10 things: Selfishness and uncertainty cloud Raptors ahead of new campaign

Masai Ujiri, President of Toronto Raptors speaks to reporters during media day in Toronto on Monday, October 2, 2023. (Chris Young/CP)

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors on 2023 Media Day.

1. Raptors have a new vision: Play together, or else

The prevailing message from management is that the Raptors are implementing an entirely different style of play. It directly ties back to the conclusion of last season where Raptors president Masai Ujiri sternly proclaimed that the Raptors needed a cultural reset, and that changes were to come. And while the roster looks mostly the same — Dennis Schroder replacing Fred VanVleet being the only notable swap — the Raptors clearly intend to take a different approach. Ujiri has made that clear both in his actions by hiring Darko Rajakovic to install the “point-five offence” to encourage quick ball movement rather than dribbling and isolations, and also in Ujiri’s repeated and pointed comments on the “selfishness” that permeated last season. He stated flatly in the spring that “he did not enjoy watching this team play”, and so Ujiri specifically went and changed it. That all makes sense.

What remains to be seen is how the same players will take to playing a different system. Before making any other massive changes in either direction — adding Damian Lillard or subtracting a key piece — management wants to see how everyone fits into the new order. If they do, and if that is accompanied by more team success, players will be paid. But if not, more moves will be made with the roster. Even at the potential cost of holding onto the assets for too long, the Raptors have clearly decided how they want to play, and that this group with three starters on expiring contracts, has one more chance.

2. No extension talks with Pascal Siakam

If it wasn’t already evident from all the trade rumors, the Raptors are not ready to fully commit to their three-time All-Star. Siakam was in trade rumors at the 2023 NBA draft, which carried through to Summer League three weeks later, at which point talks died down, and even though he is soon eligible to sign an extension, such discussions have yet to formally take place. “I have talked to Pascal. We have not talked contract extensions, yet,” Ujiri said.

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The immediate fear is a repeat of the Fred VanVleet situation, which saw the 29-year-old walk in unrestricted free agency to the Houston Rockets leaving nothing in return. Ujiri admitted as much that they take responsibility on that front, and that a trade at last year’s deadline might have been more prudent, but it’s worth pointing out some key differences in the two scenarios. In VanVleet’s case, the opportunity to earn a maximum deal came about suddenly with Rockets coach Ime Udoka reportedly convincing them to target VanVleet rather than reuniting with James Harden, thus giving VanVleet a suitor with a max offer that was worth at least $10 million more per year than anything Toronto was prepared to pay. In the case of Siakam, not only can the two sides agree to an extension at any point in the upcoming season, but also the price is fixed from all competitors at the max. If anything, Toronto actually has the inside edge with an extra year to offer and slightly larger raises than other teams even if he were to enter unrestricted free agency. Additionally, every indication is that Siakam intends to be in Toronto long-term and is still amenable re-signing.

From Toronto’s perspective, they’re taking a wait-and-see approach. If Siakam’s game fits into their aforementioned style of play, and if that translates to wins, it makes sense to sign up long-term. If not, then you’re back in the same scenario of having to consider a trade. The decision there is whether the payoff of taking that chance outweighs the risk of bringing back less in a deal.

3. Who’s selfish? Not me.

Another candid remark from Ujiri was the topic of selfishness, which he vocalized during last year’s trade deadline, after the season, and again on media day. His pointed remarks set the tone for the interviews that followed, with Rajakovic, Siakam, and Scottie Barnes each prompted to share their thoughts. In the case of Siakam, the inference was made that he might not adapt, which led to strong pushback from the player, saying that: “I have never played selfish in my life. I have always been a team player. I have always done that my whole career.”

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To be clear, neither Ujiri nor Rajakovic outright said that Siakam was to blame for selfish play, and it could be possibly a misunderstanding that Siakam wanted to dispel. But Ujiri did bring him up unprompted, and Rajakovic did say that he anticipates a learning process with getting Siakam to play in his new offence, so there’s lots of room for interpretation. But the decision to vocalize these concerns was a purposeful decision by management. Make no mistake: When the president speaks, everyone will have to answer for it, and this has been the main point Ujiri has hammered into even above the fit and quality concerns of his roster. Even if this is their assessment of the situation, who does it benefit to openly air grievances, especially in the context of media day which is typically full of nothing but fluffy generalities and unbridled optimism? Is this an issue that needs to be addressed openly through the media before a single practice has taken place? Does it help their leverage in potential trade or extension talks?

