14

Masai Ujiri built the Raptors into a winner once, he’s determined to do it again


Article content

The first two decades of the Raptors’ existence went like this: Expansion doormats, Vince Carter, laughingstock, Chris Bosh, laughingstock and then Actually Good Now.

Advertisement

Article content

That last phase lasted a while. It was preceded, not coincidentally, by the arrival of Masai Ujiri to run the basketball operations and reached its crescendo in Oakland about 28 months ago.

But aside from the on-court performances, the Raptors as a franchise have evolved in different ways over the past decade. One of Ujiri’s main goals as its steward was to not just improve the wins and losses, but to change Toronto from an NBA backwater — that cold place in the foreign country — to a desirable place to play.

It is, despite everything, still a work in progress. It’s been there in the subtext, and sometimes right in the pretext, of Ujiri’s rare sessions with the Toronto media. When the Raptors had established themselves as a good team that couldn’t avoid throwing up on itself in the playoffs, the team president held sway in his season-ending press conference and insisted that things were basically proceeding according to plan. As a franchise, the Raptors had added a swanky practice facility, and a team in the developmental league, they had hosted an all-star game, they had two all-stars in the backcourt and they were reliably a playoff team if not a team that won in the playoffs. They weren’t a joke anymore. Even after the Kawhi Leonard trade, Ujiri jumped in during the season-opening media session to reject the premise of a question about whether Leonard would leave the city after a year. Toronto had arrived, he insisted. It was no longer part of the NBA’s low-rent district, he said. “Believe in yourself,” and “believe in this city,” he said to no one in particular. The championship that followed in that season backed up the bravado.

Advertisement

Article content

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

Two-plus years later, the Raptors’ place in the NBA landscape is again a matter of some uncertainty. Leonard left as soon as he could, Kyle Lowry eventually did the same, and none of the would-be free-agent superstars that were once thought to be available this past summer ended up coming north. Even Ujiri delayed a decision on a contract extension about as long as it was possible to delay such a thing. Along the way he had some pointed observations about the franchise needing to fight for a better spot at the league table, and it was reasonable to think that he might have been tired of trying to operate in a market that has never convinced a big-name NBA star to take its money unless he was already here.

In the end, he returned, which if nothing else stabilized the franchise’s credibility in league circles. The Raptors are not starting over, not searching for a new top boss who would want to put his or her own stamp on the organization.

Advertisement

Article content

But this is still a new era. When the Raptors finally took to the Scotiabank Arena court on Wednesday night after about a million days away, only three players had ever stood on that particular hardwood as members of the team. A fourth, Pascal Siakam, is here but recovering from injury. Not one of the five starters against the Washington Wizards started that game in Oracle Arena in the spring of 2019 — not that long ago! — that gave the Raptors their NBA crown. Two of the starters, Precious Achiuwa and Goran Dragic, were essentially ballast in the sign-and-trade deal that sent Lowry to Miami in the summer and Dragic probably isn’t signing any long-term leases in Toronto. The roster is full of young, versatile players with promise, which will give head coach Nick Nurse the chance to go full mad scientist, tinkering with lineup combinations and rotations like he has never done before in Toronto. In his first season, he insisted that the first few months would be a time for experimentation, but that team had a bunch of veterans who knew what they could and couldn’t do on an NBA court. This group, or at least most of it, doesn’t even know what it’s like to play in Toronto. It’s from this point that Ujiri and his general manager Bobby Webster will begin the process of building an elite team again. It will likely take some time.

Advertisement

Article content

For a night, anyway, none of that mattered. The packed crowd kept starting loud Let’s Go RAP-TORS chants during the lengthy pre-game ceremonies and would have to shush down while one thing or another took place on the court. Fred VanVleet took the microphone to greet the crowd, and the cheers almost drowned him out. Even for a cynic on press row, it was a touching moment. After 600 days without an NBA game in Toronto, the crowd was just desperate to cheer for someone in a Raptors uniform. That it was VanVleet, who could yet become Lowry 2.0 in this town, was all the better.

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

When the crowd eventually let him speak, VanVleet offered thanks to the fans who stuck with the Raptors. More cheers. He said he and his teammates were excited for the season ahead, and to finally be home.

“Let’s get it,” he said.

A simple message, but one that was enough for the night. After a year and a half in exile in Florida, the Raptors were back in Toronto. They can figure the other stuff out later.

Advertisement

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.



Source link

Your reaction

NICE
SAD
FUNNY
OMG
WTF
WOW

React with gif

Share this post on social media

Leave a Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Google Translate