Masai Ujiri realizes the past off-season turned his team into somewhat of an underdog.
But even with the departure of star Kawhi Leonard and others, the Toronto Raptors president still believes his squad has a chance at repeating as NBA champions.
“We’re going to die trying, that’s for sure,” said Ujiri during media availability Tuesday after his keynote speech at the Toronto chapter of WISE — Women in Sports and Events.
“I know those guys and they’re going to die trying. You see them, you see the attitude. I know nobody, not one person here in this place, would tell me that they thought we’d be competing now to be second in the East, in the next couple of games if it works out for us, or where we are. There’s not one person that thought that with a championship player like Kawhi leaving. These guys have stepped up and we appreciate what they’ve done.”
The streaking Raptors have won four straight and are third in the Eastern Conference, just one game behind the second-place Miami Heat even after a freaky rash of injuries sidelined important players like Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet at various times to start the season.
“We’re proud of what they’re doing,” Ujiri said. “We got over that injury bug that really hit us, and Nick (Nurse) has done a phenomenal job, I think.”
With the Raptors’ return to full health, public attention has mostly shifted toward the upcoming trade deadline, but Ujiri was non-committal about his plans for Feb. 6.
“Every day there’s phone calls in the NBA, that’s just how the NBA works,” he said about possible inquiries and conversations with other teams. “I was getting phone calls four months ago, I’m getting phone calls today. I got a phone call while I was up there. There’s always phone calls.”
With the NBA rumour mill at full force, especially regarding a playoff-contending team like the Raptors, Ujiri made a point to state his respect and appreciation for the team’s players, emphasizing they’re not simply cogs in a machine.
“I don’t see our team and our players as pieces, honestly and assets,” he said. “When people mention pieces and assets, to me it doesn’t tally. I see our players as basketball players and human beings.
“If we do something, it’s out of the fact that we think this is giving us a chance, or a bigger chance, and right now I think we have that chance, if we continue to play ball and continue to figure it out. I’m proud of the guys, and I look at them as what we have. You never know what those days bring you, but I’m really proud of our guys.”