Morning Coffee – Mon, Apr 24

Good luck with those guys

10 Things: With Nick Nurse fired, Masai Ujiri now becomes the focus with Raptors – Sportsnet

10. The buck ultimately stops with Masai Ujiri and no one else.

The timing of Ujiri’s season-ending media conference was rather fortunate. Without the news of Nurse’s firing to dig into, the focus and attention would have been on Ujiri’s part in assembling this flawed roster and the loss of culture on his watch. Removing Nurse made sense for all the reasons he said publicly and for more reasons that remained unspoken but, as Ujiri said, he takes responsibility for this season.

The first order of business will be finding a new coach. The hope is that this new leader can win the trust and respect of the players, and restore accountability. That will take someone who can clearly communicate expectations to players and to hold both the players and themselves honest to what is agreed upon. A new system would also be welcome, especially with regards to getting the best out of this group defensively. But it will take more than a new voice to get everything in line.

As Ujiri said this week, his approach with Nurse was to hire people and let them do his job, but maybe he needed to be around the team and speak up more often.

As for the roster, the safe bet is that Ujiri will stick with the same strategy of building through the middle. The time to bottom out was at the trade deadline, when the Raptors were four games under .500 with a possible shot at top-six lottery odds, but Ujiri chose to add. The thought process with adding Poeltl is that he was a top-10 centre who was available for a first-round pick, and so the price being right superseded the timing being wrong.

In a nutshell, that is middle approach of accumulating assets, and it will likely inform how Ujiri approaches his key free agents. So long as the Raptors can re-sign Poeltl, VanVleet and perhaps Trent to positive-value contracts, it makes sense to keep the asset. Even if they let everyone walk, there is no path to meaningful cap room, and Ujiri noted that star players are now signing extensions and then asking for trades rather than entertaining free agency. That means the Raptors will need to have appealing players to deal if they want to be in position to make the next Kawhi Leonard trade.

That doesn’t rule out the potential of a trade to balance the roster. The Raptors badly need more guard depth, so a trade involving one of their many bench forwards would make sense. If Ujiri doesn’t see value in signing Anunoby and Pascal Siakam to their upcoming extensions, moving one of them with a year left on their deals would be wise. Better yet, if a star were to ask out as Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell did last summer, the Raptors should feel much less attached than they a year ago. But don’t be surprised if the same group is brought back. Ujiri’s history says he is pragmatic and patient, above all else.

The lifeblood of the Raptors is player development, and that’s the biggest concern that needs to be addressed if there is to be any upward trajectory. When the biggest success stories in a year is Dowtin and Christian Koloko showing the potential to maybe fill backup roles, that is a massive red flag. The Raptors can’t keep repeating the same old stories of Anunoby, Siakam and VanVleet growing into starters from low draft positions from seven years ago. Take Anunoby, for example. He was drafted 23rd in 2017 and, six years later, reports are that the Raptors wouldn’t accept less than three firsts for him.

That’s the value of player development, but would the Raptors break even with some of their recent selections? Would Malachi Flynn return the 29th pick it took to acquire him? Would Koloko get a 33rd? Dalano Banton for a 46th? Barnes gets you the fourth pick in this year’s draft, but definitely not one or two.

The whole process needs to be evaluated — from scouting and analytics, to player acquisition, to skill development, to coaching strategy — because this is the foundation of the franchise.

Re-establish the culture |

While Christian Koloko received more playing time than many anticipated coming in and even started 18 games, the likes of Malachi Flynn, Dalano Banton, Jeff Dowtin Jr., and Ron Harper Jr. all sparingly figured into the action, if that. Justin Champagnie entered the season with high hopes but was waived. The synergy between Raptors 905 and the senior club was a hallmark of this franchise’s success and that pipeline getting clogged is something the Front Office will have to reckon with as well.

Ujiri said he expects to begin the process of finding a new coach late Friday evening and perhaps have one in place before the 2023 NBA Draft on June 22. In search of that lost culture, Ujiri highlighted the traits that he feels the top candidate will have:

“Character. Quality of a person. Energy,” Ujiri said. “What kind of energy are we going to get? Because we need that. Discipline, style of play.”

It suggests a major shift from a style predicated on chaos preached by someone affectionately known as a mad scientist, one that both worked and didn’t work. Toronto finished atop the league in forced turnover percentage but second-last in effective field goal percentage allowed, suggesting that if they couldn’t force the ball out of the opponent’s hands, they couldn’t force a miss. They were sixth in transition scoring efficiency but 25th in half-court offence, showing just how much they struggled to score without a running start.

