Masai Ujiri, The Toronto Raptors’ Biggest Free Agent This Summer, Doesn’t Wear a Uniform

The Toronto Raptors missed the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2013–14, the season Masai Ujiri, the team’s president of basketball operations, came to Toronto. Ujiri left the Denver Nuggets in 2013 and quickly put together the best stretch in franchise history. Toronto won at least 50 games five straight seasons, just missing a sixth, and captured the team’s first NBA title in 2019.

Toronto finished 27–45 this season, losing its final seven games to fall out of contention for a play-in spot. That was not a goal for Ujiri as he looks ahead to what comes next for the franchise. The longest-tenured Raptor, 35-year-old point guard Kyle Lowry, is a free agent this summer and is three years removed from his last fully healthy season. Toronto also faces a decision on Gary Trent Jr., who scored 16.2 points per game in 17 games after being acquired at the trade deadline.

But with the core of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby under contract through at least 2022–23, the Raptors have something to build around. The question is, who will be doing the building? Ujiri, the NBA’s Executive of the Year in 2012–13 with the Nuggets, is also a free agent this summer.

Confidence high in Toronto, but Masai Ujiri not a slam dunk to return

Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri
Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations. | George Pimentel/Getty Images for Audi Innovation Series

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On Wednesday, Masai Ujiri talked about what happened with the Toronto Raptors this season and what the future might hold. The team had to play its home games in Tampa due to ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns regarding border crossings from the U.S. into Canada. He has spent most of the last year being consciously quiet about his future.

Ujiri did address Toronto’s season-ending seven-game losing streak that ended any hopes of a play-in berth. The Raptors trailed 10th-place Washington by 2½ games after upsetting the Lakers in LA on May 2. They wound up six games behind the 10th-place Hornets when the dust settled. The play-in wasn’t something Ujiri worried about, per Tim Bontemps of ESPN.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Why don’t you get into the play-in?’ Play-in for what? We want to win a championship here, and we have to put ourselves in position. I want to know, ‘So what’s the next lift? What’s the next five years? What’s the next 10 years? What are we doing to put ourselves in the conversation with all the great teams and all the winners?’”

Masai Ujiri

Those are questions Ujiri will have to stay in Toronto to answer.

Ujiri’s Toronto Raptors to-do list complete, save for his contract

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As part of deferring conversations about his status, Masai Ujiri repeatedly referenced getting extensions done for coach Nick Nurse and general manager Bobby Webster. With those now done, it’s obvious Ujiri has been thinking a lot about his situation. But he also didn’t tip-toe about the Tampa situation. While complimenting the hospitality in Tampa, he talked about the uphill climb it left for the Raptors.

“This was a tough situation because none of us have gone through this before, and our case was even worse than the 29 other teams. We are not looking for excuses here. We know the work that we have to do going forward and how we need to get back on our feet. It’s a great challenge for us going forward.”

Masai Ujiri

Ujiri sounds like a guy focusing on the future where he is. He took some delicate shots at the NBA over the need to address the international-border-sized elephant in the room. The situation of being the only team in the NBA not based in the U.S. creates difficulties in both directions, according to Ujiri.

Masai Ujiri non-committal about the Raptors returning to Toronto next season

It will play out over the coming weeks, but the club will know Masai Ujiri’s status with the Toronto Raptors before starting the offseason. It has to be to avoid hamstringing the Raptors heading into the draft and free agency.

But with the NBA hoping to start next season back on its pre-pandemic October timetable, it is still unclear whether or not Scotiabank Arena in Toronto will be available for the Raptors.

Toronto’s other professional teams are in similar straits. The Toronto Blue Jays are playing at their spring training complex in Dunedin, Florida, after playing in Buffalo last season. They will head back to Buffalo for the summer. The six Canadian teams in the NHL played in a single division to alleviate travel concerns.

With all due respect to the six-time All-Star, Kyle Lowry is not Toronto’s most important free agent heading into the offseason. Masai Ujiri is the one who pulled it all together for a title run, something no one else came close to doing since the Raptors launched back in 1995.

Statistical information courtesy of Basketball Reference.