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Ujiri’s patience to be tested as Raptors rebuild marches on

Masai Ujiri Raptors Masai Ujiri - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – The word of the day – and for the days, months and years to come – is patience.

When it was all said and done, Raptors’ president and vice chairman Masai Ujiri used the word – or a variation of it – 10 times over the course of his annual end-of-season press conference, which spanned nearly 45 minutes on Wednesday morning.

Given where the team finds itself, coming out of a largely uninspiring 25-win season and in the early stages of a rebuild, you can understand the emphasis on remaining patient.

“Everything we do here is [about] patience,” Ujiri said. “You know that. That’s kind of how we’ve been. We were patient this year. It takes a lot of patience to go through all of that [adversity]. There are temptations here to try to make the team [better], try to push and do deals that might not help the team in the future, but we have to look at the future of this team and be patient.”

Indeed, if this Ujiri-led front office is known for anything after more than a decade in Toronto, for better or for worse, it’s patience. They’ve been patient with good teams, players and coaches and allowed them to blossom and become great. They’ve also been patient to the point of letting opportunities pass them by. Now, as they head into their first offseason as a rebuilding club, that patience will be tested like never before.

The Raptors were reluctant to hit the reset button at all; it’s why they surprised many of their NBA peers and rivals by keeping their veteran core together at the 2023 trade deadline – even adding to it – and then standing pat again last summer. If Ujiri had his druthers, Fred VanVleet wouldn’t have left in free agency and they would have found a way to retain OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, albeit at his price, not theirs. The way he saw it: that group, for all of its flaws and failings, was one piece away from being able to compete in an Eastern Conference that he felt was ripe for the picking. If that opportunity presented itself, he didn’t want to miss out. So, they waited and then waited some more – again, patience.

But now that they’re here, in the early stages of a rebuild that arguably should have started a year earlier, the challenge will be in seeing it through and doing it the right way, even if that means things get worse before they get better. It’s one thing to exercise patience with a team that was perennially winning north of 50 games and qualifying for the playoffs. But with his competitive fire burning, a contract that expires in 2026 and the top of the MLSE board in flux, will Ujiri have the stomach for what comes next?

“Sometimes rebuilds can take three to six years,” he said. “Sometimes teams act before [that]. I think we’re going to see how this process goes and use our instincts with it, but patience is going to be a big thing with this team.”

Despite a 25-57 record – the franchise’s worst in more than a decade – and the laundry list of obstacles that they had to overcome this past season, there’s been no shortage of optimism from players and first-year head coach Darko Rajakovic heading into an important off-season.

On one hand, it’s justifiable. To the point that Ujiri made after trading Siakam to Indiana in January, and then twice more at Wednesday’s press conference, most teams at this stage of a rebuild have little more than future draft picks and cap space to their name. Most of them are looking for a star, a franchise player worth building around, and many need to bottom out and tank for multiple seasons before they’re in a position to find that guy.

The Raptors are fortunate; they feel like they’ve already found him in Scottie Barnes, the 22-year-old all-star who’s fresh off a breakout third NBA season. That’s not a bad place from which to start. From there, Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett – acquired from New York in the Anunoby deal – and Gradey Dick, who made major strides during the second half of his rookie campaign, round out a promising young nucleus.

Their future appears to be bright, but these things take time – each of those guys is under the age of 25. Rushing the process could be catastrophic to the long-term health of this organization.

One of the causes for optimism, according to several players who addressed the media on Monday, was the 14-game stretch in which Barnes, Quickley, Barrett and starting centre Jakob Poeltl were all available – an admittedly small sample that saw those four outscore opponents by 65 points in 234 minutes together, and the team go 7-7. Encouraging? Sure, but worth reading too much into? Ujiri should know better than that, especially after his team’s 15-11 record (after reacquiring Poeltl) to close the 2022-23 campaign turned out to be more of a mirage than a sign of things to come.

What it does indicate is that, at full strength, this team is far better than the one that limped to the finish line this season, going 2-19 without Barnes, Poeltl and, on many nights, Barrett, Quickley and several other key players. But how much better? They’re probably not good enough to make any kind of meaningful playoff run, not yet anyway. Could they squeeze into the play-in tournament next season? If everything breaks the right way, it’s possible, and that’s the dilemma.

After a 41-41 finish and play-in elimination in 2022-23, the Raptors once again looked average, at best, to start this season before they finally made the decision to pivot. The goal is to put this team in a position to exceed that level, to set the organization up for its next great run, to compete for championships. To get there, they need to be in the talent acquisition business for the foreseeable future.

Gone are the days where you need a Big Three to contend – the new collective bargaining agreement has made sure of that. But looking at the most recent title winners, including the reigning champion Denver Nuggets, you do need a top-five calibre player, a second all-star type player and plenty of high-level talent around them.

Even if Barnes continues on his trajectory to superstardom, and even if Quickley, Barrett and Dick develop into complementary – or even foundational – pieces, the Raptors are going to need more. Historically, this is not a market that’s had success in luring big-name free agents, and the price for acquiring stars in a trade can be substantial. If Toronto is going to add talent next to Barnes and the others, the safest bet is through the draft.

