The Knicks stink. Of all the things we argue over in this world, some things are simply true, and that’s one of them. The New York Knicks stink, and have stunk for many years, and there have been too many embarrassing moments to note. Honestly, it’s an oeuvre.
And so, we are told, the Knicks are going to chase Raptors president Masai Ujiri. Frank Isola of The Athletic, a swell reporter, writes that the Knicks intend to offer Phil Jackson-type money, which when the Knicks hilariously hired Phil was $12 million (U.S.) a year for five years. Phil sort of sat around and screwed things up and was fired shortly after musing about trading Kristaps Porzingis.
Porzingis, by the way, was traded two years later, for peanuts. Anyway, here we are.
First, we should say this: Nothing is going to happen anytime soon. Ujiri is under contract until 2021, as he was in 2017 when the Knicks were passing back-channel love notes, and Knicks officials were confidently predicting that Ujiri would leave Toronto. Ujiri declined to pursue the opportunity and, two years later, he won a title. He has a long record of making the right decisions.
And now the Knicks are back to being the kind of place where people plan to avoid purges by purging others. If you haven’t seen “The Death Of Stalin,” it gives you an idea of how the politics seem to work.
So of course the Knicks would like to hire Ujiri, because he might be able to fix them. The Raptors were an organization with a history of losing when he came to Toronto in 2013. They chased the wrong semi-stars: Jermaine O’Neal, Hedo Turkoglu, Shawn Marion, Rudy Gay. They never mattered. They weren’t the Knicks, but it was a mess.
And he cleaned it up. The championship run was a masterpiece, but the return campaign has shown just how durable it was. When Toronto played LeBron James’ Lakers Friday night, the Lakers had won seven straight games and were leading the league in defence, and the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka were missing with injuries. The team was already playing seven-and-a-half players. It was a problem.
And Toronto produced an astonishing organizational win. Bench players like Chris Boucher and Terence Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson played at the level of intensity expected in Toronto, and played the way Raptors 905 players have been drilled to play: share the ball, defend, be aggressive, take good shots. Pascal Siakam, that one-time 27th pick, continued to learn what it means to be a superstar. Fred VanVleet, discovered by assistant GM and vice president of player personnel Dan Tolzman, was tremendous. Norm Powell, a second-round pick, even made good decisions off the dribble.
And Nick Nurse devised yet another complex bear trap, and practically took LeBron out of the game. He did much the same the next night against Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors did the same to the Clippers, with OG Anunoby added to the injured list early, before running out of gas.
It was, as much as anything else, a testament to the quality of this organization: talent identification and development, culture, level of expectation, and pride. Leonard’s playoff performance overshadowed the underpinnings, and now they’re on full display. Last night’s game in Portland was another opportunity to grow. But this team may yet do something in the playoffs that nobody expects.
And who built it? Of course the Knicks want Ujiri, just as the Washington Wizards wanted him at the end of the playoffs. It’s hard to argue that he’s not the best executive in the NBA.
But this is life as a champion, and maybe people need to stop thinking of Ujiri as merely an executive. Everybody in the league knows that Giannis Antetokounmpo is a free agent in 2021. If Giannis leaves Milwaukee — and there have already been reports, most notably from Malika Andrews of ESPN.com, that if the Bucks don’t make the Finals this year it will affect his free-agency decision — then he can change the NBA world.
The Raptors, pretty clearly, would like to be in that running. They will preserve a max contract slot in the summer of 2021 in case they can put another star next to Siakam, and ideally Anunoby and VanVleet. Adding Giannis would create a championship contender for years to come.
They probably should have signed Ujiri to an extension in the summer, after the title. But asked about it in the locker room after Game 6, part-owner Larry Tanenbaum said, “I know Masai. He’s like my son; there’s no chance he’s leaving Toronto.” He added, “I think if you ask Masai, he’s got everything he wants.”
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Maybe so. But until a long-term contract is done here, Ujiri isn’t just an executive. He’s Toronto’s Giannis. He’s the difference-maker, the superstar, one of the few people in the world who can turn around any organization. The Knicks have swallowed up basketball men over the years, but he fixed Toronto. He could fix them.
So get to used to other teams making googly eyes, and flashing wads of cash because this is just life with the Raptors now. Ujiri has built one of the very best organizations in the NBA, is widely admired for his work in the front office and in Africa, and like Giannis, there is only one of him. And like Giannis, everybody would like him on their side.