Morning Coffee – Thu, Aug 19

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Masai Ujiri is betting on himself, his philosophy and his ‘home’ as he tries to rebuild Raptors – The Athletic

If visions of Barnes, Siakam and Anunoby holding hands and sealing off the paint represent Masai Ujiri’s stylistic dream, VanVleet is the player whose attitude he identifies with most. They are very different speakers, with VanVleet measured, insightful and even sarcastic, while Ujiri is bold, excitable and expansive. However, the message Ujiri delivered during the press conference to reintroduce him as the team’s president, now with a fancy extra title of vice-chairman, was the same one VanVleet has used to make a name for himself in the NBA.

Ujiri’s plan to rebuild the Raptors into a championship-calibre team is to bet on himself, and the people around him.

“I don’t know what the exact timeline for us is,” Ujiri said. “It’s hard to say when you’re developing players and players are growing. And we’re going to give them their opportunity to grow. Yeah, there’s going to be superteams and super, superteams, there are going to be three superstars on one team and maybe they’ll get as many as 10 one day. We’re not taking that route, at least not for now. Our route is to grow our young players and be excited.

“It might not be the big three and winning now and superteams. But in our minds, it’s a little bit super. Super young, but super hopeful.”

There has been, justifiably, some confusion about this, especially as Ujiri’s future with the team remained uncertain even as his last contract expired this summer. Last offseason, Ujiri operated with flexibility for this offseason as a priority, costing them Serge Ibaka. Clearly, the Raptors wanted a chance to sign Giannis Antetokounmpo, should he become a free agent, which he didn’t. That decision came just two years after Ujiri, in introducing Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors media, campaigned for locals to stop obsessing over Toronto’s second-class status, and to be proud of the city. That, at least in part, was a message to players: Don’t think of Toronto as Milwaukee or Cleveland. It’s like New York or Chicago, but with more garbage cans. Now three years later, he is not totally abandoning that stance, although his tone is more annoyed than hopeful when it comes to turning Toronto into an NBA destination.

“I see this place as an incredible platform,” Ujiri said as he spoke of his decision to ultimately remain in Toronto. “I don’t think players have even scratched the surface on what they can do here. Toronto sits as a place where you can really, really attack the world from.”

Regardless, if it ever was a core tenant, free agency no longer remains that for Ujiri as he dives into the first preseason in a while in which a top-four placement in the Eastern Conference would be a surprise rather than an expectation.

With Raptors’ future secured, Ujiri focused on making history again – Sportsnet

“I understood that this process was going to be difficult and that’s why I left it until the end of the season,” Ujiri said. “Negotiating is difficult, that’s what comes in the terrain. Me and my family really looked at this and you get different offers that come to you, but it comes a point where you have to weigh those options and what’s best as a family and for me. Everything we went through always came back to Toronto and what Toronto means to me as a city. I call it home. It’s home for me and my family. When it comes to negotiating, we just have to talk about some of the things that are not only important to me but are also important to the organization too. And you bring it together.”

Which is Ujiri’s task now. He’s got to bring it all together.

He’s been given the keys to the kingdom – or he’s earned them. Multiple sources have confirmed that there’s no ownership arrangement but in addition to a salary believed to be in the $15 million range, there is likely some ‘equity-like’ elements to the deal. According to executive compensation experts that could mean Ujiri earning bonuses based on revenues or even participating in the growth in the valuation of the company over the course of his deal. Given the revenues MLSE has enjoyed, not to mention the trajectory of NBA franchise values – $2 billion and climbing, even at the low end – Ujiri is in position to be richly rewarded.

But winning drives the bus. Tanenbaum is as low-key an owner as you’re going to find in the ego-driven world of professional sports, but it was hard not to notice the diamond-encrusted ring he wore from the 2019 Raptors championship as he looked on from the front row as Ujiri spoke.

“I said it from the beginning when I came here, we want to win in Toronto, we want to win another championship,” Ujiri said. “All that stuff [the 2019 title] is from the past. Yeah, you can celebrate and be cool about what you’ve done in the past, but the NBA is about now.

“We have to put ourselves in a position to win another championship. In some ways there’s unfinished business,” Ujiri said, alluding to the moment when he was inappropriately man-handled by an Oakland police officer as he made his way to celebrate after the Raptors eliminated Golden State in Game 6 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in 2019, an incident that sparked headlines, lawsuits and marred what should have been a career-defining moment.

