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Raptors banking on internal growth after quiet off-season

Masai Ujiri Raptors Masai Ujiri - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – The Raptors considered it, they really did.

Fresh off a 48-win season in which their club exceeded all reasonable expectations, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster went into the summer preaching patience. Their stated goal was to keep the team’s young core intact and let it use the off-season to continue growing.

However, plans can change quickly in the NBA. When a future Hall of Fame talent and all-time great player like Kevin Durant suddenly becomes available, you’re forced to re-evaluate. And that’s what the Raptors did, at least to some degree.

Internally, they debated what they would be willing to give up for Durant, and, just as importantly, what they wouldn’t. They kicked the tires on Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Deandre Ayton and others. They contemplated whether it was the right time to expedite the process and go all in. That shouldn’t surprise anyone – this is a front office that likes to keep its options open – but neither should the end result.

After sending shockwaves around the league with his trade request in June, Durant will open the season back in Brooklyn. Phoenix matched the offer sheet Ayton signed with Indiana, so he remains a member of the Suns. The rebuilding Jazz sent Gobert and Mitchell to Minnesota and Cleveland, respectively, for massive hauls of prospects and draft picks.

Meanwhile, the Raptors opted to stay the course. In part, it was another vote of confidence in the long-term vision – what they’re building and the pieces they already have in place. Mostly, though, it tells us where they see themselves on the contention spectrum. This is not a team that’s ready to push its chips in.

“We always look at those things,” said Ujiri, who kicked off the team’s media day festivities on the eve of training camp. “Working with Bobby and Nick [Nurse], you have to open your minds to different things. But we also have a plan with this team. We’re focused on that and to grow this team.

“We try to be as active as we can, but we’re also focused on who we are and where we want to go as a basketball team. Sports [are] about winning. We want to win here. Sometimes it’s good to be patient, too, and wait for the right moment.”

If everything goes according to plan, that moment will come sooner or later. This group is about to get expensive. Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet are both eligible for nine-figure extensions this fall. VanVleet can opt out of his current deal after this season, as can Gary Trent Jr. Siakam would hit free agency after the 2023-24 campaign, the same summer O.G. Anunoby can opt out and Scottie Barnes will be eligible for his rookie-scale contract extension. 

Meaning, if the Raptors want to keep their core together past this season it will likely require them to pay into the luxury tax, and eventually deep into the luxury tax. It’s hard to see ownership signing off on that unless a few of these guys take substantial leaps forward and this team becomes a legitimate title contender.

Failing that, they’ll bide their time and wait for the right opportunity to consolidate some of those pieces into a star. They’ve already parlayed that model into a championship, and with a full complement of first-round picks at their disposal, as well as good young players on team-friendly contracts, they’re well positioned to try it again.

The problem with going “all in” is you can only do it once. You get one shot at it, so you better be sure you’re all in at the right time and for the right player because once you start stripping your organization of its assets, you’re more or less locked in for the foreseeable future. There are cautionary tales throughout the league, and the Timberwolves and Cavaliers are hoping not to join them after surrendering a half-decade’s worth of draft capital to land Gobert and Mitchell.

It’s a gamble, to be sure. The cost to entice Brooklyn into moving Durant would have been even more significant, likely starting at Barnes, Anunoby and/or Trent and something close to the maximum haul of unprotected picks. At that point, do you even have enough left to compete for championships? And then there’s the opportunity cost of making the big move. When the next disgruntled star inevitably forces their way onto the trade market, you no longer have the means to enter the bidding.

What we can surmise from the Raptors’ quiet off-season is that they weren’t enamoured with any of the players on the market, not at their price tags anyway. Perhaps they’ve got their sights set on someone else?

One of the situations they’re closely monitoring, according to a league source, is in Oklahoma City, where Toronto-born star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may eventually tire of leading a rebuild. The Thunder have gone 46-108 over the past two years and don’t seem close to turning the corner, especially after losing second-overall pick Chet Holmgren to an off-season foot injury.

The 24-year-old point guard spent the summer playing for Nurse with the Canadian senior men’s national team, so there is familiarity on both sides. Gilgeous-Alexander is under contract with OKC through 2026-27 and has given no indication that he would prefer to play elsewhere, but again, things can change quickly in this crazy league. If that or any other enticing opportunity presents itself, Ujiri and Webster – flexible as ever – will be ready.

