Raptors staring at ‘blank sheet’ ahead of challenging, uncertain season

Masai Ujiri talks about expectations for the new season and why he is excited about the potential growth of the team.

TORONTO — "Last year when we did this press conference, I was sitting with Kawhi [Leonard] and Danny [Green]," Masai Ujiri addressed a crowd of reporters and photographers.

"I’m sitting all alone now."

It’s the Toronto Raptors’ 2019-20 media day at Scotiabank Arena — the unofficial airhorn signalling the beginning of another season — and Ujiri, the team’s President and architect of the 2019 NBA champions isn’t shy about the Raptors’ sudden new reality.

A year ago this time there were plenty of questions surrounding the team. Is Kawhi Leonard — the Raps’ most significant addition in franchise history — healthy enough to play? Is Kyle Lowry going to play ball and remain professional after the team traded away his co-star and BFF, DeMar DeRozan, in a fairly ruthless move? Will Ujiri’s gamble pay off?

"This time a year ago it was a pretty blank sheet," said head coach Nick Nurse. "We didn’t know where we were headed."

There are just as many questions heading into this season. Probably more.

Will Pascal Siakam pick up the torch from Leonard and become the go-to star the Raptors need him to be? Will Ujiri allow the expiring contracts of four key contributors — Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet — to fall off the books at seasons’ end, or will he flip them for other assets? With so many minutes available on the wings with Leonard and Green gone, which role player will step up and seize the opportunity?

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The answers to those questions will guide which direction the team heads in the long-term. They also explain why, when asked if he can enjoy the success of a championship season, Ujiri responded: "In our position, honestly you can’t."

But with opening tip less than a month away one question looms: How will the Raptors remain competitive after losing their best player?

"As you look at our roster, you realize there’s a couple starters missing from that team," Nurse said. "There’s [sic] opportunities to take on new identities, expand roles — maybe take on new roles." One thing is clear: "That sheet of paper is still blank."

The Raptors haven’t hit the reset button — yet — but are facing an uphill battle looking to come anywhere near replicating last year’s success. The 2019-20 Raptors aren’t just living in a different postal code this year, they’re on another planet entirely.

Leonard has moved on, and the Raptors will look to do the same.

Regrets? When you reach the ultimate goal as Toronto did last season, there aren’t many. The Raptors will carry the mantle of "defending champs" all season long, and that sentence alone makes it all worthwhile.

"I can’t sit here and trade DeMar, then Kawhi leaves us, and be upset," said Ujiri. "That’s just the nature of the business. We understand it and we move on as an organization."

Move on to what, exactly?

The Raptors still have enough talent to compete in the East, and the team enters the ’19-20 season with as clear an identity as ever: a tough, confident, defensive menace. As Ujiri put it: "We go [into the season] confident about who we are as a team." That is incredibly valuable, and a lot more rare than you’d think.

Yet as the rest of the conference underwent major change with a ton of new faces in new places — Kemba Walker in Boston, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, Al Horford and Josh Richardson in Philly, Malcolm Brogdon in Indianapolis, Jimmy Butler in Miami — the Raptors’ additions were far more, um, subtle.

Not that the team had many options. Already above the salary cap limit, they weren’t in the running for marquee free agents. Their best trade assets — Siakam and VanVleet — are both young enough to factor into long-term plans as essential building blocks (Ujiri confirmed on Saturday that the team is looking to sign Siakam, an RFA next summer, to a lengthy contract extension). And so the Raps simply tweaked. They brought in a pair of players who fit into their identity in defensive-minded wings Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

More than anything, they’re banking on internal development. Siakam spent another summer adding to his repertoire. He spent countless hours working as the primary ballhandler in the pick-and-roll and preparing for the adjustment of becoming a number one option. He’ll play long stretches of the season in Leonard’s old spot at small forward.

VanVleet is set to build off his Finals heroics and should contend for a Sixth Man award, while the likes of Norm Powell, OG Anunoby, and even Chris Boucher will get a chance to carve out a bigger role.

One distinct advantage Nurse believes his remaining roster has is simply the experience of last year’s Finals run. Ten players from the ’18-19 team return this season, and Nurse expects the lessons of the 2019 playoffs to be lasting.

"Our guys learned how hard you have to play. That, to me, is an invaluable thing that’s going to take you a long way," he said.

Still, with Kawhi out of the fold and the rest of the roster mostly unchanged, expectations are tempered. They have to be.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that, over the course of the NBA’s 74-year history, there’s no real precedent for a team losing its best player and remaining in a title hunt. The ’72 Lakers lost all-timer Elgin Baylor at the beginning of the season and won a championship the following spring — but Baylor was on his last legs and the team still had a couple guys you may have heard of in Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain.

The San Antonio Spurs are a pseudo-exception, having won the title in 1999 with David Robinson leading the way alongside a rookie Tim Duncan. When Robinson retired, Duncan took the reins. Even then it was four long years in between raising the Larry O’Bee again — and, with all due respect to Siakam, he’s no Duncan.

And so, on the cusp of their first season back after winning it all, the Raptors’ lens turns to face an unknown future, as an uncertain, upcoming campaign stares back at them from opening night.

"We’re excited about the flexibility that we’re going to have in the future – picks, young players – and we go from there," Ujiri said.

"I think the expectations always in sports is to win," he continued, when asked for his "realistic" expectations ahead of the Oct. 22 tip-off. "We play sports to win. There’s nothing else… Rebuild, blah blah blah. You play sports to win. It’s that simple."

"I think our guys are up for the challenge."

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