next step in the NBA."

News of the hiring came one week after Ujiri was offered the job in a lengthy meeting with MLSE's incoming president and CEO Tim Leiweke, who had made the Nuggets' executive his top target to take over for Colangelo. Terms have not been disclosed but the deal is believed to be worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $15 million over five years, a significant raise from his salary in Denver.

Under the new and increasingly bizarre MLSE hierarchy, Ujiri will be asked to work with Colangelo, who was stripped of the GM title but retained as team president last month. According to Leiweke, his new GM will have final authority on all basketball-related decisions while Colangelo is available to advise from behind the scenes.

Although Ujiri and his former boss maintain a good working relationship, the question remains; how will this play out? Will Colangelo be another resource in the MLSE toolbox for Ujiri to use at his own discretion, or will the two-time executive of the year turn into a backseat driver?

One thing is for certain; the Raptors have made a significant commitment to their new GM and intend to give him full autonomy over this roster. Ujiri will report directly to Leiweke, who will oversee the organization's revamped senior leadership and has promised to pull the plug if boundaries are not adhered to. If and when that becomes an issue, it's pretty clear that Ujiri will not be the one sent packing.

"We feel very lucky to have Masai in our organization," Leiweke said in the press release. "He is a proven judge of talent and we look for him to be a big part of creating a winning atmosphere, leading us to the playoffs and, ultimately, delivering NBA championships for Toronto."

For the Raptors, an organization looking to turn the page having missed the playoffs in each of the last five seasons, this is an impressive get. Ujiri is a savvy, well-regarded, young basketball mind with a proven track record and a bright future in this league. In three seasons with the Nuggets, Ujiri transformed an isolation-heavy team centred around Carmelo Anthony into a fast-paced, well-balanced contender without any drop off in between.

It's important to remember that reputation does not guarantee success in this business and the Raptors, even with Ujiri in charge, have a long ways to go.

With that caveat in mind, Ujiri was the best choice available to Leiweke, based on the coveted qualities he should bring to the Raptors' recently remodelled front office. During his tenure as the Nuggets' GM -- albeit in a limited timeframe -- Ujiri proved to be adaptable, flexible and most importantly creative in his approach.

Right out of the gate, Ujiri made the best of a potentially franchise-crippling situation, turning Anthony -- a disgruntled superstar on the way out as an upcoming free agent -- into a bevy of highly regarded assets, including Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton (later moved for Andre Miller), Wilson Chandler, Kosta Koufos, Timofey Mozgov and draft picks.

After signing Nene and Arron Afflalo to sizeable extensions, he flipped them for JaVale McGee and Andre Iguodala, both defensive upgrades at crucial positions. In the draft, he snagged Kenneth Faried, a franchise cornerstone, with the 22nd pick in 2011 and selected another rotation player, guard Evan Fournier 20th overall in 2012.

That outside-the-box thinking and ability to recognize a diamond in the rough will be crucial as he embarks on his biggest challenge to date. Up against the luxury tax threshold and without a draft pick, there's not much flexibility from which to work. If the intention is to veer off the path Colangelo has steered them in -- a seemingly low-ceiling direction that Leiweke has expressed concern with -- Ujiri will have to do so via trade. He'll have to do so without the financial flexibility and the first overall pick Colangelo was granted when he took over in 2006.

His first order of business, in terms of the roster -- as ESPN's Marc Stein alluded to on Twitter Saturday -- will require a decision on the best course of action regarding maligned forward Andrea Bargnani. Bargnani has likely played his last game as a Raptor -- that seems like a forgone conclusion -- so now Ujiri must mull over a number of scenarios filled with considerable risk and uncertainty if he hopes to maximize the potential return.

Bargnani's trade value is presumed to be at an all-time low but it's conceivable there could be an uptick in interest towards the end of July after some teams with cap space inevitably strike out in free agency. That may be the best time, if any, to unload the two years, $23 million remaining on Bargnani's contract.

However, waiting that long to address the Bargnani conundrum would limit Toronto's options. The Raptors could miss out on the potential benefits of trading him into cap space by making their move late in the offseason. Using the amnesty provision on the former first-overall pick also remains a possibility if there are no buyers in the trade market, but the window for that closes after a seven-day period at the start of July.

The timing is problematic unless Ujiri is able to pull off a major coup, trading Bargnani prior to July 1.

Colangelo will always be tied to Bargnani, his first major decision as the Raptors' GM. Seven years later, his former assistant is faced with an ironic challenge. The Raptors want to move on. They need to move on. They have paid Ujiri handsomely and tasked the young executive with doing just that. He returns to Toronto looking to make his mark on this struggling organization, for real this time. With Colangelo in the next office and Bargnani atop his to-do list, the Raptors' prized new hire must carve out his own path, a new path, to avoid being haunted by the previous one.

Masai Ujiri (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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