Just two days from the trade deadline, the New York Knicks fired Steve Mills on Tuesday, temporarily making general manager Scott Perry their top basketball executive. Five minutes after his initial tweet, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that Knicks owner James Dolan wants Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri to run the show, surprising zero people who have been paying even cursory attention.
A reminder: In April 2016, when New York’s president of basketball operations was Phil Jackson, its (interim) coach was Kurt Rambis and its starting backcourt was Jerian Grant and Sasha Vujacic, Frank Isola reported in the New York Daily News that Dolan saw Ujiri as a possible successor to Jackson. Ujiri signed a contract extension with the Raptors a few months later, but the rumors never stopped. Here are three stories this website has published on the matter:
June 28, 2017: Knicks and Phil Jackson part ways; James Dolan reportedly targets Raptors’ Ujiri
June 29, 2017:Report: Knicks ‘confident’ Masai Ujiri will leave Raptors for New York
Dec. 8, 2019: Knicks ‘obsessed’ with Raptors’ Masai Ujiri, who is surprisingly intrigued by working in New York, per reports
A couple of days after that latest one, and one day after Sportsnet’s Michael Grange wrote that Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment may have missed its best opportunity to keep Ujiri last summer, chairman Larry Tanenbaum told Postmedia’s Michael Traikos that “Masai is here to stay.” Tanenbaum dismissed concerns about ownership not offering him a contract extension following the Raptors’ first title in franchise history.
In some ways, nothing changed on Tuesday. It was already widely assumed that Mills would not be in charge beyond this season and that the Knicks would pursue Ujiri, whose contract expires in 2021. Timing remains the tricky part of this.
If Dolan is able to poach Ujiri from the defending champions, he will have to compensate them with draft picks. According to ESPN, he is reluctant to do that. And even if New York were able to pry Ujiri away before he is a free agent, it is unclear how much of his staff he would be able to bring with him, as the other members of the front office will also be under contract in Toronto.
The Knicks are at least trying to signal that they have other options and won’t necessarily wait for Ujiri. Wojnarowski reported that Dolan has already talked to a potential candidate. Wojnarowski and ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that he is considering hiring an agent to lead the front office. SNY’s Ian Begley reported that agent Austin Brown of CAA is being considered.
I wonder if Dolan is playing all this correctly. Everybody remembers how confident he was that the Knicks would successfully recruit star free agents 11 months ago. He hasn’t gone on the radio to discuss his plan, but firing Mills just before the deadline puts the spotlight on Ujiri, much like trading Kristaps Porzingis for cap space this time last year put the spotlight on Kevin Durant.
What does Ujiri want? If there was no truth to the reports that he is intrigued by the idea of going to New York, he could directly say so. Until he signs an extension in Toronto (or the Knicks hire somebody else), this stuff is going to be out there. It is clear that New York does not plan on waiting until 2021, so at a certain point over the next few months Ujiri will have to decide whether he is going to push for an extension with the Raptors or tell MLSE that he would prefer to go to the Knicks. Ujiri is the rare executive who could theoretically go into a season without a long-term deal and feel comfortable with his job security, but it doesn’t make sense to do that if he has his eye on New York.
If New York can’t get Ujiri, then what? Who is advising Dolan on this search? What attributes is he looking for in a lead front-office executive? How did Brown get on the radar? Will Dolan let the next president/GM completely clean house, unlike previous hires? It is easy to throw out a bunch of big names he could chase, and it is easy to say that fixing the franchise is an appealing challenge, but the details matter. Regardless of whether or not Ujiri is attainable, the Knicks need to get those details right.