TORONTO — Masai Ujiri left one of the NBA’s biggest success stories this season to salvage a team that has never tasted triumph.
And when the new Toronto Raptors general manager was introduced to the media on Tuesday, he summed up his decision with two simple words: “I’m home.”
“It was a tough decision to leave Denver. It was an easy decision to come here,” Ujiri told a jam-packed news conference at Air Canada Centre. “I’m home. I love Toronto. I love this place.”
The NBA executive of the year with the Denver Nuggets replaces Bryan Colangelo, the man who was once Ujiri’s mentor in Toronto. The 42-year-old Ujiri was an assistant GM with Toronto for three seasons before leaving for Denver in 2010. Colangelo remains the Raptors’ team president in a non-basketball role, while Ujiri is president and GM of basketball operations.
The Nigerian-born Ujiri has been tasked with turning around a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in five years, and has only advanced past the first round once in 18 seasons. But he sees a “sleeping giant” in Toronto.
“Why can’t I change it? It’s not all bad, there’s plenty good about it,” he said. “It’s our job to make it better. It’s our job to create a winning environment and that’s why I’m here.”
One of Ujiri’s first decisions concerns the fate of coach Dwane Casey, who has a year left on his contract. Ujiri said he won’t rush his decision.
“I’ve talked to Dwane Casey a couple times and we’re going to sit down and I want to understand what his philosophies are and I’ll tell him what my philosophies are or what I think needs to be changed,” said Ujiri, who added he didn’t see “any reason” why Casey wouldn’t coach the team next season.
The new GM said he owes a lot to Colangelo, who gave him an opportunity to be an NBA executive, but when asked if he’ll seek basketball input from his former boss or from Raptors senior adviser Wayne Embry, Ujiri made it clear who’s in charge.
“I’m on the hot seat now,” Ujiri said. “I’ll take Bryan’s input when I feel it’s necessary, Wayne has always been a great mentor to me, but at the end of the day, I’m going to put my staff together and we’re going to figure this all out collectively,” he said. “But basketball decisions are going to be my decisions, so it doesn’t matter who tells me what or how it’s done, at the end of the day, I’m on the hot seat.”
Ujiri emphatically denied suggestions the relationship between the current and former GM could be awkward.
“There’s no issue with Bryan Colangelo,” he said.
Ujiri will have some tough decisions to make right off the bat with a Toronto team that has no pick in either the first or second round of the NBA draft, and is currently over the league’s luxury tax threshold.