Ujiri leaves Denver for Toronto Raptors

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From the moment he took over the moribund Toronto Raptors last month, Tim Leiweke vowed to make some significant changes to return the team to competitiveness in the Eastern Conference.

It didn’t take him long to show everyone that he means business.

Leiweke lured Masai Ujiri away from the Denver Nuggets on Friday, giving the Raptors the reigning NBA executive of the year and a rising star among the league’s front office ranks.

“We feel very lucky to have Masai in our organization,” Leiweke said in a statement issued by the team. “He is a proven judge of talent and we look for him to be a big part of creating a winning atmosphere, leading us to the playoffs and, ultimately, delivering NBA championships for Toronto.”

It will be a homecoming of sorts for the 42-year-old Ujiri, a native of Nigeria and the first African-born GM in America’s four major sports. Ujiri was the assistant GM for the Raptors for three seasons before leaving for the Nuggets in 2010, where he quickly made a name for himself.

“To come back to the Raptors, to live in such a great city, and work in an organization that has committed all the resources necessary to win championships was a huge factor in the decision,” Ujiri said in a statement. “I have already developed a great relationship with Tim Leiweke and I can’t wait to get back to Canada to build a team that is poised to take the next step in the NBA.”

Ujiri earned respect for his deft handling of the Carmelo Anthony trade to New York and his ability to assemble a relatively starless roster that still managed to be a formidable contender in the Western Conference.

With nary an All-Star this season, the Nuggets won a franchise-record 57 games and went an NBA-best 38-3 at home to finish third in the powerful Western Conference, helping Ujiri garner the NBA’s Executive of the Year honor to go with George Karl’s Coach of the Year award.

But Ujiri was also one of the lowest-paid GMs in the league, earning less than $1 million a season, a salary commensurate with the Nuggets‘ reputation for paying their front office members below market value.

Team president Josh Kroenke told The Denver Post a week ago that he and Ujuri had agreed in principle to a contract extension, but once the Raptors came calling, he felt obliged to let Ujiri interview with his old team.

“I would also like to publicly thank the Kroenkes in Denver for being such a class organization that they would allow Masai to pursue his dream,” Leiweke said. “They put him first in all of our discussions.”

Kroenke worked closely with Ujiri to shape the roster and he could turn to Pete D’Allesandro, Ujiri’s right-hand man in Denver, to take his boss’ place. D’Allesandro also could follow Ujiri to Toronto.

“I appreciate everything Masai has done since re-joining the Nuggets in 2010,” Kroenke said. “Over the past two and a half years, he and I have spent countless hours working together to tackle some of the toughest challenges in franchise history.

“I have tremendous admiration for him as a colleague and will always consider him to be a great friend.

The potential for awkwardness exists in Toronto where Bryan Colangelo, Ujiri’s former boss with the Raptors, was recently stripped of final say on basketball matters. Leiweke was looking for a new voice to lead the franchise that has missed the playoffs for five straight years.

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