When he arrived in Denver in August of 2010, Masai Ujiri was given a one-item mandate — figure out what to do with Carmelo Anthony.
The Nuggets wanted their only star convinced to stay. Ujiri quickly realized Anthony was not in the mood to be convinced.
Though the power in these sorts of showdowns is presumed to be with the player, Ujiri turned the model on its head. His cunning strategy was to do nothing. He didn’t put the brakes on — he put the car in ‘Park.’
In Colorado, his calculated approach was perceived as freezing up under pressure. He was steadily ripped as a novice and a fool. In the end, he was proven right. He sat and stared long enough. Melo and the Knicks were the ones left blinking.
Eventually, the question dangling over Denver migrated over to the thought bubble above New York’s head — why the hell haven’t you closed this deal? And New York . . . well, ‘caved’ is too strong a word. They ended up surrendering real value for a player who, when he was finally traded in February, 2011, had only two months remaining on his contract.
So — caved.
It was Kennedy-esque brinksmanship, and it made Ujiri a hero in Denver.
They thought turning one sort of contender into a different sort would be satisfaction enough for a rookie member of the NBA’s management class. They didn’t understand how capitalism works. In winning that battle with New York and Melo, Ujiri set the table for a ticker-tape parade that only began a few hours ago.
On Friday, Ujiri consented to become the fifth full-time general manager of the Toronto Raptors. Rarely has that verb seemed so apt.
He dragged this out just long enough to embarrass MLSE, who had gone over the top in dangling a salary in the reported $3 million (U.S.) a year range.
Ujiri could not extract anything close to that from Denver, and so finally succumbed.
He had a hill to climb in Colorado; he exchanges it for a canyon wall in Toronto. All this proves is that, in the end, all of us will bow down before filthy lucre. It’s the only dependable thing in sport, and in life generally.
Presuming that his first work will be jettisoning Andrea Bargnani and Linas Kleiza, Ujiri will, for a brief moment, become the eighth highest-paid member of the team.
For the next few days, we’ll all hold hands together and dream. We’ll imagine that this team isn’t really trapped in a roster dead-end. We’ll pretend that the trees Bryan Colangelo saw, Ujiri will properly identify as a forest.
For now, we’ll accept the magical proposition of every change on every team in history — this time, it’ll be different.
We’ll kid ourselves that all this can be fixed easily.
One thing is going to be easy — amnestying Kleiza. Like hiring Ujiri, all that is is a function of money. Everything else is hard.