Right man, wrong time: Rajakovic's positivity carries Raptors through adversity

TORONTO — Most fans would describe the Toronto Raptors' 2023-24 season as tumultuous, even chaotic, with a series of trades significantly remaking the roster and then a raft of injuries and other issues directly contributing to a 15-game losing skid.

But head coach Darko Rajakovic's lasting memory of this lost season will be how through it all, the team stuck together.

"We were dealt some really tough cards this season and it was easy to point fingers and say it’s his fault, my fault, his fault, her fault and I think we as an organization, every part of the organization stayed together and understood what we were going through," said Rajakovic on Tuesday at his season-ending news conference. "We understand the only way that we’re going to build is by doing that, by being on the same page and being together."

Rajakovic was introduced as Toronto's new head coach on June 13, with team president Masai Ujiri emphasizing at an outdoor news conference that changing the Raptors' culture was his mandate.

More than the culture changed over the season. Toronto traded OG Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa to the New York Knicks for Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett of Mississauga, Ont., on Dec. 30, then swung a blockbuster to send all-star Pascal Siakam to the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 17, before bringing Kelly Olynyk of Kamloops, B.C., and Ochai Agbaji to the Raptors in a deal with the Utah Jazz on Feb. 8.

The injury bug bit hard in March with all-star forward Scottie Barnes (broken hand) and starting centre Jakob Poeltl (torn ligament) missing the rest of the season. Other injuries chipped away at the Raptors depth and Barrett and Quickley both missed time to grieve the death of loved ones. Backup centre Jontary Porter was also put on the inactive list as the NBA launched an investigation into irregular betting patterns on his play.

All those absences contributed to 15 consecutive losses, second-worst in team history, and Toronto (25-57) lost 19 of its last 21 games of the season.

A rough way for Rajakovic's first season as an NBA head coach to end.

"If you would ask me about this 12 months ago, when I was interviewing for the job, I could probably not foresee everything that came our way. If you had asked (NBA coaching great) Phil Jackson, he would tell you the same thing," said Rajakovic with a smile. "It was a season with a lot of challenges, a lot of changes, a lot of stuff happening on the court, a lot of trades, and changes and also off the court things that we could not control.

"But at the same time, it was an amazing opportunity to learn, to see how people react in those situations, to see how everybody is resilient in that process, and how everybody came together."

Although Rajakovic credited the entire organization for sticking together through adversity, his players said his positivity was what held the team together.

Barnes said that Rajakovic was the first person to call him after he had surgery on March 4 to repair a broken hand.

"He's there for me. He’s gonna help me no matter what it is," said Barnes. "He just always talks to me about how I can learn, how I can get better. He loves me and he cares for us."

Barrett said that Rajakovic started forging a relationship with him as soon as he joined the Raptors.

"I’ve gotten so close to Darko. He’s a coach that you can just talk to, honestly, about anything," said Barrett, whose younger brother Nathan died on March 12. "A lot of our conversations sometimes have nothing to do with basketball.

"He checks on me a lot, for sure. I appreciate him in more than just a basketball sense."

Similarly, Quickley said that "the person part" is the biggest thing that he learned from Rajakovic, especially after the death of his uncle Shawn Hamilton on March 20.

"I think we probably talked more about off-the-court stuff than we do about basketball stuff, which is pretty cool to have as a coach," said Quickley. "But when we talk about basketball, his attention to detail is second to none.

"His will to work and find ways to improve and things like that and include the whole team is second to none as well.

The Raptors only had seven games where its core of four players — Barnes, Poeltl, Barrett and Quickley — got to play together. When they were all on the court together, they were dominant in Rajakovic's offensive sets.

"My eye test tells me that there is a lot of potential there and a lot of opportunities for growth," he said. "But at the same time, I don't want to look at a small sample and say that's it and then tend to take it for granted.

"I think there's definitely things that we can do better, offensively and defensively, with that group there."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2024.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press