Toronto Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri held his season-ending media availability at BioSteel Centre on Monday, addressing a number of topics. Here are the relevant notes and quotes.
A man with some tough decisions ahead. pic.twitter.com/Er4zRsyp13
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) May 30, 2016
Ujiri opened by congratulating the Cleveland Cavaliers and wishing them luck before turning the focus back to his own team.
"To our fans, I've never seen anything like this…I would go to battle any day with our fans, our city, the country" – Masai Ujiri
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) May 30, 2016
Reflecting on the season
On the deep playoff run: “I also want to commend our team. We’re a team that’s learning how to win, and from the top guys down, DeMar, Jonas, Patrick and our young players Norman, Biz, Scola , everyone did a phenomenal job and we still have plenty of work to do…We want to continue to be relevant in this league and continue to grow and learn how to win. I think we took little baby steps to try to get there.”
On the benefits of that playoff run: “The benefits are huge…We are learning how to win. We are growing as a team, individually, players and coaches, you saw Dwane really, like, grow, I think, with this. And learn. And it’s the one thing I really commend our players — you gotta give credit to those guys, honestly, because there were times when we were down, there were times when we were almost out, and they kept fighting and fighting and fighting. And again I repeat it: you see it with other players, other stars, I don’t want to name names because I shouldn’t, but that’s just the nature of the game. And guys are going to struggle, guys are going to. Kyle and DeMar, I think they did well. They came out of it and they performed at a high level and they never put their heads down. And all the other players, too.”
On pride in where they are, and being a good husband: “And when we look at, in my position, when I look at it, I know everybody says you should be proud of the season. I go home, my wife says, ‘You should be proud of the season.’ And I say thank you to be a good husband. But there’s 29 teams that have lost, and there’s 29 disappointed teams in the NBA at the end of the season. And we’re one of them. And I’m one of them. So I go in with that mentality. I don’t know if I feel differently, sometimes, from last year and this year. Because we didn’t win the championship.”
On proximity to contention: “Could we have won the championship? I don’t think we are good enough yet. We’re not there yet. But you have that disappointment in you and that urge that you want to go and do better. And talking to these guys, the exit interviews and meeting with them, you see that killer in their eyes. You see that now that they’ve gotten to this place, they want even more. And I like that. I like guys talking about what they are going to do over the summer and going over their plans and working hard. So there’s a level of disappointment on my part, you know, where you feel that I’m damn proud of these guys, I’m damn proud of the organization, this city, everything, yes, but there’s still plenty of work to do and we want to win. We want to win here in Toronto and we will win in Toronto.”
On the important of building culture: “There’s not one day I go to bed and worry about anybody on our team..including the casinos.”
On whether everyone can come back: “I don’t know how possible that is, but honestly, it’s out jobs. We have to figure it out. That’s why we’re brought here to do this. Some of the things are more difficult than others. But to me, the approach is, our guys have said that they want to be here. That’s the first step, to build your culture and build your team, and you try to learn how to win and build winning. That attracts players. That makes players want to stay here. That’s the first step. And then, it’s kind of put on my table, and our guys in the front office, to figure it out. We’ll try to figure it out.”
On offering DeRozan the max: “I think that question is for later. We’ll have those discussions. Our organization, I think, has showed that we want to win. Those are, I think, negotiations that we’ll have with DeMar and his agent, and we’ll see where it goes.”
More on DeRozan: “Our number one goal is to bring DeMar back here. We feel great that he wants to come back to our organization. I spoke to him yesterday and his eyes were still red; you could tell, he said he felt empty the next day. Which was telling. Speaking to him and Kyle, they almost felt like we had a game to play still, and that game is not there. There’s that hunger, and you like that, and then now, it’s my part to figure it out. ”
On a Casey extension: “I’ve had discussions with his agent. We continue to discuss. But Coach Casey’s our coach for the future. That’s very easy for us to figure out. That will be done in our sleep.”
On his earlier Casey backing: “To me, I sat here, I know everybody thought I was BSing when I said coach deserves to be the coach here. I believed in this team is what I said before we went into that series. You kind of know from your guys what you’ve gone through the whole regular season. You’ve been in fights and battles with them. I don’t know what the outcome is going to be. You really know where you can rely on them. Honestly, we knew this from these guys.”
On whether Valanciunas and Biyombo are redundant: “Well, I can’t tell you. Can you tell me what, like, article you’re going to write in a couple weeks? I can’t tell you. I just have to go back to my guys and maybe figure it out, like creatively, what we can do. And it’s worked with having both of them together. But you know, both of them have emerged. That’s the reality of the NBA that we live in. I think the good thing is they all want to be here, and we can attract players here without moaning about anything anymore. I think that’s the first hurdle. And then you go tackle the other issues. Like, we have to get creative. We have to figure things out. I don’t know exactly what they are now. There’s tons of them. I also can’t tell the whole world what I’m trying to do, you know?”
On an edge retaining players: “It’s still raw. We’re still evaluating everything. But the basics, I think, when I look at DeMar or Biyombo or whoever it is we are looking at, we’re proud of those guys and want to bring them back. Sometimes those things are challenging and difficult. But again, I say, it’s our jobs to figure it out. When we’re in the playoffs, we’re helpless, we just watch. And now we can start to work.”
