Onus is on Masai Ujiri to make sure selfishness doesn’t impact Raptors again

TORONTO — If you were the type to believe in blunt, hammer-you-over-the-head symbolism, the occasional screaming that was penetrating the temporary walls at the downtown Hilton as the Toronto Raptors conducted their media day Monday would be disconcerting. Inauspicious, as it were.

Now, the screams were coming from the Raptors’ own players, being coaxed into expressive poses in photo shoots. No Blue Steel, then. In an otherwise quiet press conference room, with hushed assessments of a season gone wrong and efforts to express optimism – but not unrealistic optimism – about the one to come, the screams were jarring.

Although, after last year’s solemn march to mediocrity, maybe any display of energy, mandated by the necessities of team-driven content as they might have been, should be appreciated. A little boastful swagger after six months of soul-searching, is a welcome change, even when extended to the New York Knicks’ lawsuit accusing new Raptors coach Darko Rajaković of orchestrating the obtaining of proprietary information from a new employee.

“I think there has been one time in the history of the NBA that a team has sued the team on time,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said. “Go figure.”

Guess the next time the Knicks need a new front-office boss, we can skip the part where everyone links Ujiri to the vacancy.

“I know who I am. I know how my parents raised me,” Rajaković added. “I know what I see every single day when I look in the mirror. I know that there’s nothing that I should be worried about. And I cannot wait for this lawsuit to be over so everybody can find the truth.”

Thou shall not steal. Hell ya. Surely, the Raptors will vigourously defend themselves against external threats.

It’s the threats from within that are more problematic for this organization. This season, regardless of the results, amounts not to changing a culture, but proving that there was a culture worth protecting in the first place — that it wasn’t just the product of a few exceptional players.


Darko Rajaković isn’t a traditional NBA coach. That’s exactly why the Raptors want him

The Raptors aren’t starting the season in the most naturally positive stance. Trade rumours surrounding Pascal Siakam dominated the start of the offseason, while conversations about acquiring Damian Lillard were at the end of it. Yet, the core remains intact, save for the one guy: Fred VanVleet, who had the ability to determine his own destination. Ujiri said his departure to the Houston Rockets was an opportunity the player couldn’t turn down, and maybe it will work out for the Raptors, too. For now, it amounts to a downgrade in talent.

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Scottie Barnes has the most opportunity to grow with the departure of Fred VanVleet. (Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

As much as talent, though, the sense of what this team represents is a legitimate question. Scottie Barnes, the third-year player who figures to have the most room to grow individually as a result of VanVleet’s departure, called last year “energy draining.” Jakob Poeltl was more diplomatic, saying players last year had a tendency to try to change poor team play by themselves, and they had to “figure out a way to enjoy playing together through the ups and the downs.”

You can infer what you’d like from that, but Ujiri has already said it out loud. At various points last year, Ujiri said selfishness was among the problems that contributed to Toronto’s disappointing season. What that meant was never clarified. On-court issues? Focus on personal goals over team goals? Players not getting along personally? In fact, it’s unclear whether Ujiri ever got more specific in his diagnosis, other than that he knew it when he saw it.

“There’ll be no selfishness this year,” Ujiri said succinctly.

That Siakam went on a lightly prompted, full-throated defence of his motivations could not have been coincidental. As it happens, he is one of three core players who is likely to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason, and one of two, along with Gary Trent Jr., who can be offered a deal he might sign in the offseason. (Due to CBA constraints, the Raptors cannot offer O.G. Anunoby what he would get on the open market, although the defensive maestro did say he wants to remain in Toronto.)

“I don’t have any selfishness in me,” Siakam said. “I’ve never really had coaches tell me that I wasn’t coachable, or I wasn’t listening, or I wasn’t doing the right things on the floor.”

Ujiri said he has talked to Siakam, but not about an extension. Well, that is generally not how this league works.

Ujiri said the time will come to have those conversations, or not to have them, and that will depend on how everyone adjusts to a new playing style that Rajaković hopes gets the ball moving more quickly, with more decisiveness from the players. As for why Siakam hasn’t been offered a new deal, it’s not hard to understand: His efficiency has not been good enough for a first option in an offence, and the Raptors want to see if that changes before they add four years to his contract. That’s why they were in on Lillard, who would have bumped Siakam down to a lesser offensive role. The notion of paying Siakam full freight to try to fill a role that isn’t quite right is an issue, too — hence the talks about moving him.

The hope is that the context, with Rajaković changing the style and Barnes maybe growing into a bigger role, turns Siakam into a sharper version of himself. Saying that, this is a lot of nitpicking for a player the Raptors are fortunate to have, one of the 30 or so best in the league. Those get paid the most money they can be offered, by one team or another.

In that sense, it was notable to hear Siakam clarify, out of nowhere, that he is enjoying his life.

“It gets so super sometimes stressful because of all of the (off-court) things that are happening, but I’m actually living my dream,” Siakam said, hinting at the rumours and money talk. “It’s crazy. And I’m excited about that. … I wanted to say that.”

Generally, people make proclamations that they are actually having fun when it doesn’t look like they’re having fun. And that’s the way it has seemed with Siakam, who wears his emotions on his face, for the last year and change. The point? All of the chatter that has surrounded him and his team has worn on him.

That makes it incumbent on Ujiri to make some of the more pressing decisions sooner rather than later. It is clear that Ujiri intends on reshaping the team, but he is intent on determining his own timeline for that.

“This is the team, now, that we want to take into next season,” Ujiri said. “Did we look at other opportunities (in the summer)? Yes we did. Did we look at maybe going younger? Yes we did. But sometimes those opportunities are there and sometimes they’re not there. … I know everybody’s looking for trades, I know everybody’s looking for moves. Trust me — when the right ones come, the right opportunities come, maybe we’ll take those opportunities.”

Patience is indeed a virtue. It’s just not the only one.

(Top photo: Mark Blinch / Getty Images)

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