Toronto Raptors’ Masai Ujiri on How To Create a Team of Champions
M A S A I
Written by Katie Heindl / Photography by Justin Wu / Grooming by Antonio Hines: Valentine Agency
There’s a reason why Toronto Raptors fans have made familiar the adage, “In Masai we trust”.
The physical proof now hangs in the rafters of Scotiabank Arena; a championship banner with gold trim that catches the light of fireworks that leap from the backboards when the world champions are on home court. But the work of it—the six years of planning, quiet strategy, and building—is the truer testament.
Masai Ujiri was hired by the Toronto Raptors shortly after their 2012-2013 season came to a shuffling close. The Raptors were a team that had eked out an average of 30 wins per season for close to a decade and were stalling out in the lower league rankings—not so bad to be a memorable dead last, but not good enough to spark the imagination as a team on the rise. They were tanking without a plan and crippled by failed stars and their hobbling salaries, a front office in turmoil, and a new coach—Dwane Casey—with some heavy expectations on his shoulders.
Rather than give it a year to get a sense of what the team needed, Ujiri started digging the Raptors out barely two months into the job. He traded away Andrea Bargnani in a move that cleared cap space and franchise cobwebs, and was indicative of the nature of trades—namely their yield—Ujiri would become known for. These were growing giant beanstalks out of one-bean trades, rubbing two nickels together to make gold. But it was not only luck that produced those results, it was a shrewd sense of strategy, of striking at exactly the right time and knowing, always, the temperature of the league waters he’s swimming in that has kept Ujiri head and shoulders above the rest.
Ujiri’s moves stand out for their longevity. In trading away Bargnani and Rudy Gay shortly after, he would show he was hedging his bets against the franchise’s longterm success rather than looking to stars that might propel a team for only a few seasons. Ujiri dug in by building a young core around DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas, and Kyle Lowry; opting to bring in players that would support them instead of competing for their minutes on court. In this way, Ujiri showed the value of skill-building by deepening the team’s ties, as well as their roles.
The stats were not slow to reflect the change. The Raptors jumped to 10th in the league in Ujiri’s first full season as general manager, and fifth in his second.
His first season with the team was also the first time the Raptors saw the postseason in six years, a trend that would not slow. Toronto has entered the playoffs every year under Ujiri’s leadership, and despite some brutal upsets at the hands of Paul Pierce—lest we forget Ujiri leading Jurassic Park in a chant of “F**K Brooklyn” that would see him fined by the league—Ujiri continued, steady, with the same goal always in mind.
“Sports is about winning. There's nothing else in my opinion. I would define it by saying, ‘Winning again. We have to win again.’ For me, when you play sports, the direction, character, and mindset for everyone should always be about winning, and winning a championship.”
While every team in the NBA shares this ambition, not all have leaders embodying the intention it takes to get there. Even with a championship win and less one superstar in losing Kawhi Leonard, Ujiri has not deviated from the strategy he started out with.
“Five years ago we expected to win, four years ago we expected to win, three years from now, we expect to win, this year we expect to win, that’s just sports. We can hold hands and sing Hallelujah all we want, but you play sports to win,” he says.
Ujiri has instilled that mindset into his organization by underscoring support and trust, both of which take time to develop. He surrounds himself with people who utilize these same values in whatever they do, whether they are front office or interacting with the players. Since Ujiri started building, it’s clear that his organization isn’t one that rushes itself, but also is not afraid to be critical, or make tough calls. “You can’t be scared in sports,” he says, “and when you surround yourself with people that give you all the right information to make decisions, I feel you’re very well prepared.”
Two of the most seemingly abrupt and dramatic moves in the franchise came within the same year: the decision to fire Dwane Casey and replace him with Nick Nurse, an assistant coach from within, and sending DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio in exchange for Kawhi Leonard. But looking back, every year Ujiri and his team took the results from the previous season and adjusted where they could until it was clear larger changes were necessary. In these periods of upheaval, Ujiri has relied on his team.
“[These] decisions become easy for me to make by having smart people. They are things that are well planned and talked about for a while, but also sometimes done on the fly. You have to use your instincts.”
While trust may seem an obvious ingredient in building a successful NBA team, there are many franchises whose players leave their relationships behind once they step off the court. This has never seemed to be the case with the Raptors, a team of guys who have always appeared to get along on and off the court. Ujiri chalks it up to support, to playing and behaving unselfishly in the work they do on the court and in community involvement.