General offseason notes
On free agency priorities: “The obvious one sometimes is the power forward position. I think that’s always kind of been the question. We’ll see. The way the NBA’s going and also the emergence of Valanciunas and Biyombo, it’s a position where we really kind of have to get creative there and figure out what’s going to work, not only financially and not only fitting with the cap but also the type of player that we bring. That’s the one that really stands out now. Maybe we figure out a backup three…Those two positions look like something that we need to address.”
On using both picks: “It depends on what kind of players we get. Looking at it, I don’t know there’s any player, and there might be, our guys Dan and Jeff and all these guys are working their butts off to figure out what kind of players there will be at nine, at 27. Do we draft a guy and hold him out for a year? Do we trade the picks? We’re happy to have these options. We’re appreciative to have these options on our table. I don’t know that our coaches are going to be pushing for two young guys on our team. That’s a question where we need to develop even those four guys even more. And with the number nine pick, I think you have to have that guy if you make that pick. And then with 27, we’ll see.
On moving a pick: I’m open. I’m open to moving any time. Do you have any suggestions?”
On how the team’s culture can attract free agents: “I think, honestly, that’s something we had to build here. You hear all of these things about this place, oh, people don’t want to come here. To me, we’re done talking about that. A few years ago, three years ago, maybe. I don’t see it. To me, winning is the most important thing, and the culture of your team. If you have a great culture and you are progressing the right way to win, I think players will always want to come when you have a great city, great fans. We have heard what players have said about the atmosphere, playing, our ownership, the support. I say it again: Outside of winning, which maybe we don’t have a history like other teams, we work for a top-five, top-three organization in the NBA by far, in my opinion, whether you’re talking about fans, organization, ownership, resources. They give it to us. Look at where we’re sitting in a practice facility. It’s everything that we want. That’s what we have to put in front of these players. We have to create that atmosphere for them. You match that with winning, and I think they’ll be attracted to here.”
On a question tip-toeing around Kevin Durant: “I’ll just go with what your first sentence was and there’s not enough money here to pay for any fines so I can’t comment on that.”
On an expanded role for Valanciunas: “Yes he is (ready). Even from talking to Case, we feel that way, Jonas feels that way, I think the players feel that way. We saw where he was going. It was very unfortunate that he got that injury. But even the fight to come back. Honestly Jonas’ ankle was still [swollen] when he played so to fight to come back and want to play for the team and even sacrifice a little bit more to me says a lot of somebody that wants to get better and be better.”
On Norm: “It’s huge to have a guy that tough, that talented, forget about the value, we are talking about the player. Norm as a player for us is huge. I give our guys credit for finding a player like that who can come in and contribute his first year and you actually see upside in him. He worked on his shot. His shot was basically the question and I think Norm will continue to grow. He has hunger in his eyes and he will continue to grow to be a prominent player in this league.”
On Bruno: “Bruno made great progress at the end of the season in his last 10 games with the D-League. His body is getting better. We met with him and there has been a jump. We are not in any hurry with a player like that. It was a project for us to get a player like that who is that talented and figure out how to develop him. It’s not like we are doing it with 10 players. He is unique…There is no pressure on Bruno in terms of where our team is. We like that we have a talented player like that where he is.”
The cap situation
The Raptors have a complicated offseason ahead as it pertains to the salary cap, something friend of the site Nate Duncan does a great job covering in his latest podcast with Danny LeRoux (five-minute mark). I took the liberty of creating a cap snapshot for fans to refer to in the coming weeks, and I’m trying to create a tool that would allow you to cut and sign players and see the resultant cap situation, but I’m skeptical I’ll have that done in time.
For now, refer to this, and I’ll double back with a full “cap primer/preview” sometime in the next week. Basically, this shows everything that’s on Toronto’s books as of July 1, but they can renounce and shuffle and maneuver from there. The Cliff’s notes? “ has his hands full to improve this team.
By the way, Ujiri said the team has always had the ability to go into the luxury tax. Here’s the quote:
“Since I came here. Since I came here they all said to me in my first meeting here is if you need to go anywhere you can go anywhere. They’ve been 100 per cent supportive. From the first meeting I had with ownership they told me that. Out of the four teams we were the lowest but there’s been no way or no means to go to that place yet and sometimes you have to take baby steps to get there. That’s what we’re doing.”
That’s great to hear, but it would be almost impossible for the Raptors to get into the tax this coming season – they just don’t have the rights and exceptions to spend over the cap that much, given their current situation. It’s a great sign for 2017 and beyond, it’s just not realistic for the Raptors’ cap sheet to get to that point this summer.
Again, I’ll have a full primer on the cap situation sometime in the next week, so holster questions for now (or get at me with them on Twitter – I’m bad for neglecting questions in the comments).
A final note
This is, I think, the important quote to keep in mind from Ujiri when trying to figure where the team goes next:
“Well, you know sometimes the reality, and what fans need to hear from me, is it doesn’t happen overnight. And there is a little bit of luck to it. But we see where our team is, and we will continue to try to put those pieces in place that gives this team a chance to win. And it’s tough. Because one of the things I said here at the end of the season is the East has gotten a lot better, and it’s going to get a lot better, even more. And so, we have a tough challenge coming up next year.”
Some of that is expectation management, I’m sure, but the Raptors jumped their curve a bit this year and expecting linear progression is probably going to leave you disappointed. They’re in a tough position, cap wise, to bring everyone back and improve. But hey, that’s what Ujiri’s paid for, right? It’s going to be an interesting couple of months.