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Raptors open training camp under cloud of uncertainty

Toronto Raptors Darko Rajakovic - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – The Raptors are anxious to turn the page on last season.

And who could blame them, given the laundry list of things that went wrong on the way to a disappointing 41-41 finish and play-in exit? Their half-court offence was often a disjointed mess, they couldn’t shoot the ball and they never quite figured things out defensively. But most of all, there was an intangible quality that they lacked. Something felt off all year: the fit, the vibes, the chemistry. Or, as Masai Ujiri continues to reference it, there was a selfishness to them.

The head coach, Nick Nurse, and most of his staff would take the fall. That he didn’t seem too bummed out about hitting the open market, where he eventually landed with Philadelphia, may be the biggest indictment of the franchise’s current state.

“I would say it’s an energy drainer,” Scottie Barnes said of the team’s 2022-23 style of play. “Sometimes out there it felt like it was every man for themselves. That’s what we’ve really got to change.”

The problem? As a new-look – but perhaps not new enough – version of the Raptors reconvened in Toronto for their annual media day festivities ahead of training camp, the vibes were different, but not necessarily for the better.

Ujiri got defensive when pressed on his team’s uncertain direction and underwhelming off-season, which saw them lose Fred VanVleet to Houston in free agency. Coming off a summer of trade speculation and heading into a contract season, Pascal Siakam was non-committal about his future in Toronto. You could feel the weight of an ugly legal battle, a failed half-hearted pursuit of Damian Lillard, three pending free agents and waning good will amongst an increasingly impatient fan base hanging over the franchise like a dark cloud.

It was not exactly an encouraging start to the new season. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on where things go from here, it was only the first day at the office. On Tuesday, the Raptors open training camp just outside of Vancouver in Burnaby, B.C., and there will be plenty of pressure on incoming coach Darko Rajakovic to block out the noise and establish a new identity and culture under difficult circumstances.

Looming as potential distractions before the campaign even tips off at the end of the month:

There’s the unsettled lawsuit, which implicates Rajakovic and several others in the theft of proprietary information by a former Knicks staffer, who remains employed by the Raptors.

“I know who I am,” said Rajakovic, who maintained his innocence but couldn’t elaborate on an ongoing legal matter. “I know how my parents raised me, I know what I see every single day when I look in the mirror and I know there’s nothing that I should be worried about.”

There’s the absence of VanVleet, the all-star point guard and long-time team leader, and the void he leaves behind, both on and off the court, without an obvious replacement.

Then there’s the contract status of Siakam, O.G. Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr., three-fifths of Rajakovic’s possible starting lineup, each of whom could become an unrestricted free agent next summer. That’s a precarious situation for any team to be in, let alone one that just watched VanVleet walk out the door. As things stand entering camp, the ever-patient Ujiri is in no rush to find a resolution.

While their names were frequently mentioned in rumours ahead of last year’s trade deadline, and then again over the off-season, Ujiri has been reluctant to deal Siakam and Anunoby – players he drafted, watched develop and values highly. So, if a trade isn’t coming, an extension or two must be, right? Not necessarily.

Due to the structure of his current contract and a wrinkle in the league’s collective bargaining agreement, the Raptors can offer Anunoby an extension that tops out at $117 million over four years, well below his perceived market value. Even if it’s offered, expect Anunoby and his representation to turn it down, regardless of his long-term plans (and, for what it’s worth, he had this to say about his future with the team: “I love Toronto, so I want to be here.”).

Word was that the Raptors were nearing an agreement with Trent shortly after he opted into the final year of his current deal in July, but those talks have stalled since. As for Siakam, Ujiri confirmed that they’ve yet to open negotiations.

Paraphrasing his message to the two-time all-star and All-NBA forward, who is eligible for a maximum extension worth north of $200 million and can sign it up until the end of the season: if you want a new deal, you’ll have to earn it. It’s a bold, albeit unusual tactic to take with your best player and one of the top 20 or so players in the league, but Ujiri wants to see how he (and the others) fares in a new system under a new coach before committing that kind of long-term money.

“We do believe in Pascal,” Ujiri said on Monday. “We believe that a lot of our players didn’t play the right way last year and we want to see them play the right way. I said that we were selfish and I’m not running away from that. We were selfish and we did not play the right way. So let us see it when we play the right way.”

It’s a gamble, to be sure. If Siakam makes an All-NBA team next season, like he did in two of the past four years, he would become eligible for a super-max deal and it could wind up costing the Raptors more to sign him in free agency. There’s also the risk of creating friction with a homegrown player who surely believes he’s done more than enough to earn an extension. It’s hard to imagine this causing irreparable damage to the relationship between player and team, given their history together. It’s part of the business and Siakam gets that more than most. If and when an offer comes – and, according to a source, he would be open to signing an extension – any awkward posturing leading up to it will likely be water under the bridge. However, it’s clear they’re walking a fine line.

