Storyline: Masai Ujiri to Knicks?

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Masai Ujiri crossing the border to save the Knicks is an event the NBA would see value in, according to a team executive. “They look at him as the chosen one,’’ the executive said. He would never admit it, but it makes sense that NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who grew up a Knicks’ fan and has the league office in New York, would prefer arguably the league’s most astute executive running a centerpiece franchise that has fallen on hard times. The Knicks (6-21) have posted the NBA’s worst winning percentage since 2000 and are on pace to miss the playoffs a seventh straight season.

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The Raptors’ ownership, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, could have avoided some of this noise by simply giving Ujiri an extension and a blank cheque this past summer but – contrary to a report that Ujiri turned down an extension – there has never been one been offered, according to sources. Which is understandable in some ways. It’s not like Ujiri’s current deal didn’t have lucrative bonuses tied to winning a title. And in most businesses – even with NBA stars – discussion doesn’t typically begin for extensions until a year before a current deal expires.

There is probably no city in the world that would provide a greater opportunity for Ujiri to further the ambitions of his foundation than New York, where he could walk to the United Nations for lunch and meet potential billionaire donors for breakfast. It’s a global nerve centre for business and politics and it would be impossible for Ujiri to fail to expand his already considerable network there. If his ultimate goal is to further his causes in Africa, New York is a better base to work from. The question, really, is if there is anything MLSE can do to make Ujiri a semi-permanent piece of the Toronto landscape, to make the Knicks or other threats distant or far-fetched?

Influential voices in the NBA have strongly advised Ujiri not to take the job, if it’s ever offered, sources say. But those same sources say Ujiri might do it anyway, if the money is right, if he’s granted the necessary autonomy and if Dolan funds Giants of Africa as generously as the Raptors ownership group has. Ujiri’s contract is believed to run through 2021 but with an out clause under certain circumstances. He turned down a lucrative extension last summer, sources said, leaving the impression that he wants to keep his options open.

Knicks targeting Masai Ujiri?

According to several people familiar with the Knicks thinking, Dolan is plotting to take another run at Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri. It would take Phil Jackson-type money to lure Ujiri to New York but spending the big bucks is never an issue for Dolan. The issue is always hiring the right person, but in Ujiri, unlike Jackson, Mills and Perry, the Knicks would be bringing in an executive who has built a championship team.

Ujiri is under contract through the 2021 season and the Raptors ownership group will do anything and everything to keep him. However, Ujiri is an ambitious guy with powerful friends in high places, and we’re not just talking about Barack Obama. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is a close friend who remains forever frustrated with the train wreck in his own backyard that is the Knicks. Ujiri’s possible arrival in New York could potentially put the Knicks in play for Giannis Antetokounmpo as well. Ujiri is well connected to some of today’s top stars. Mills claimed to be but couldn’t even get a sit down with Irving and/or Durant. That’s another plan he sold to Dolan that fell flat.

Do you worry about Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri departing for the New York Knicks? DeRozan: I don’t worry about that. I think [he stays]. I look at it like, if I’m New York who is the next best guy you could go after? It’s Masai. Why wouldn’t they want to target him? I don’t look at it like it’s a bad thing. Masai has that reputation because he is great at what he does. That organization wants to be great so they can feel like they can compete. So, what is the first thing you do? You go look for the next great person.

Dolan’s interest in Toronto executive Masai Ujiri is real, not to mention the preferred choice of the folks inside the NBA’s league offices who want nothing more than this Knicks machine to run smoothly one day. There’s already a built-in connection as well: Tim Leiweke, the former CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment group who hired Ujiri as Toronto’s general manager in 2013, is serving as a Knicks consultant. He’s the CEO of the sports and entertainment consulting firm, the Oak View Group, as well as a partner of Irving Azoff, the longtime friend of Dolan’s who played a significant role in bringing Jackson to the Knicks.
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