The Tim Lieweke era in Toronto isn’t off to the most auspicious start. Forget for a moment whether you agree with Bryan Colangelo’s “re-assignment” to the promotional / brand-oriented side of the Raptors’ organization or not – Leiweke let Colangelo twist in the wind for weeks before announcing a decision that probably didn’t take him that long to make.
It’s somehow fitting that the awkward handling of the situation has fed right into its awkward execution. As Leiweke would have it, Colangelo and the soon-to-be-named GM – or, a Masai Ujiri to be named later, if you prefer – would operate within separate universes, leaving the architect of the team’s current formation operating both with and independent of that same team.
If Ujiri does come on board (the club has been granted permission to speak to him, with the whole decision likely coming down to dollars and cents), Toronto could very well be getting the best available candidate for the job, but would also be throwing more potential dysfunction into the mix. The current Nuggets GM was tabbed by Colangelo as the Raptors’ Director of Global Scouting in 2008, a position that directly led into his coveted job in Denver. The two men worked closely with one another over two-plus years in the Toronto front office, establishing a mutual respect that may prove difficult to push aside – can Ujiri be the shot-caller independent of Colangelo, and can BC let his former protege run the show without trying to get involved.
And that doesn’t even take into account the wider front office picture. Does Wayne Embry still have a role? How about the rest of Colangelo’s former braintrust (Maurizio Gherardini, Steve Fruitman, Marc Eversley, etc)? You have to figure that Ed Stefanski is headed out the door if he gets overlooked for the promotion. Then there’s Leiweke, himself, who is rumored to have been a rather hands-on presence in L.A. with the Lakers and Kings. These are decisions that have to be made any time there is an exchange of power in a professional sports team’s front office, but could prove to be further complicated by the Colangelo’s looming, awkward presence.
The upside for Ujiri is clear. The promise he showed during scouting stops in Orlando and Denver and then as director in Toronto grew into a track record of success as Nuggets GM, where he cleanly navigated through the Carmelo Anthony mess (Danilo Galinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, a future 1st and cap space is as good a haul as any team that has been forced into trading a superstar). Since then, he has bolstered the club’s core by trading for Andre Miller and Javale McGee, drafting Kenneth Faried and acquiring Andre Iguodala in last summer’s Dwight Howard blockbuster (Denver looks like the only team to have made out well among the four clubs involved). Following the Nuggets’ 57-win season, Ujiri was recently named NBA Executive of the Year.
The concern, however, is just how different the circumstances would be in Toronto. Ujiri would be facing not only a dysfunctional front office, but an under-achieving roster rife with big, long-term contracts and little flexibility. Just as he walked into the Denver job right in time for the Anthony crisis, joining the Raptors would come with the immediate challenge of trying to move team pariah Andrea Bargnani.
If Ujiri stays in Denver, a group of less appealing, albeit still somewhat intriguing, GM candidates await, with each coming with their own complications. Kevin Pritchard is a veteran NBA exec who has constructed some very good Blazer and Pacer teams, including the Indiana group that is presently giving the Heat all they can handle in the Eastern Finals. However, it’s hard to see the motivations for leaving a rising organization based around a breakout young star (Paul George) in favor of a cap-strapped club with the old GM still lurking. The same could be said of promising Thunder assistant GM Troy Weaver, who may be leery of the Raps’ situation if he truly wants to break out from the shadow of Sam Presti as an independent decision-maker (he also shares the leftover stink from the James Harden trade that looks increasingly like a dud).
Awkward situations aside, this is an exciting time to be a Raptors’ fan – Leiweke is on board, a new GM is forthcoming and a distinct whiff of change is in the air (how much change is feasible is another matter). It was nothing less than refreshing to hear the new head honcho candidly deride the club’s status as an afterthought in the current NBA consciousness in a recent TSN Radio interview and now is the first step towards doing something about it. Let’s just hope we can get a feel for the big picture sooner rather than later.