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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Whatever it takes, Knicks need to hire Masai Ujiri

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri built the Raptors

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri built the Raptors into a championship team and have been performing well this year despite the loss of Kawhi Leonard.   Credit: AP/John Locher

OK, Knicks fans. All the signs are there. A big-time player could be on his way to Madison Square Garden.

That big-time player is Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, the team-building wizard who is currently under contract through the 2020-21 season. With the news Tuesday that the Knicks have parted ways with team president Steve Mills, it certainly appears that Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan is making a full-court press to land Ujiri.

Keep your fingers crossed. Because if anyone in the game can fix the mess that is the Knicks, it is Ujiri.

Ujiri, who began his career as an unpaid scout with the Orlando Magic in 2002, was named the NBA’s Executive of the Year in 2013 with the Denver Nuggets. In May 2013, he was hired by the Raptors, where one of his first moves was trading Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks for Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson and a 2016 first-round draft pick.

It took just five seasons for Ujiri to turn the Raptors into NBA champions. Almost as impressive, the Raptors failed to keep Kawhi Leonard from leaving to go to the Clippers, but Ujiri has the team in second place in the Eastern Conference with a roster that includes late draft picks and undrafted finds.

In the Knicks, however, Ujiri would be handed the ultimate challenge.

The Knicks have been to the playoffs just three times in the past 15 years and only once have they gone past the first round in that stretch. They have been idle the last five postseasons. The reputation of the franchise is so dysfunctional that all major free agents, including Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, decided to sign elsewhere this offseason.

This season the Knicks are 15-36 and are in 13th place in the East. They fired coach David Fizdale six weeks into the season. At a recent home game, after a fight broke out on the court, fans began chanting for Dolan to sell the team.

It appears now that he is set on doing what it takes to fix it. Removing Mills couldn’t have been easy. Mills and Dolan both went to Friends Academy on Long Island, and Mills has served the Knicks organization in a variety of capacities for 13 of the past 17 years, most recently as team president after the Knicks parted ways with Phil Jackson in 2017. Though Mills will remain as a member of the board, he will have no say in the operation of the team.

Yet, it was becoming increasingly clear that if the team wanted to land an executive like Ujiri, Mills was going to have to go. No one wants to step into a situation where they constantly have to be looking over their shoulder, which likely would have been the case with Mills still on the payroll.

The Knicks have kept Scott Perry as their general manager, though his future remains unclear.

So why would Ujiri want to come here? And what would the Knicks have to do to get Toronto to let him leave early?

The answer has to do with money, but not the money the Knicks would pay him to be president. It's the money that can be made by fundraising in New York as opposed to Toronto.

As reported by Newsday’s Steve Popper in November, a week before Fizdale was fired, people in Toronto were worried about Ujiri departing for the Knicks all season because New York has a lot of wealthy people making it a better location for his foundation, Giants of Africa.

Ujiri, who was born in England but raised in Nigeria from the age of 2, is passionate about the foundation, which conducts basketball camps and provides other help to youth across Africa.

The Knicks explored hiring Ujiri in 2017 after the Jackson debacle. And it may be tricky getting him here now since Toronto is sure to demand heavy compensation, such as two first-round picks. For a team that is trying to rebuild, that is a tough demand.

The Knicks certainly have given up more for less in the past.

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