They will have up to three picks in the top 31 of this summer’s draft, which is widely believed to be one of the weakest in recent memory. Their own pick is top-six protected and they’ll have a 45.8 per cent chance of keeping it, otherwise it goes to San Antonio (via the Poeltl trade). If it doesn’t convey this year, it rolls over to a much stronger 2025 draft with the same top-six protection, explaining why Ujiri isn’t rooting too hard for either outcome heading into the May 12 draft lottery. There are pros and cons to both.

“Any way it goes, we will be grateful, we’ll be happy,” Ujiri said. “If we’re not in the top six, we have our pick next year. If we are in the top six, you go out and find the best guy or find whatever transaction there is to make.”

If they lose the pick, and perhaps even if they don’t, there’s an argument for embracing the rebuild and going into next season prioritizing lottery balls over wins – starting the campaign as they ended this one, or for the lack of a better term, tanking.

There are plenty of reasons not to do it, to be fair.

For the most part, the fan base has been forgiving; large segments of it were clamouring for a rebuild years ago. Still, as the end of this season showed, bad basketball can be hard to watch, and with ticket prices continuing to rise at Scotiabank Arena, how would ownership feel if and when attendance numbers start to fall?

On top of that, losing is hard on an organization, its coaches, players and culture. There’s obvious value in getting the young players reps in high-leverage games as early as possible, and with Barnes likely to sign his max rookie scale contract extension this fall, they have to start thinking about what it will take to keep him happy – and that means playing to win.

However, there’s one really good reason to do it.

Ujiri and the Raptors have studied rebuilds of the NBA’s past and present “from head to toe”, looking at what’s made the successful ones successful and the especially long and painful ones long and painful. He’s spoken to and gotten advice from Jeff Weltman, his former assistant general manager in Toronto who left to become president of the Orlando Magic in 2017. In Orlando, Weltman has overseen his own rebuild, one that’s finally bearing fruit. After four straight losing seasons, the Magic won 47 games and is back in the playoffs as the East’s fifth seed. Each of its top three scorers was drafted in the lottery over a two-year span: Paolo Banchero (first overall in 2022), Franz Wagner (eighth overall in 2021) and Jalen Suggs (fifth overall in 2021).

Oklahoma City has also laid out a blueprint, having gone from ninth in the West last year (and 14th the year before that) to the very top of the conference this season. They also started the process with a rising star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was part of the return for Paul George in 2019. They endured a 22-win season in 2020-21 and a 24-win campaign in 2021-22 – shutting Gilgeous-Alexander down early both years and signing him to a max rookie extension in between. Through it all, they were opportunistic with their cap space, using it to absorb bad contracts from other teams in exchange for assets and future picks. They drafted and developed well, and took a sizeable step forward in Year 3 before breaking through this season. The gold standard for modern rebuilds.

What can the Raptors borrow from it? If they let Gary Trent Jr. (an unrestricted free agent) and Bruce Brown (team option) go, they can find their way to significant cap space this summer. Rather than spending it in free agency, which seems unlikely, they could also find themselves in position to use it tactically in the trade market, given the number of tax teams that will be looking to avoid the harsh penalties of the new CBA and unload salary. They’ll also need to sell Barnes and the others on their long-term vision, like OKC did with Gilgeous-Alexander, to the point that he’s willing to take a strategic step back if it means, eventually, taking a big step forward.

The final piece of the puzzle: ensuring they’re bad enough in the short-term to really be bad, something that could be accomplished by trading Poeltl this summer. As one of the few remaining traditional centres left in the game, Poeltl’s market is hard to pin down, but with his passing and defensive acumen he should have value around the league. At minimum, he should yield what they gave up for him 14 months ago: a protected first-round pick.

How bad could they be without him? The value he brings isn’t always reflected in the box score, but without his rebounding, rim protection and general veteran savvy in 32 of the final 46 games this season, Toronto went 4-28 (while Barnes and others were also out in the 21 games he missed after hand surgery, a mostly healthy Raptors team went 2-9 when he missed time with an ankle injury in January).

If they decide to go down this route and essentially punt 2023-24 from a competitive standpoint, the 28-year-old big man would likely welcome a change.

“I want to play on a team that’s trying to win every night,” Poeltl told TSN shortly after Siakam, his close friend and long-time teammate, was traded in January. "So, for me, even though we had some changes and we lost some really good players I think we’re still on a course where we’re trying to build around this team right now and we’re not hunting for a No. 1 draft pick, you know what I mean? So, as long as that’s the case I think I’m going to be happy here.”

If 2023-24 is remembered for anything it’ll be as the season in which the Raptors finally chose a path. They’re fully and unequivocally a rebuilding team. Now, we’ll see how far Ujiri is willing to steer in that direction and, as things inevitably get bumpy, whether he can maintain a steady hand.

“I’m patient but I’m not trying to wait six years, to be honest,” Ujiri said. “We’re hoping. You hope with these things that you make the right decisions, that we pick the right players. For me, I think we are going to be patient but I am glad that we are starting with [Barnes].”

“Hopefully one other player can emerge on our team, or you get another one and you are on your way.”