Masai Ujiri joining Raptors

Updated: May 31, 2013, 9:24 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Masai Ujiri is leaving Denver to take over the basketball operations for the Toronto Raptors.

The Raptors announced Friday night they've signed the NBA's Executive of the Year to take over as executive vice president of basketball operations for a team that hasn't been to the playoffs in five years.

The 42-year-old Ujiri has been hailed as one of the rising stars among NBA executives thanks to 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.

[+] EnlargeMasai Ujiri
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsMasai Ujiri is leaving Denver to take over the basketball operations for the Toronto Raptors.

Ujiri will be returning to Toronto. He was the assistant GM for the Raptors for three seasons before leaving for the Nuggets in 2010.

Yahoo! Sports first reported the deal.

Ujiri, whose contract with the Nuggets was to expire on June 30, had been weighing offers from both Denver and Toronto.

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. League sources told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard earlier this week that the Raptors had offered Ujiri a five-year deal worth nearly $3 million annually.

Ujiri did a masterful job of reshaping the Nuggets into a Western Conference contender ever since Anthony forced his way out of Denver.

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.

When Tim Leiweke took over as CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, he was looking to make a big splash, and he did just that to lure Ujiri back to where his career took off.

Denver has a history of paying its front-office architects below-market salaries, from Kiki Vandeweghe to Mark Warkentien and Ujiri, who was one of the league's lowest paid GMs with an annual salary south of $1 million. The Nuggets could look to Pete D'Allesandro, Ujiri's right-hand man in Denver, to take his boss' place, but he might also follow Ujiri to Toronto.

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, with Leiweke looking for a new voice to lead the franchise that has missed the playoffs for five straight years.

"There is accountability here and we need a new set of eyes and a new thinking," Leiweke said last week.

But Colangelo's contract was extended and he was moved into a new role, something that he admitted made him "a little disappointed." Ujiri will report to Leiweke and have complete authority on basketball matters.

"Bryan's probably ticked off at me," Leiweke said. "There's no probably. He's ticked off at me. This isn't his perfect world, either. But to his credit, he accepts it."

Leiweke was hired last month after a successful period in charge of Anschutz Entertainment Group, owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers, the NHL's Los Angeles Kings and the Los Angeles Galaxy of MLS.

A native of Nigeria and the first African-born GM in America's four major sports, Ujiri has deep roots with both teams.

He was a scout for the Nuggets from 2003-07 before joining the Raptors as director of global scouting. He was promoted in 2008 to assistant Raptors GM and returned to Denver on Aug. 27, 2010, where he was handed the Melo-drama with Anthony demanding a trade to the New York Knicks.

After finally engineering the blockbuster deal that next February, Ujiri famously apologized, saying, "We feel we got killed in the trade."

But it turned out to be a win-win for both teams: Denver landed a bevy of young players, trade exemptions and draft picks Ujiri used to retool the roster, and the Knicks got a bona fide superstar to build a team around.

Danilo Gallinari came over in the deal along with fellow starter Kosta Koufos, key reserve Wilson Chandler and emergency center Timofey Mozgov. The Nuggets also got Raymond Felton, whom they flipped for point guard Andre Miller and two draft picks, one of which landed them Jordan Hamilton.

They used trade exemptions from the deal to acquire Corey Brewer from Dallas and JaVale McGee from Washington. A first-round draft pick acquired in the trade was used to get starter Andre Iguodala from Philadelphia last summer, and Denver used a second-round pick from the deal to draft Quincy Miller.

That's 10 Nuggets connected to Anthony's departure from Denver.

Ujiri has extensive global connections. He played in Europe for six years and has scouted all over the globe, including Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. He's served as the director of the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program since 2002.

Last year, he drafted Evan Fournier of France and Izzet Turkyilmaz from Turkey and also earned praise for drafting Kenneth Faried with the 22nd pick in 2011.

Known for his candidness, Ujiri raised eyebrows in the midst of the Nuggets' strong post-All-Star break run when he declared Denver wasn't a contender yet. But he was proven right when the Nuggets were bounced from the playoffs in the first round again, this time by the Stephen Curry-led Golden State Warriors.

Ujiri also said that day he was confident he'd get a new contract in Denver this summer, saying, "Josh and I continue to have conversations. I'm very positive that things will work out."

The long-term contract he seemed most concerned with getting done this offseason was Iguodala's, not his own. One day later, Kroenke added president of the NHL's Colorado Avalanche to his plate, and shortly after that, the Raptors came calling.

Information from ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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