“I’m under contract, right? I’m a Raptors player,” Siakam said, swatting away question after question regarding his future and fit in Toronto. “That’s what I’m focused on. I’m focused on the present and that’s all I care about right now.”

Of course, without an extension, there’s also the chance that Toronto loses him for nothing, and the same goes for Anunoby and Trent. That’s the cost of patience. Opportunities can pass you by quickly in this league. The moves you make have consequences, but so do the moves you don’t.

“Could we have traded Fred at the trade deadline? If that was a failure, we take responsibility for it,” Ujiri said. “Sometimes it depends on opportunity and respect [for] the player. We respected Fred. Fred decided to go somewhere, to better opportunities. It was good for him. Maybe it was good for us, too.”

It’s not that they should’ve exceeded an annual salary of $40 million to keep VanVleet. It’s not that they should’ve traded him at the deadline, necessarily. Sure, in hindsight even a modest return would’ve been better than no return. But the real takeaway is that the closer a player gets to free agency, the less they’re likely to be worth on the trade market. In that sense, the ship may have already sailed on the aforementioned trio.

If this front office wasn’t happy with what was out there for Siakam over the summer, its unlikely to be blown away by a mid-season offer. If they declined to include either Siakam or Anunoby in an offer for Lillard, as multiple reports have indicated and Ujiri all but confirmed on Monday, they’ve essentially committed to moving forward with those guys. At this point, losing another key asset for nothing would border on malpractice.

“Did we look at other opportunities? Yes we did,” Ujiri said. “Did we look at maybe going younger? Yes we did, but sometimes those opportunities are there and sometimes they’re not there. We can’t force them, it takes two to do deals and you move on when those deals are not there. The most important thing for us is that we continue to grow our team and our players and build their confidence and make the environment where they play very conducive for them to succeed and to play better. Hopefully we can do that. I know everybody’s looking for trades, I know everybody’s looking for moves. Trust me, when the right ones come maybe we’ll take those opportunities.”

Until that day comes, if it comes, it’s hard to get excited about this team’s short-term prospects in a levelled up Eastern Conference that features Milwaukee, who just paired Giannis Antetokounmpo with Lillard, and Boston, who added Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis to the duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But from there, things get murky. James Harden took his trade demand up a notch when he no-showed to media day and there’s a sense that Joel Embiid could be getting impatient in Philadelphia. The reigning conference champion Miami Heat struck out on Lillard and Holiday, and their aging core is another year older. New York and Cleveland are playoff teams, at minimum, but have holes that weren’t addressed this summer.

Ujiri is hoping to take advantage of that parity, assuming everything breaks the right way. And, in fairness, there are a few plausible scenarios where things break the right way and this team surprises people this season.

On paper it certainly looks like they’ve taken a step back, with respect to rookie sharpshooter Gradey Dick and Dennis Schroder, fresh off leading Germany to a FIBA World Cup championship. Once again, they’re banking on internal growth and, once again, that begins and ends with Barnes. He’s the biggest swing factor. It’s hard to imagine this Raptors team improving without him taking a sizeable leap in Year 3.

What did he learn from a disappointing sophomore campaign? For one, he knows he has to prepare differently. By all accounts, Barnes had an excellent summer. In an effort to better his conditioning, he did more running and put on nearly 10 pounds of muscle. Without VanVleet manning the point, the plan is for Rajakovic to use the 22-year-old on the ball more often this season, and Barnes appears to have fully bought in.

If there’s a cause for optimism amid some of the gloom and doom that has followed this team into the new campaign, it’s Rajakovic. While Nurse was the mad scientist, always willing to tinker with lineups and experiment with defensive schemes, the Serbian-native is taking more of a people-first approach to his new gig. And, so far, it seems to be jiving with his players.

“In the weeks we’ve been together he’s been super receptive and the communication has been great, whether it’s talking about basketball, talking about his kids, his coaching journey, how he got here, his story,” Trent said. “I’ve been in the NBA six years and I’ve had more conversations with him [outside of basketball] than with any coach I’ve ever had. It’s been refreshing.”

“He brings a lot of energy, a lot of joy,” Barnes added. “I love that about him.”

We’ll see how it plays out on the court. Aside from informal workouts in Los Angeles and Las Vegas over the summer, and in Toronto this past week, Tuesday’s practice will be their first opportunity to really get on the same page. Offensively, Rajakovic preaches ball movement and quick decisions.

“I’ve never liked heavy ISO style of basketball,” he said.

His hope is that those principles, as well as an emphasis on attacking the paint, will make up for the noted lack of elite shooting on the roster. Defensively, he wants to protect the paint and prevent corner three-pointers. Unlike Nurse, who famously leaned on his starters at the expense of developing guys on the bench, Rajakovic intends to use a deep rotation.

But more than any of that, more than the X’s and O’s, this is a team that could use his energy. They could use some joy. Any chance of navigating the many obstacles around them and finding their way to a bounce-back season depends on it.