Ujiri's gamble on Kawhi is a win for Raptors regardless of results
Bernard Weil / Toronto Star / Getty

Hours after flying in from Africa, Masai Ujiri strolled into the third-floor practice court at Scotiabank Arena on Friday to address the previously unthinkable: The Toronto Raptors, heading into their 24th NBA season without a single Finals appearance to show for it, acquired a top-five player.

"We are stepping on territory that we never have," the franchise president said.

Ujiri has added Kawhi Leonard to a core group with realistic expectations of making it to the NBA Finals. In order to do so, he dealt DeMar DeRozan - who embraced the Raptors and the city of Toronto like no player in the organization's history - to the San Antonio Spurs.

For five years, Ujiri practiced patience in watching his core grow, supplementing the All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeRozan via trades and the draft. In the regular season, that strategy was an unquestioned success: The Raptors set a franchise record for wins in four of the past five campaigns. The playoffs, however, were a different story. After a second straight second-round sweep by the Cleveland Cavaliers, it was time for something different.

"We've been doing this for how many years?" Ujiri said. "You can't keep doing the same thing over and over again."

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

Of course, a new approach brings new risks, and with Leonard, there are plenty. A quadriceps injury limited the two-time Defensive Player of the Year to nine games last season, and he's stated a desire to play elsewhere - preferably Los Angeles - when he hits free agency next summer. His relationship with the Spurs became so fractured that he didn't get the type of farewell you'd expect for an NBA Finals MVP who led his team to the 2014 title.

The Raptors, and Ujiri in particular, are confident in taking on those risks.

"I think there's a lot to sell here," Ujiri said. "Our team, our culture, our ownership. We have everything here except a championship, in my humble opinion. I don't think we lack anything in this city. We have great fans, we have a great organization, we have a great following, I think we have a great country. There is something about this place that reaches out to the whole world and we're proud of that and we're going to continue to sell that. Hopefully, it's an appeal, not only to him but to more NBA players."

The opportunity to play for a ring could certainly change perceptions of the franchise around the league. Even during the past five years of success, and even after many people bought into the Raptors' potential this spring following a 59-win regular season, they've never been a legitimate contender.

They are now.

"On paper, we feel we have a team that can compete in the East and maybe, hopefully, compete for a championship in this league," Ujiri said. "... That's why we play sports. To win and play for a championship."

Befitting his ambitions, the roster Ujiri's built has the highest ceiling of any Raptors team ever. The conference doesn't lack competition: The Boston Celtics got within a game of The Finals and will have Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back next season. The Philadelphia 76ers, with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, are coming. The Milwaukee Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo and a new head coach. Still, the Raptors are right there with any team you want to put at the top of the East. It's not outrageous to consider them a favorite to make the Finals with a healthy and motivated Leonard.

All it took for Ujiri to put them in that position is an offseason in which he fired Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and upset fans by trading the franchise leader in points and games played.

Many franchises fail to give themselves a real shot at The Finals because of incompetence, bad luck, or a combination of both. Many others simply don't get to have championship hopes. Superstars land on certain teams and in certain cities. The greatest free-agent signing in Raptors history is Hedo Turkoglu; Toronto doesn't get to dictate how and when it acquires elite players. Ujiri saw an unusual opportunity and took a big chance in order to change the Raptors' status.

And it could all come crashing down. Leonard may not be healthy. If he does make it onto the floor, he might not be the same player. He might not be willing to buy in, even for one season. He might fall in love with the city, the team, and the organization, and still ultimately decide he wants to sign elsewhere.

This is Ujiri's bet - on Leonard, on his team, on the city, on the franchise, but most importantly, on himself. He has talked about the Raptors like they're a championship-caliber organization since he arrived. Now, he has the player and the team to make that a reality. Even if it all falls apart in a year's time, the bar for these Raptors is set higher than it's ever been.

That, in itself, feels like a victory.

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Ujiri's gamble on Kawhi is a win for Raptors regardless of results
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