The Toronto Raptors hosted their annual media day at OVO Athletic Centre on Monday with key members of the organization expressing their readiness to leave last season behind and start anew.
The disappointing 41-41 2022-23 season was characterized by disharmony, stunning losses, and waning confidence in the team and its management. Shortly after the Raptors were eliminated by the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Play-In Tournament, Raptors president Masai Ujiri voiced what every fan was thinking:
“To watch us play this year was not us,” he said at the time. “I did not enjoy watching this team play.”
Ujiri had also called out the players as “selfish” earlier in the season.
Former Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was let go following reports of a dysfunctional locker room. Openly pondering a future outside of Toronto during the regular season couldn’t have helped his job security, either.
Although Monday’s media day took on a more serious tenor compared to last year’s, the franchise’s representatives hammered home their belief in recapturing the winning culture that it once boasted.
Raptors media day this year vs last year pic.twitter.com/aTqCofpxKu
— MVP43🐐 (@StepBackPascal) October 2, 2023
Here are some of the biggest takeaways from Monday's event.
Team culture: 'There will be no selfishness this year'
The chief concern for the 2023-24 Raptors is how they can bounce back from last season’s culture erosion despite the leadership vacuum created by the departures of Nurse and VanVleet. After all, both were essential in the 2019 championship run and were two of the team’s most influential figures in the locker room last season.
To Ujiri, the mandate is quite simple: “There will be no selfishness this year.”
The declaration appeared to be both an assurance to fans and a warning shot to the players. Ujiri shared with reporters that the front office has had meetings with the team regarding the issue, and that players had individually taken accountability for last season’s performance.
“It was an energy drainer,” Scottie Barnes said of last season. “Sometimes out there it feels like it was every man for themselves. That’s something we really got to change.”
Raptors big man Jakob Poeltl perhaps put it most succinctly after playing just 26 games with the Raptors as a trade deadline acquisition.
“We just got to figure out a way to enjoy playing together through the ups and downs,” Poeltl said.
In Nurse’s place, the Raptors hired first-time NBA head coach Darko Rajakovic – a former assistant coach in the NBA who exudes positivity and boasts a strong reputation for developing players.
“My biggest thing is to have guys buy in that doing less is also doing more,” said Rajakovic. “Less does not mean less of a shot. Less does not mean taking away from their game. Less means making quicker decisions and sharing it… Everybody wants to make that next step to play a fun style of basketball and to play for each other.”
“I feel like Darko’s doing a good job of inserting that into our offence, just being able to play more together,” said Barnes. “It just helps everybody be able to have energy there on the floor, want to play for each other making those sacrifices. It makes you feel more comfortable sacrificing for one another once you’re moving the ball, playing with energy.”
The Raptors had also spent the offseason acquiring NBA veterans like Dennis Schroder and Garrett Temple. Barnes believes their new veteran additions will be conducive for the culture he wants to help set.
“The vets we got right now, they just come in and bring a lot of energy.” said Barnes, “It’s just a lot more positivity, more motivating, more energy. Just being able to be fun. Just having fun and enjoying the game. That’s what we really got to get back to doing. Just being able to enjoy it and enjoy each other’s presence.”
Extension talks 'difficult to navigate'
The gut punch of losing VanVleet in free agency naturally raised questions regarding the team’s ability to manage its upcoming expiring deals with O.G. Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., and All-NBA forward Pascal Siakam all possibly headed for the exit next offseason. Both Ujiri and the players alike weren’t forthcoming with details on extension talks, but what’s clear is that the upcoming regular season is essentially an audition for a future roster spot.
“It’s difficult to navigate,” Ujiri said of contract extensions. “We do believe in these players. That’s why we got them. That’s why we drafted these players. As the year goes on, we will figure out which way we are going to go in terms of how they adjust to the new coach, the new system, and how they’re going to play.”
Therein lies a glaring inconsistency. How does withholding contract extensions communicate belief in their players? When pressed on this, Ujiri responded, “We do believe in Pascal. We do 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… So let us see it when we play the right way.”
It's not the clearcut approach to roster building that fans have been craving, but it’s helpful to know that players will be primarily evaluated based on their fit in Rajakovic’s system and culture.
Of the players on expiring deals, re-signing Anunoby will be the most challenging. Thanks to the new CBA, the Raptors are able to offer Anunoby an additional $16.7M for a total of $116.9M across four years. However, a big wrinkle is that teams can offer Anunoby even more money in free agency. A similarly valued player in Jerami Grant signed a $160M, five-year contract with Portland earlier this offseason.
Expecting a player like Anunoby to stay in Toronto out of loyalty is to repeat the mistake that was made with VanVleet’s contract negotiations.
While justifying the risk of losing additional players to free agency, Ujiri took accountability for how the last trade deadline was handled.
“If what you’re referring to is not trading Fred at the trade deadline, we take responsibility for that," Ujiri said. "It’s not something I’m running away from, but it also has a lot to do with respect of the player and what the opportunity is out there.”
Player development 'not just for young guys'
A big lesson from last season is that player-coach relationships have an underrated impact on winning. No one knows more about what it’s like to play in a miserable environment than Trent Jr., a former disgruntled member of the Portland Trail Blazers. Now entering his fifth NBA season, Trent Jr. had nothing but glowing remarks for the new bench boss.
“He’s super receptive. His communication has been great,” said Trent Jr. “Whether it’s talking about basketball, whether it’s talking about his kids, his coaching journey, how he got here, his story… I’ve had more conversations with him about anything than any coach I’ve ever had or played for, so that’s been refreshing.”
Part of fostering unity is to help each player feel they are having an impact. On Monday, Rajakovic shared his preference for utilizing a deeper rotation of nine to 10 players to physically survive the 82-game regular season. It’s a welcome contrast to Nurse’s heavy dependence on his starters. Siakam played 37.4 minutes per game last season – the most in the NBA. VanVleet and Anunoby weren’t far behind, playing the fifth and 16th most minutes per game, respectively.
This, of course, puts an impetus on improving a bench that has been on the decline.
“Player development is the most important thing,” said Rajakovic. "If a player improves, now you can put strategies in place and that’s going to give you results.
"For me, player development is for all 18 guys on our roster. It’s not just for young guys. It’s for everybody.”
The spotlight will once again be on Barnes, who followed up his Rookie of the Year season with a disappointing sophomore campaign. In addition to shooting and ball-handling deficiencies, the then-21-year-old struggled with finding consistency across four quarters, and typically reserving his offensive output for the fourth quarters of games.
“One thing I probably worked on this summer was just trying to do more running,” said Barnes. “I feel like with the ball in my hands more I’ll probably be doing more work. It’s just about trying to be ready for that and to be able to try to take it to the next level.”
Ujiri has seen the third-year pro’s progress this offseason with his own eyes.
“Scottie has worked incredibly hard this summer and has shown the commitment that he wants to get better. He’s gotten stronger, his conditioning has got better, and he knows it. He’s very confident.”