All of that can’t come down to one person, and Ujiri mentioned that examining the fit of the roster and addressing the outside shooting woes would be major points of emphasis. The Raptors finished 20th in three-point shooting a season ago and 28th this season, and with hardly any personnel changes during that time, it’s hard to look past the lack of internal development.

“Look at the roster maybe in a different way,” Ujiri said. “We have to figure out shooting on this roster in some kind of way. We have to figure out who fits and who doesn’t fit. On the overall, maybe manage people better and maybe see things a little bit deeper because when we hire people I let them do their jobs. That’s been a strength of ours the last 10 years here but I pay attention now a little bit more.”

Parting ways with Nurse represents a major change both on and off the court, and whether that turns into a domino effect remains to be seen. The pieces who help this team who play the right way and want to win, those are the ones that will stick around. On a day the team let go of a man who built a reputation on strategy and innovation, the Raptors made it clear they are hell-bent on re-establishing the intangibles that gave it such a strong base.

“The culture here has been, honestly, we love it, it’s incredible,” Ujiri said. “I think we follow the culture of an incredible city, people, humility, everything we stand for here, togetherness. We lost some of that but I don’t think it’s something you cannot build right back up again. Some of this stuff, sometimes, when these things happen not winning pronounces it a little bit more.

“We believe we’ll be right back, even if it’s slowly, back to where we feel we can be as an organization and as a team.”

Raptors Insider: Behind the scenes on season that went off rails | The Star

Kids didn’t play
Ujiri mentioned the lack of development of some of the team’s young players as a factor in the firing, and it immediately made me recall a November night in Detroit.

Dalano Banton played 25 minutes and had 27 points. Jeff Dowtin Jr. locked up Jaden Ivey defensively down the stretch and had a great 15-minute run.

Banton never played more than 19 minutes in a game after that, and that was in the inconsequential season finale when starters rested against Milwaukee.

Only once in the next 41 games — half a regular season — did Dowtin play as many minutes in a game.

I don’t know if they — or Malachi Flynn — are legitimate NBA rotation players but neither do Ujiri or Bobby Webster and that’s a huge issue.

There are people high up in the organization who grew increasingly angry with Nurse for burying young players that the team had invested time and money in. It wasn’t enough to cost Nurse his job in the season, it was a major factor in what transpired Friday.

Coaching dysfunction
If rosters are a delicate balance of personalities and egos, so too are coaching staffs.

There was some internal conflict in the Raptors staff — Nurse and Earl Watson were never going to pal around or hang out away from the arena or practice facility — and it wasn’t a huge issue, but it was a thing people around the game noticed.

It’s not to say Watson undercut Nurse at every chance — we didn’t see that day to day — and it wasn’t as if they never spoke. But it was another layer that grew thicker as the season went on.

There were people outside the organization — all with agendas, so things had to be taken with a grain of salt — who were promoting Watson (33-85 record as a head coach in Phoenix) as a mid-season replacement for Nurse. Texts would arrive unsolicited from people away from the team. A deeper investigation would show that, sure, there were creative differences, but it wasn’t tearing anything apart and sometimes creative differences can be good things.

Good on Ujiri and Webster for ignoring the noise. But relationships matter and the Nurse-Watson commingling was just another factor in a long list of factors that led to Friday’s move.

The verdict
All of these signs taken individually obviously weren’t enough to force any mid-season change and there’s no guarantee that would have worked anyway. It would have run counter to Ujiri’s history. He is one to let things percolate and try to work things out rather than make some drastic in-season move.

But when it came time to make the ultimate move, be sure that each was given serious consideration in the bigger picture.

Raptors need to rediscover ‘spirit’ of championship era after firing Nick Nurse – Yahoo

Of course, words like “spirit,” “excitement,” “togetherness,” and “culture” are all opaque and hard, if not impossible, to define. Fans who view the game from a more analytical perspective will want clear-cut solutions rather than vague words of affirmation, but Ujiri has always been one to prioritize the intangibles. After all, it was Ujiri who moved down in the 2022 NBA Draft to acquire Thad Young, a 16-year NBA veteran who was brought in more to help mentor the young locker room than to play in important games. And it is Ujiri who will build out the new coaching staff and roster with those intangibles in mind.

In fact, when asked what the No. 1 quality he will be looking for in a new head coach, Ujiri answered: “Character. Quality of a person. Energy. What kind of energy are we going to get? Because we need that.”