Tanenbaum nodded his head in approval of the message.

Josh Lewenberg: Newly re-signed Masai Ujiri returns to Toronto with ‘unfinished business’ –

As the league gets set to release its schedule later this week, Ujiri still doesn’t know where his team will be playing its home games to open the 2021-22 season; not for sure, anyway. They need the green light from the provincial government, something they were unable to get ahead of training camp last December. The recent returns of TFC and the Blue Jays have set a precedent that the Raptors are hoping to capitalize on, but there are still some obstacles to overcome.

Ujiri isn’t just hopeful, he’s adamant that they’ll be back in Toronto when the campaign tips off in mid-October. Every time the NBA calls to ask if they’ve got a backup plan, Ujiri’s answer, plainly, is: no.

“I told [MLSE chairman] Larry [Tanenbaum] and [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] and even Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau that playing away set us back a couple of years,” Ujiri said. “We know that and we are ready for that challenge, [but] playing another year somewhere else will set us back five years. We are not trying to do that.”

“We have no interest [in playing anywhere else]. We have not looked elsewhere, we are not going to look elsewhere, we’re playing at home; we’re trying to play at home. That’s the goal for us.”

The Raptors and their ownership group have made it clear; they’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen. Earlier this week, MLSE announced that – effective next month – anybody who enters its arenas, stadiums and restaurants will need to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result. Given the rising case counts in Ontario and the looming threat of a fourth wave, it’s unclear how many fans would be permitted to attend games if the team is cleared to return. However, barring an unexpected turn of events, that seems to be where things are trending for the club, and that’s fantastic news for an organization that could really use some semblance of stability.

A lot’s happened since they last played in Toronto. In February of 2020, they were defending their championship admirably, boasting the second-best record in the NBA. Now, they’re coming off their worst season in a decade and are in the process of turning the page to a new era. They’ve said goodbye to and and, now, , the most important player in the franchise’s history.

To fans that may have checked out over the past year or so, the Raptors team that will make its return to Canada – whenever that happens – should look a lot different. Excluding 35-year-old , who may or may not open the season with the club, all 10 of their roster players are under the age of 29. Seven of those players are between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9 in height, with enormous seven-foot wingspans.

They’re young, they’re versatile, and if nothing else, they should be interesting this season. They’re not a championship team. The jury is still out on whether they’re even a playoff team, as currently constructed. But Ujiri – one of the lone constants amid all of the changes – has a plan, and it’s one that’s worked for him before. He’s not worried about who they are now; he’s focused on what they can grow into.

‘I’m home, man.’ Raptors boss Masai Ujiri has the blueprint and is ready to build a championship team again | The Star

At the heart, though, are the Raptors. Ujiri said he sees a young, old group — young players like Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam all with championship pedigrees combined with newbies like Scottie Barnes, Khem Birch, Chris Boucher and Dalano Banton — and his basketball heart beats faster. It’s not a super team with three established stars but there’s homegrown talent climbing and that has always fed Ujiri.

“There’s going to be super teams and super, super teams, there are going to be three superstars on one team … We’re not taking that route, at least not for now,” he said. “Our route is to grow our young players and be excited about what we have, and rely on Nick (Nurse, the team’s coach) and his great staff.

“That’s the growth of the game and that’s what we want to feel as an organization, and I know that’s what the fans, the media really appreciate, seeing the growth of our team.”

There was a cost to Ujiri’s restart: Kyle Lowry. Before he even began taking questions Wednesday, Ujiri paid tribute to the guard he considers the best Raptor ever but a veteran who just doesn’t fit now.

“We knew this was coming,” Ujiri said of Lowry’s departure as a free agent. “The direction of our team was kind of going younger and Kyle still has these incredible goals.

“Kyle wanted to be here, too, if that was what we were trying to do. We saw our team as kind of being in the middle ground a little bit and wanted to go a little younger so we can start to grow, almost like when Kyle was here in the beginning.”

Kind of like Ujiri in the beginning. A cornerstone that might be around a while. He wouldn’t divulge how long his new contract is but there’s no doubting what he wants to achieve.

“Forever,” he joked about the length of his deal. “No, honestly … I’m home, man.

