Masai Ujiri’s Chess Moves Fueled Toronto’s NBA Finals Run

The Raptors GM has always gambled on himself and won, so it’s no surprise that he went in for all or nothing with Kawhi Leonard.

As the NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors get set to tip off, the spotlight will inevitably fall on the likes of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. And deservedly so.

Kawhi is averaging 31.2 points on a 62.3 true shooting percentage this postseason. When you combine that with his 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game, in addition to being the best and most versatile defender in the league who just sent The Greek Freak‘s Milwaukee Bucks packing, the dude with the awkward laugh is legitimately looking like Michael Jordan in his prime right now.

As I wrote five years ago when Kawhi emerged out of Tim Duncan’s shadow in San Antonio during the 2014 NBA Finals, “Leonard has quietly become one of my favorite players to watch. There are some elements within his skill set that lead me to conclude that he is heading toward the Scottie Pippen, Sidney Moncrief and Alvin Robertson category of once-raw athletes who morphed into amazing, elite all-around players. He has the size and instincts to guard multiple positions and rebound, the forceful and devastating offensive weaponry to score in the paint, from the perimeter and off the catch-and-shoot. And he is a certifiable monster in the fluid transition game.”

After this year’s playoff performance, his name is now being associated with an even higher level of greatness.

Only LeBron James, who did it in 2017 and 2018, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who accomplished the feat in 1980, have ever finished a Finals run averaging more than 30 points with at least 60 percent true shooting.

And Steph and KD‘s place among the all-time greats needs no explanation. These three players are the brightest stars still standing in the NBA universe as Toronto looks to upend Golden State and put a chink in the armor of their recent dynasty.

But before the action gets cooking, before the breathtaking shots, dunks, blocks and feats of athleticism that remind us why we love this game so much, it’s time to give some props to the architect of this Raptors uprising.

Because away from the court, it’s the most compelling story of this year’s NBA Finals. With the league becoming more international every year and the continent of Africa’s emergence as a growing producer of top talent, it’s time to give a head nod in the direction of Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri for a job well done.

Remember the heat he took for dealing away the franchise’s beloved star, DeMar DeRozan, in exchange for Kawhi? Leonard was coming off of a bizarre season in San Antonio in which he only played nine games. What seemed to be a marriage made in heaven between the Spurs and their next superstar disintegrated overnight due to conflicting thoughts on the severity of his quad injury.

Kawhi had absolutely no interest in coming to Canada to play for the Raptors. His eyes were focused on his free agency summer of 2019, where the prevailing thought was that he’d be suiting up for the Clippers or the Lakers.

Ujiri made the move anyway, putting all of his chips into the pot on the high stakes NBA poker table. He not only dealt away a beloved franchise legend in DeRozan, he also could have fractured the team’s relationship with point guard Kyle Lowry, who happened to be DeRozan’s best friend.

Ujiri didn’t care. He made the move because with LeBron now out of the Eastern Conference, this was Toronto’s best chance to get to the Finals. He also included talented young center Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick in the swap with the Spurs.

Kawhi was unfairly painted as a petulant young millionaire who quit on his team, while Ujiri was portrayed as being disloyal to the core group that had turned Toronto into perennial playoff contenders. As a matter of fact, after the trade went down, which also brought in an aging Danny Green, Lowry didn’t speak to his GM for months.

Ujiri’s response? He basically told Lowry to get over it, that he didn’t come this far to be a good team in the East. His only goal was to win an NBA championship.

And let’s not forget the heat he took for firing Dwane Casey, who had just won Coach of the Year, and hiring his assistant, Nick Nurse. He was also dragged onto the carpet for trading fan favorites Delon Wright and center Jonas Valanciunas to Memphis for center Marc Gasol.

And now here he is, with his team hosting Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals.

Throughout the regular season, it seemed that a Nigerian might get top-billing in the NBA Finals. And that has come to fruition, though that Nigerian is Masai Ujiri, and not Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Ujiri, to borrow a phrase from Toronto’s most visible fan, literally started from the bottom.


Raised in northern Nigeria, Ujiri played soccer growing up but fell in love with basketball as an early teen. His role model was his countryman Hakeem Olajuwon, the NBA’s first great African import. Ujiri attended a Seattle area prep school with hopes of getting a D-I scholarship. After two years playing JUCO ball in North Dakota, he transferred to Montana State University Billings but left after one semester to pursue a pro career in England.

He played pro ball in Europe for six years before going into coaching, where he worked with youth teams in Nigeria. He got his big break when he accompanied a player he was mentoring to Orlando for a tryout with the Magic.  He quickly impressed Doc Rivers and the Orlando staff with his knowledge, who offered him a position as a scout.

The pay was paltry, but he was determined and quickly rose up the ranks. The Nuggets quickly snagged him away, adding him to their international scouting staff. Four years later, the Raptors made him their Director of Global Scouting.

By 2008, he had risen to become Toronto’s Assistant GM. And when the Nuggets came back to offer him their General Manager position, along with being their Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations in 2010, he was ready to work his magic, proving to be an adept talent evaluator and supreme deal-maker.

In 2013, he became the first non-American to be named the NBA’s Executive of the Year. And he hasn’t looked back.

Masai Ujiri has always gambled on himself and won. So it’s no surprise that he went in for all or nothing with the Kawhi Leonard trade. And now Toronto finds itself in its first NBA Finals.

Ujiri has taken his share of heat over the years. But he’s proven to be ready for each successive challenge on his road. And regardless if the Raptors can upset the heavily favored Warriors or not, you gotta respect the architect of their ascension to the NBA’s ultimate stage.

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