“It's really important that they're selfless. You can be a scorer, you can be an attacker, you can be very aggressive, but that mindset of being selfless and playing for your team is crucial. You could see in the playoffs, when one person was down, another person picked up.”
Every player on the Raptors roster is involved in philanthropic work, either through volunteering or charities they have founded. Many have given their time and energy back to Ujiri via Giants of Africa, the organization he founded in 2003. Initially founded as a basketball camp to discover talent in African nations, Giants of Africa has gone on to build infrastructure, like basketball courts, and provided outreach programs to communities in need, as well as in UN-sanctioned refugee camps.
Pascal Siakam, the explosive rising star at the fore of the Raptors franchise’s future, was all raw talent when he went through a Basketball Without Borders camp Ujiri was involved in. Serge Ibaka also saw himself rise through the ranks after a difficult, self-made road from the Congo to the pros. Both players were huge accelerators in the Raptors’ Finals run.
Ujiri, who has recognized the hard work of the entire team, also admits there is something special in Ibaka and Siakam’s contributions—something personal.
“I saw Serge when he was 18. I saw Pascal when he was 18,” he reminisces. “It’s very prideful for me to see Pascal and Serge because [they are] African players that influenced the championship. [They weren’t] clapping [from] the bench or playing two minutes per game, they made it happen. They influenced the game. They influenced the playoffs in a huge way.”
[They were] Africans doing it. There's nothing bigger than that.”
Even more special is how Ibaka and Siakam have sought to extend this development off the court, coming full circle and working alongside Ujiri and Giants of Africa in the offseason.
“To do what they do off the court, [to] go back into their community where they came from and influence young people, influence women,” Ujiri says of Siakam and Ibaka, “I couldn’t be prouder of those two good people. Inside their hearts, they are unbelievable human beings.”
Personal development has been a critical component Ujiri has encouraged in this team, but when playing upward of 40 minutes of basketball a night, physical development is just as crucial, and needs to be just as varied. The Raptors were one of the first NBA franchises to look to their developmental mirror in the D-League, Raptors 905. At first it was out of necessity. The Toronto market was not the most attractive to established NBA stars so Ujiri shared how he looked for prospects in his time as a scout with his staff.
“You look at how big their hands are, how they handle the rockets. There are so many things you look at in terms of the physical ability of a player,” he says.
Much like Ujiri did in building around his initial core of starters, the Raptors would shuttle prospects between itself and 905, giving green players more exposure and opportunities to lead and grow. Then came the more difficult part—building character.
Building and defining character has been essential not just to Toronto players, but to the organization overall. He says, “It’s based around all the things that bring about a championship-type player. And you see it in them and their character.”
“Whether it was Kyle [Lowry], Marc Garsol, Fred [VanVleet] or Pascal [Siakam], or Norm [Powell] or OG [Anunoby]. You look at these kinds of players and their character says it all—his work ethic, his killer instinct, his wanting to win and practice, his wanting to play at a high level, his wanting to compete and be fierce. When you get on that floor you have to be fierce and fearless. These guys were and are the type of players we look for.”
It worked, and the proof is in players like Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam going from overlooked or undrafted prospect to the current champion core and future leaders of the franchise. In a league where change is the one sure thing, continuity is rare. But players who have developed in a system and environment of hard work and trust will continue to foster and grow those core values even as the foundational pieces eventually move on.
Ujiri will see this soon as the first generation of players he helped to develop and steer to a title take deals elsewhere, are traded, and eventually retire. As bittersweet as it will be for fans and for Ujiri himself, it will also prove that the system he has instilled in Toronto is sustainable.
“In the end, when your veteran players are accountable and have great character, they will lift up and build young leaders. That's how you build a team."
Strategy, teamwork, and winning share a foundation of trust that Ujiri began building within the Raptors in his very first decisions there. What he’s done may not seem immediately applicable to those of us not deciding the future of a championship franchise with six-foot-forever athletes at the top of their game, but the takeaways are—trust and time. In the slow and careful work it took to build the Raptors to what they now embody, Ujiri has shown what it takes to establish these two pillars. You don’t get one without the other, and you can’t have a championship, or win, if you don’t put in the work.