Masai Ujiri: Raptors’ culture remains strong

TORONTO – A year ago, Masai Ujiri declared that the Toronto Raptors had to change their culture. But after a challenging and disappointing 2023-24 season, the team’s president said that their culture is just fine.

Ujiri walked back his year-old remarks at his season-ending news conference on Wednesday and said that he was probably too hard on the organization because he wanted to get Toronto back on track. He remade the team with four trades this past winter, but then a series of injuries and off-court incidents derailed the Raptors as they lost 19 of their last 21 games to end the season.

He said that the challenging season showed him that the Toronto’s character from its 2019 championship run was still there.

“One thing I’m 100 per cent sure is the culture of this team will always be at a high level,” said Ujiri. “Yes, we’re going to go through adversity just like every other place, human being, organization or anything, but the culture of this place is always going to be strong.”

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The Raptors front office started to remake the team on Dec. 30 when it traded OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn to the New York Knicks for Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett of Mississauga, Ont. A blockbuster deal sent all-star Pascal Siakam to the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 17, effectively ending Toronto’s championship era. Hours before the NBA trade deadline on Feb. 8 the Raptors got Kelly Olynyk of Kamloops, B.C., and Ochai Agbaji in a deal with the Utah Jazz.

Toronto had its new core of players together for just seven games when injuries started to pile up.

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First-time all-star forward Scottie Barnes (broken hand) and starting centre Jakob Poeltl (torn ligament) both had surgeries in early March, forcing them to miss the rest of the season. Barrett and Quickley took leaves to grieve the death of loved ones, and backup centre Jontay Porter was put on the inactive list as the NBA launched an investigation into irregular betting patterns. He was banned from the league for life on Wednesday.

All those absences contributed to 15 consecutive losses, the second-worst skid in team history, and Toronto (25-57) staggered to the sixth-worst record in the league.


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“I’m very proud of the organization, the team, ownership, everybody for staying with this and grinding it through because it’s not easy on anybody. It’s just not,” said Ujiri, joking that it was probably even hard on reporters to cover the team. “It was unwatchable sometimes but we have to grind through it.

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“But if there’s one thing that never moved it’s our culture that has really kept us through this. I’m proud of all the workers, all the departments, everybody that has contributed to this.”

Toronto’s rebuild will continue through the off-season with two or three draft picks in this summer’s draft on June 26 and 27. The Raptors number of picks is contingent on the results of the draft lottery on May 12. If it shuffles them to seventh or later in the selection order, the pick will automatically transfer to the San Antonio Spurs as part of last year’s trade for Poeltl.

Toronto has a 37.2 per cent chance of moving into one of the draft’s top four picks and a nine per cent chance of selecting first overall. The Raptors, however, have a more than 50 per cent chance of dropping to seventh or worse and losing the pick, leaving them with Indiana’s first-round pick and the Detroit Pistons’ second-round pick.

Ujiri dismissed the notion that the 2024 draft is of lower quality, noting that former NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and perennial all-star Rudy Gobert were both drafted in 2013, an allegedly poor year of basketball prospects.

“I think players are found everywhere,” said Ujiri. “I can guarantee you they’re going to be two or three all stars that will come out of this draft here. It happens every year, happens all the time.”

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The NBA’s free agency window opens on June 30 and Ujiri said that signing a more established player was also an option, especially a backup point guard or wing defender.

“I’m patient, but I’m not trying to wait six years,” laughed Ujiri.

Darko Rajakovic, who completed his first season as a head coach in the NBA, said he has the utmost faith in Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster.

“Every team needs the same thing: it needs great players, and that’s where I’m really excited about, that flexibility with potential draft picks and all of that,” said Rajakovic on Tuesday. “Bobby and Masai are the best in the business and they do a really good job of evaluating the talent and putting the team together.”

Extending Quickley’s contract before he becomes a restricted free agent is almost a guarantee. Quickley was clear on Monday that he wanted to stay.

“Absolutely love Toronto since the day I got here, they’ve done nothing but show me love,” said Quickley. “Love is an action word, it’s not just something you just throw around. They’ve done that from the day I got here to today.

“The team and my agent have to handle everything but I love being here in Toronto, absolutely.”

Raptors ticket prices are expected to climb again for the 2024-25 season, a decision that Ujiri said comes from Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the team’s owners. He said that he and his front office do have some say, however.

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“I think we have to look at market prices everywhere. We have to look at the NBA,” said Ujiri. “I think we have to consider our market and we have to consider the fans too in every way.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2024.

&copy 2024 The Canadian Press

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