“This is it. We’re going to try to win the best way that we can. It’s a commitment. I’ve always said that when you make that commitment, you make that commitment. That’s what I said eight years ago. I think we honoured it as a family. And that’s what we intend to do always.”

Ujiri commits and explains the process, his true feelings about Lowry, why Pascal isn’t going anywhere and how Scottie Barnes tipped the scales in his favour | Toronto Sun

Take it from the man who makes the decisions: Pascal Siakam isn’t going anywhere.

“I know people are being hard on him,” Ujiri said of a fanbase that has by times turned on Siakam as he first struggled through the re-start and then again wasn’t quite himself in the season played in Tampa.

“But trust me,” Ujiri said, “Pascal is a prideful man. Pascal is an unbelievable basketball player. Maybe because he wasn’t playing well, people come up with all this stuff. Pascal is here. Pascal is a Raptor and he’s gonna play with us.”

Ujiri mentioned visa issues that prevented Siakam from leaving Canada when the pandemic hit and talked about his fear of contracting the virus that basically kept him a prisoner in his own apartment until the re-start.

Ujiri said it wasn’t until Siakam actually contracted COVID midway through the Tampa season that he realized how out of shape all of that time off had actually made him.

Siakam had shoulder surgery this past off-season and he likely won’t be ready to play when the schedule begins. But he’ll be back soon afterwards and all that talk of moving Siakam will sound silly.

Masai Ujiri outlines his plans for the Raptors now that he’s back | Toronto Sun

Ujiri has long said his goal is to bring another title to Toronto and now we have an idea of how he plans to do it. They got Scottie Barnes with the fourth pick of the 2021 draft — a benefit, ironically, of moving up from right in the middle of the lottery by the luck of the ping pong balls.

Ujiri remains sky-high on 24-year-old forward OG Anunoby, gave a strong endorsement of Pascal Siakam and raved about the team’s new leader, Fred VanVleet, as well as the potential of others such as Malachi Flynn, Chris Boucher, Precious Achiuwa, Gary Trent Jr., and veteran centre Khem Birch.

The defensive potential and the chance to zig while the rest of the NBA zags appeals to the Raptors. The league is offence-crazy right now, so the Raptors will go a different way. Some teams have loaded up with aging all-stars. The Raptors know they can’t match up with them anytime soon, so they have their eyes firmly set a few years down the line. It’s why they amicably moved on from franchise icon Lowry.

“It’s been really tough for us to see an incredible player like that go,” Ujiri said. “I had really extensive conversations with Kyle … and we knew this was coming. The direction of our team was kind of going younger and Kyle still has his incredible goals (of competing for another title soon).

“Kyle wanted to be here, too, if that was what we were trying to do. We saw our team as kind of being in the middle ground a little bit and wanted to go a little younger so we can start to grow, almost like when Kyle was here in the beginning.”

So they’ll dig down a bit into the foundation, maybe add one or two more crucial pieces via the draft and then aim to make a quick ascent back to the summit.

Can it work? Possibly. Ujiri is certainly energized and eager to try. He will have his hands full. His explanation of how busy he will be with new and existing off-court endeavours, thanks to his job title upgrade was an indication of that, but he’s also still focussed on what needs to be done on the court.

Raptors summer league scouting reports and what their performances may mean for the future – The Athletic

Scottie Barnes: Don’t fret too much about Barnes posting a 50.7 percent true-shooting mark in Vegas. Inefficiency was par for the course for most of the top rookies this year as defences keyed in on them and they figured out the early stages of their transition. Jalen Suggs, Evan Mobley and Jonathan Kuminga all struggled similarly. As far as rookies go, Barnes looked alright — he averaged 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists, with nearly a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio that stands out for a wing with a heavy ball-handling load and who had several easy assists flubbed out of bounds or off iron by teammates. There is a long way to go for Barnes’ half-court offence, where his handle isn’t the sharpest and he telegraphed his passes some. His brain and athleticism also seem a bit ahead of his skill level when attacking the paint. At the same time, the defence and transition skills are obvious; he’s going to fit right in with how the Raptors like to dial up the pressure on opponents and create easy offence the other way out of that. The skill side and half-court play warrant patience.

