If you’re the Toronto Raptors and you could only pick one who would you rather have: Masai Ujiri or Giannis Antetokounmpo?
This is in no way a realistic binary choice, the Raptors could have both of them on the team simultaneously, the question is merely for debate.
To me the answer is obvious: Antetokounmpo actually plays basketball. He’s the reigning NBA MVP, the likely back-to-back winner of the award, and just 25 years old. FiveThirtyEight’s ranks him the third-best player in the NBA, BBALL-INDEX ranks him as the top player in Wins Added, and Basketball-Reference has him second in Win Share. If every player in the NBA was available to be drafted with both age and contract taken into account, Antetokounmpo wouldn’t fall lower than first or second. If you put him on the Raptors right now, they’d go from an elite Eastern Conference team to probably the best team in the NBA.
So what’s the case for Ujiri?
The Toronto Raptors seemed largely lost in the wilderness for years before Ujiri showed up. Since taking over the franchise in 2013, the Raptors have made the playoffs every single season and nearly improved year-over-year, culminating in an NBA championship last season.
He turned Greivis Vasquez into Norman Powell and OG Anunoby, Andrea Barnginai into Jakob Poeltl, who he later paired with DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, and he’s hit on essentially every draft pick since 2015. He’s undoubtedly one of, if not the best executives in the NBA, and he’s made Toronto one of the most respected and stable franchises in the NBA.
Ultimately the question comes down to how much of a difference can an executive really make? For this, let’s look at LeBron James’ career. In James’ first seven seasons in the NBA he made six all-star appearances and became a two-time NBA MVP. By 2013 he was essentially the best player in the NBA, but thanks largely to his lackluster supporting cast, he was never able to win an NBA championship. It wasn’t until he took control of his situation and paired up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that James was able to get over the hump.
If the Raptors brought in Antetokounmpo but suddenly lost Ujiri, would the new league-average team president be able to keep the team relevant year after year? I’m not saying the Raptors wouldn’t be better off with Antetokounmpo next right now, but there might be an argument for Ujiri without him ever touching the court.
Let me know what you think in the comments.
Correction: May 18, 2020
An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Jakob Poeltl’s name.