The difference between the Raptors and many of the teams that have mortgaged their futures to make these often short-sighted, all-in-type of moves in recent years is they have the luxury of being patient. They’re still only three years removed from winning a championship. This front office, led by Ujiri, is not lacking for job security, autonomy or goodwill amongst the fan base or ownership group. If they’re showing more restraint than the Nets, who haven’t made it past the second round in 20 years, or the Wolves, who haven’t made it past the first round in just as long, it’s because they’ve earned that right.

Notably, they also feel really good about where they are now. Continuity isn’t a sexy thing in professional sports. It doesn’t sell tickets or make headlines, but more often than not it wins games.

The Raptors are returning 13 players from their 2021-22 roster, accounting for 92 per cent of last season’s minutes, which leads the league. Their top eight guys, and 11 of their top 12, in minutes played from a year ago are back, and most of them spent significant stretches of the off-season training and playing together at newly hired assistant coach Rico Hines’ famous summer runs in Los Angeles. That should pay immediate dividends.

“I think there’s some connectivity happening here and that it’s a good sign,” Nurse said. “I kind of sensed a little urgency, I sensed some togetherness, and I sensed some real intensity this summer, and I think those are three really good words going into a training camp. I think the team’s shaping the identity that showed up a little bit late last year. They know who they are and are looking to expand it. It was a good summer. They did a lot of good work this summer and we should see the results here of the summer very soon.”

Last year at this time, they were getting set to open training camp with one of the NBA’s youngest clubs. For the first time in a decade, Kyle Lowry wasn’t around to lead the way. They were integrating rookies and newcomers, and even their young vets had to get accustomed to different roles, both on and off the court. And it showed early in the season.

Through the first 22 games, the Raptors went 9-13 and ranked 24th on the defensive end, where they looked especially shaky. Then, as the season went on and with more experience together in Nurse’s complex defensive system, they started to find themselves.

Barnes seemed to develop by the game, eventually overtaking early favourite Evan Mobley in the Rookie of the Year race. Chris Boucher found his niche as an energy player off the bench and Precious Achiuwa blossomed post all-star break. From December onwards, they finished the campaign with a record of 39-21 and were the league’s seventh-best defensive team, tied with Boston for second-best over the final 22 games. Without much roster turnover, they’re hoping they can pick up where they left off.

“There should be less explaining and confusion with certain things that we do,” said VanVleet. “Coach asks for new things every year, so obviously that’ll be an adjustment, but for the most part we should be pretty familiar with the things that we’re going to do.”

But unlike last year, they won’t catch anybody off guard. They’re no longer playing with house money and with expectations come pressure. The East hasn’t gotten any easier either.

The Celtics added Malcolm Brogdon to a group that just made a run to the Finals. Even with 34-year-old interim head coach Joe Mazzulla taking over for the suspended Ime Udoka, they still figure to be at the top of the conference, along with Milwaukee, Miami and Philadelphia. The Nets are a wildcard but as long as they feature Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, they should be interesting, if nothing else. With Mitchell joining Mobley and all-stars Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen in Cleveland, the Cavs – who the Raptors host on opening night – are poised to take another step. The Hawks acquired Dejounte Murray and the Knicks signed Jalen Brunson, while Chicago, Charlotte and Washington remain in the mix.

Realistically, Toronto figures to be in the middle of the East playoff picture, just below that top tier but, barring some bad injury luck, they should be good enough to avoid the play-in tournament. They don’t feature a prized off-season addition, like some of these other clubs, which is fine. But if they’re going to take another step forward this season, or even keep pace in a loaded conference, they’re banking on internal growth.

In that sense, this was a crucial summer for the franchise, even without a flashy acquisition or high draft pick to show for it. Otto Porter Jr. will bring championship experience and some much-needed shooting off the bench. Second-rounder Christian Koloko gives them the 7-foot shot-blocking centre they’ve lacked for years, though he figures to spend the bulk of his rookie year getting up to speed in the G League. They’re good, solid additions for a team that had some depth issues last season. But the fate of the 2022-23 Raptors is in the hands of this core. How much better have those guys gotten since we last saw them?

What does Barnes look like after his first NBA off-season? Can Siakam and VanVleet build off their career seasons and withstand the grind of another long campaign, despite their massive workloads? How does the often-injured Anunoby respond to off-season trade rumours? Will Trent take his game to another level in a contract year and did Achiuwa bottle his late-season magic?

“We expect to win, and it doesn’t matter what phase we are at as a team,” Ujiri said. Are we good enough to win a championship? I don’t know that we are there yet. But are we good enough to grow and make a jump? I think so. So, we expect to win. We have patience with the team, but we want to grow. We know we have young players on our team, and it takes time to put it together and it’s a challenge to make that jump. But winning is why we play and winning is what we want to do here.”