Masai Ujiri is honest about team’s failures, but recommits to team’s philosophy

Masai Ujiri was very open and honest about his team. Turns out, he's just like us.

It turns out, fans weren’t the only ones turning off Toronto Raptors’ games this year because the team was unwatchable. Masai Ujiri, the person in charge, had much the response when watching Toronto’s “selfish” — his words, not mine — brand of basketball.

“To watch us play this year was not us,” he said. “I did not enjoy watching this team play. I think that spoke loud and clear to everything that went on this year.”

Nick Nurse paid the price for that. He won’t be the last one.

Almost a week after Toronto’s season ended — the tied-longest during his 10-year tenure — Ujiri met with assembled media and spoke for almost 45 minutes. He seemed more determined, spicier, than he did when doing the same after Toronto’s trade deadline, when he emphasized patience and hardly mentioned winning. He seemed more like himself this time around; he used the word “win” at least 24 times and “patience” only once. He was honest about the team’s struggles this season. And many of those criticisms he levied (at everyone involved, himself included) were the same ones that fans have been shouting at television broadcasts and in comment sections all year.

“That game, the last [of the] year really summed up what has gone on in this organization, the feel and spirit of who we really are,” he lamented about Toronto’s lose-from-ahead play-in debacle. “You could see it throughout the year. There was never that full excitement. There was never that full spirit. There was never that feel of togetherness. We all saw it. You all saw it.”

“This year wasn’t us.”

And as a result, “changes are going to be made on all fronts,” he said. A new coach, first and foremost. Ujiri wants a coach with a foundational identity when it comes to playing style, who will help build up that culture, and who is a good person.

“It’s very vital for us to have incredible energy [from our coach] that lifts people and gets us to work together,” he said.

How does he rebuild culture?

“You have to shock, you have to hit, there has to be some kind of friction.”

These are the words of a boss who is going to alter the very direction of his company. The criticism was wholesale. Was he happy with how the team developed the young guys? “The answer there is no.”

Ujiri was asked if there are any untouchable players, and he chose not to answer the question, instead circling back to a previous one to elaborate on the emotions involved in firing Nurse. There are no players he won’t trade. He did not mention the background connections with players like Pascal Siakam, Precious Achiuwa, or Christian Koloko. Gone are the days in which he refers to this team as a family. It seemed as though emotion will have no part to play in his actions this summer. When asked about Toronto’s leaders, Siakam and Fred VanVleet, Ujiri was complimentary, but far from effusive in his praise.

“I think they’ve been good,” he said. “Fred struggled the first half of the season and I think his body got right, he got right. I always say when Fred’s body is right, he’s right. He did well. Pascal had an all-star season, all-NBA season, hopefully. We just have to figure out how all of that fits with our team going forward.”

Translation: Players can have good seasons without bringing their teams along with them.

If anyone seemed to get a softer landing from Ujiri, it was O.G. Anunoby, (“he is one of the best two-way players in the NBA”) Jakob Poeltl, (“I call players like that a championship piece”) and Scottie Barnes. (“There’s so many things, so many pulls, but I think Scottie understands the discipline, Scottie understands his talent, Scottie understands what’s at stake. And I think you started to see that growth and change a little bit over he course of the season.”) But he did not go as far as committing to retaining any of them.

Still, if Toronto does tear down, it’s likely Barnes and Anunoby stay in town. It’s almost certain Poeltl remains here. But there are no changes Ujiri won’t consider this offseason. He’ll definitely make some, at the bare minimum.

Midway through the season, the Raptors fell apart. The team lost so much, so quickly. First the athleticism stopped looking like a benefit and started looking like a deficit, then the defense collapsed from under the team. Toronto lost a whole lot of games right before the calendar turned to 2023.

“Right around the New Orleans game [at the end of November], the Brooklyn game, something there just didn’t seem right, to be honest. There was something there that did not seem right at all, and from there, it started taking a turn,” he said.

Ultimately though, not everything is going to change. He wants to rebuild the culture — going backwards to its heyday, rather than finding a new one. Ujiri still believes in the team’s current foundational philosophy, dubbed Vision 6-9.

“Until you win, it’s always going to be some kind of a failure, or not successful. We believe in it,” he said. “We believe in what we’re doing [with Vision 6-9].”

He wants to add shooting, which is good. He mentioned that a few times, even if he remained committed to the idea that it can be developed in-house. But there’s a limit to the team’s ceiling when the roster-building strategy is stuck in 2020 — the league has evolved massively since then. So it’s nice to feel heard by Ujiri; he recognized that fans were right about this team, which has real value. All your criticisms? He has them too.

But the team isn’t going to change course, not all the way. No player is safe, but the philosophy informing their acquisition is. Ujiri may be correct, that unique philosophical approaches aren’t successful until they are. But it’s hard to make that bet after Toronto’s season. Development isn’t always linear, and Ujiri emphasized that in his presser. But the next bet he’s making is on himself. The team wasn’t built perfectly, and it is about to face an offseason of judgement as a result. As it should. But the idea that built the team will not be questioned, at least not yet.

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