While that was all Ujiri would say about the next head coach, who he hopes will be in place by the 2023 NBA Draft on June 22, he did give insight into his thinking on which players will be around next season to take direction from said coach.

After all, personnel changes are going to be made, because even if Nurse takes the brunt of the blame for this season’s shortcomings — and it’s debatable if he should — the roster is half-baked, lacking in shooting, advantage creation, and guard depth, and Ujiri has acknowledged the roster deficiencies and taken responsibility for it himself. But Ujiri also made it clear that the Raptors were not going to blow it up and rebuild, saying, “You don’t necessarily have to tear down your team to build it back up.”

Instead, Ujiri is concerned with finding, or re-signing, players that are unselfish and are committed to the team. He said the plan is for both Jeff Dowtin Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. to be a part of Raptors going forward. But as for the rest of the roster, Ujiri said, “Sometimes there comes a time when there’s a little bit of complacency, I think. When there was a little bit of complacency with us I think some selfishness seeped in.”

“I just want to know how we’re going to do better. And whoever wants to do better, whoever wants to play the right way, whoever wants to win, whoever wants to win is going to come with us.”

The Raptors are always going to be a team that prioritizes player development above all else. And their new head coach will have to be someone who not only prioritizes development in the same way, but fosters growth by putting players in the right positions to succeed and gives them chances to make mistakes with a focus on the long-term.

As Ujiri put it, “I think [our players are] getting better individually, but we didn’t get better as a team, so that’s on me.”

Only letting go of Nick Nurse clearly says that it was also on him. The Raptors new head coach has to find a way to get players to buy into the fact that the only way they are going to have success in a league as competitive as the modern NBA is by propping up each other, as opposed to focusing only on themselves.

Despite his run with the Raptors coming to an end, Nurse will continue in his role as head coach of the Canadian men’s national team, as confirmed by Canada Basketball on Friday.

Nick Nurse’s exit shouldn’t be only step in Masai Ujiri’s Raptors reimagining: Koreen – The Athletic

The diagnosis is the easy part; the remedy is tougher, especially when Ujiri has explicitly stated he does not want to tear his team down for an extended rebuild in the style of the Pistons, Spurs or Rockets. On the first front, Nurse’s utility in Toronto had clearly expired. It is not that players had tuned him out — they forced the most turnovers per possession in the league, a core tenet of Nurse’s aggressive, demanding defensive philosophy — but his style of delivery was becoming tiring. After the season ended, Gary Trent Jr., said he had gotten used to hearing Nurse’s criticism of his defence in the media before he would hear it from the coach himself, and he was not the only player who had issues with Nurse. Ujiri would only say that the players “expressed themselves in many ways” in season-ending meetings with the front office.

Then there was the issue of the younger players on the roster, with Ujiri plainly saying he was not pleased with their development. He didn’t put that all on Nurse, but he cited “role orientation” and a lack of opportunity to show their growth as problems. Nurse played his starters more than any other coach in the league. The math Ujiri is doing is clear.

There is a more complex equation to attack. In one of the rare moments when Ujiri wasn’t talking about intangibles on Friday, he mentioned shooting was an obvious deficiency of the roster. He also talked a lot about “fit,” and with respect to everyone else on the roster, that comes down to three players: Scottie Barnes, O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam.

“I think they’re getting better individually, but we didn’t get better as a team, so that’s on me,” Ujiri said. “If our players were not getting better or didn’t have value, then I think there would be issues (about the viability of the roster). But our players have value and they got better individually.”

You can quibble with the part about individual improvement — of the three forwards, only Anunoby meaningfully surpassed expectations this year, and most of that improvement came on the defensive end — but Ujiri is undoubtedly drawing on his conversations at the trade deadline when speaking about their value.

“Whether it’s tweaks or major changes,” Ujiri said, “we’re definitely going to look at everything.”

It would be silly for Ujiri to box himself in by saying anything else. All three players are good, and if picking one to leave, Siakam makes the most sense more because of his age than any other reason. What to pay him on a contract that heads into his mid-30s is a tricky proposition.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he, or any other part of the Raptors’ core, will be traded this offseason. Over time, Ujiri has proven to be very patient in moving on from his most important players, occasionally bordering on over-cautious. Enough information is in: A roster with this core will never produce a scintillating or efficient half-court offence, but it’s possible Ujiri might want to get a look with a new coach who brings a new style, new voice and new vibe.

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