Recap: The Toronto Raptors beat the Brooklyn Nets in their NBA Summer League finale, 86-72 – Raptors HQ

After those first 20 minutes, hometown hero Dalano Banton had yet to record an assist (to go against his four turnovers) and it looked like it was going to continue to be a rough evening for the whole squad. Fortunately, Banton did find his stride in the second half, finishing the game with nine points, nine rebounds, and four assists (with, yes, five turnovers). His day was ultimately better than fellow almost-Raptors Freddie Gillespie, who had another abysmal outing, and Ish Wainwright, who tried to do the right things, yet finished with a mere three points in his 11 minutes. Meanwhile, it’s decidedly easy to feel good about what Banton may be able to do given time. He’s raw of course, but there are flashes of a wild, versatile game.

The combination of a resurgent Banton, a forceful Adams, and the all-around play of Raptors 905 veteran Matt Morgan made it all work for Toronto. I hope this doesn’t come off as burying the lede, but it was actually Morgan who got the Raptors back on track, scoring eight of his game-leading 24 points (on a sharp 9-of-12 from the field) in the fourth quarter. All told, he played just shy of 21 minutes in this one, but Morgan seemed to have an answer every time the Nets put together anything that looked like a collective effort. As a result, Toronto mostly cruised in the fourth with a 13 to 15-point cushion.

I’ll add: Adams finished the day with a 14-point, 13-rebound line, which was almost matched by two-way Raptor Justin Champagnie and his 11-point, 11-rebound effort. That said, it should not be a surprise to see some massive rebounding numbers in this one. To repeat: the Raptors and Nets shot a combined 12.5 percent in the second quarter. There were a lot of balls up for grabs.

OK, let’s end this on a high note. The Raptors did indeed finish their Summer League run with a 4-1 record. We got to see the tantalizing skills of Scottie Barnes, the growth of Malachi Flynn, and the potential of Precious Achiuwa. We’ll see how many players from this latest iteration of Toronto’s summer squad make it onto the Raptors’ full-time squad or find themselves on the 905 in Mississauga. And then we’ll prepare for whatever is next — which feels, for the first time in a little while, like something that could be brand new.

How Shot-Tracking Is Changing The Way Basketball Players Fix Their Game | FiveThirtyEight

Partway through the 2018-19 season, just months before his Toronto Raptors would go on to win the franchise’s first NBA title, coach Nick Nurse had a problem.

Kyle Lowry, Nurse’s All-Star point guard, was in a shooting slump — and no one could figure out why. Nurse, an analytics-driven coach who also ran dedicated shooting camps as something of a specialty in his early coaching days, searched for quantifiable explanations.

“I went and looked at the data,” Nurse told FiveThirtyEight. “To see if there was anything I could see that was different in this 10-game slump he was in versus his history.”

But what was the data Nurse wanted? His staff wasn’t breaking down Lowry’s last 10 box scores or shooting charts; hell, they weren’t even looking at his shots from those actual games.

Instead, they were using the Noahlytics Data Service, a proprietary program designed by a company called Noah Basketball. The system uses high-quality motion tracking cameras positioned on or above the backboard of a standard basketball hoop, tracing the ball as it enters the basket area while also noting the shooter’s origin on the floor to allow for uniform “straight-on” analysis with every shot. Through detailed measurements of the ball’s arc, its depth in the basket and its left-right alignment on the cylinder, players and coaches alike get exponentially more detail about a shot — or set of shots — than raw make-or-miss notations could ever tell.

Nurse and the Raptors were some of the earliest adopters in the NBA of the Noah system, and they turned to it for help with Lowry’s cold streak. They pulled Lowry’s data from practice sessions over that 10-game period (in-game use of this technology is not currently legal at the NBA level), then compared them with thousands of prior shots Lowry had taken from similar locations.

The problem stuck out immediately.

“His arc had dropped to 41 degrees,” Nurse recounted in his book, “Rapture: Fifteen Teams, Four Countries, One NBA Championship, and How to Find a Way to Win — Damn Near Anywhere.” “When he’s shooting well and the ball’s going in, it’s usually at 46 or 47 degrees.”

Nurse and staff went straight to work. In the practice gym, they turned on Noah’s audio feedback option, a feature that provides real-time verbal analysis on shots as they’re taken, and turned it to the “arc” setting. “[Lowry] started listening for the numbers,” Nurse remembers. After every shot, the Noah system told him whether he was hitting his optimal 46- to 47-degree arc angle or missing it. “He concentrated on that for a couple days. About two or three days later, he started shooting the ball better.”

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