Wizards could repeat Jordan playbook to bring Raptors’ Ujiri
(Originally published June 8, 2019, on NBC Sports Washington)
Before examining the pursuit of Masai Ujiri or scoffing at the idea of the Raptors executive leaving an NBA Finals team for the Wizards, remember this blast from the past.
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis once lured Michael Jordan to Washington.
Not to play, even though the six-time NBA champion eventually came out of retirement for two seasons. Jordan arrived in Jan 2000 to run the Wizards as President of Basketball Operations and part owner.
"[Leonsis] was instrumental in making this happen," Wizards owner Abe Pollin said in January of 2000 at the press conference to introduce Jordan.
Ignore what followed – zero playoff appearances before Pollin fired Jordan in 2003. Leonsis, then the Capitals owner and minority stakeholder in the Wizards, helped convince the sport's biggest star to become part of his group.
Landing Jordan provided the organization and the local business community with a massive PR and economic jolt.
"Without Ted, it would not have happened,” Pollin said. “Ted was the guy that started all this. Ted was the guy who contacted Michael in the beginning."
Leonsis is the guy who hopes to contact Ujiri at some point after the ongoing NBA Finals conclude about coming to Washington.
To replace the fired Ernie Grunfeld as the organization's President of Basketball Operations? Think bigger.
How about overseeing all of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which includes Capital One Arena, the Washington Capitals and several other team properties, with personal compensation potentially reaching eight figures annually? Maybe an ownership stake in Monumental?
These are among the options in play for Leonsis multiple sources have told NBC Sports Washington, as the search for Grunfeld's replacement closes in on 10 weeks.
NBC Sports Washington was the first to report the potential for a Wizards-Ujiri connection in April. The specific emphasis centered on interest coming from the 2013 NBA Executive of the Year.
While the odds of Ujiri heading to Washington remain long for a variety of issues, the primary assumption league-wide involving the Wizards' long general manager search now involves them waiting out the Raptors' President of Basketball Operations.
The question has been whether the organization makes an aggressive offer to the architect of a Toronto team that won 54 games during the regular season and is one win away from the organization's first NBA championship.
This week, The Athletic reported on the possibility of bold action from Washington and that any decision from Ujiri would not come down to money. Effectively, even if the Wizards meet Ujiri's salary demands the wealthy Raptors ownership group, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, could easily match.
How could the Wizards go beyond money? Perhaps the power and status that comes from being in charge of an organization that, according to figures Leonsis provided Washington Business Journal in December, has a valuation of $3 billion.
Ujiri's views the District as a larger platform for the "Basketball Without Borders" program along with other outside interests, according to sources. Ujiri serves as director of the program that sponsors various basketball camps and coaching clinics in his native Africa.
Washington loves power brokers. This setup could turn Ujiri into one.
It’s worth noting Ujiri's wife grew up in the D.C. area, which is also where his friend, Barack Obama, resides. The former President of the United States attended Game 2 of the NBA Finals in Toronto.
From the Wizards' end, they effectively must wait until the NBA Finals conclude before any official dialogue with Ujiri. The wait might end by Monday. Toronto holds a 3-1 lead over Golden State in the best-of-7 NBA Finals.
While the Wizards attempted to land Denver’s Tim Connelly last month and interviewed at least three other candidates twice, they remain without a permanent front-office leader since Leonsis fired Grunfeld on April 2.
The Raptors are not obligated to grant another team permission to interview Ujiri. Should Toronto relent and Ujiri looks to bolt, there's still the matter of possible compensation to the Raptors, likely in the form of draft picks.
Ujiri could also stay in Toronto, especially if the Raptors win the title and star forward Kawhi Leonard agrees to re-sign rather than bolt in free agency this summer. Already one of the league's highest-paid executives, Ujiri’s contract of around $7 million annually runs through the 2020-21 season, according to multiple sources.
Even if all sides agree on compensation, Toronto may not let Ujiri leave until after the June 20 NBA Draft.
Tommy Sheppard, interim head of Washington's front office, is running the team's draft preparation and would likely make any draft day decisions. The Wizards own the ninth overall selection.
Sheppard, former Hawks GM Danny Ferry and Thunder assistant GM Troy Weaver have each met with Leonsis at least twice since Grunfeld's ouster. It's possible that one of them moves to the front of the line should the pursuit of Ujiri crumble.
It's impossible to project plans from the draft to free agency to possibly trading Bradley Beal without knowing who is making the final decisions. What we know is Leonsis once help convince Michael Jordan to join the Wizards. Let's see if he can also get Ujiri to jump, man.