The best case scenario is that Rajakovic’s vision does work, that Siakam successfully adapts, other players level up to contribute towards a total rebound, and that everyone gets paid at the end of it. However, anything short will bring the conversation right back to speculation over selfishness, trade rumors, or other petty concerns that clouded last season.

4. Context from Jakob Poeltl

I asked Poeltl — who is undoubtedly the least selfish player on the team — point blank about whether Siakam’s game is selfish, and he provided valuable context about his longtime teammate.

“I wouldn’t call it selfishness. The selfishness comes into play when you’re trying to force plays that might be unnatural to your game, or that might break the team’s rhythm. So as long as you have an understanding of what’s the right read or what’s the right — there’s no 100 per cent right or wrong answers in these situations, there’s some grey area there. But understanding the game, having a feel for that, and I think Pascal has really good feel for stuff like that.

He’s more of a 1-on-1 player than most of the guys on our team, so he’s going to be in these situations a lot more than other guys, where he’s going to have the green light to go. For somebody from the outside looking in, it might look a little more selfish, but I really don’t think that’s the case because I know Pascal is the type of player when he still has the ability in those 1-on-1 situations to find the right play, where it might end up being a pass instead of being a bucket,” Poeltl told The Raptors Show.

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To Poeltl’s point, there are some moments that can be up for debate, but there isn’t a glaring sign of selfishness. In terms of tracking data, Siakam ranked 40th in how long he had the ball at 4.9 minutes during a year where he led the league in minutes per game. That puts him right in line with most primary playmaking forwards (Giannis Antetokounmpo is at 5.2, Paul George at 4.9, Jayson Tatum at 4.8, DeMar DeRozan at 4.6), and Siakam ranked 143rd in the league at 3.6 seconds per touch so it’s not as if he was just holding it each time he received a pass. He was 21st in field-goal attempts, but only nine players averaged more assists among the 25 players who took 18 or more shots last season. If anything, Siakam looked right in line with the typical first option around the league at his position. There is more room for growth, but Siakam has clearly shown a willingness to do so given that his assists have increased in every season to date.

5. Raptors not concerned about lawsuit

The other downer on the day was the subject of the New York Knicks’ ongoing lawsuit against the Raptors over the practices of a former member of Knicks’ coaching staff who joined Rajakovic’s staff this summer. Ujiri was stern if not visibly annoyed when he said, “There has been one time a team has sued another team. One time. Go figure.”

Rajakovic followed by distancing himself from any wrongdoing whatsoever, even going so far as to invoke how his parents raised him. “I know who I am. I know how my parents raised me. I know what I see in the mirror. I cannot wait for this lawsuit to be over so everyone can see the truth,” he said.

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And since actions speak louder than words, Rajakovic confirmed that the ex-Knick who allegedly improperly transferred files from his former workplace, remains employed by the Raptors in his new role.

6. Scottie looking swole and ready to level up

Barnes was a much cheerier figure after the restart, and showed more optimism than anyone else who came to the podium. The 22-year-old flashed a beaming smile as he delivered the time-old tradition of reporting muscle gain on media day at nine pounds to bring him north of 240. The former Rookie of the Year also spoke of his goal of improving his conditioning, which he identified as a need after last season.

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The improved conditioning will serve Barnes well since the one constant repeated all summer is that he will have the ball in his hands more often. Not a single interview has gone by where Rajakovic hasn’t made his promise to feature Barnes, and above all else that seems to be the biggest swing factor for the franchise. Their one path towards developing another star internally is Barnes, who has always shown blinding flashes of potential since joining the Raptors three seasons ago. And while Barnes’ version of stardom will look significantly different than other players who are more score-first, the aggressiveness to attack and create for himself and others needs to remain high at all times. There is a clear opportunity left behind by the departure of Fred VanVleet and everyone from front office, to coaches, to fans alike are begging for Barnes to take his chance.

7. O.G. Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. said the right things, but money talks

In addition to Siakam, there is also contract uncertainty around another two starters in Anunoby (who is expected to decline his $19-million player option next summer) and Trent Jr. (unrestricted free agent). When asked directly on the status of any extension talks, Ujiri said “The time for that is now, so we’ll see how that goes.”

The likelihood is that neither gets done. Multiple reports suggest that Toronto’s maximum allowable offer of a four-year, $117-million extension would not be enough to secure Anunoby’s future. And for Trent Jr., he’s coming off a season where he was banished to the bench twice, and it remains to be seen how his shoot-first style would fit into Rajakovic’s equal opportunity offence.

Either way, both players played it smart at the podium. Trent Jr. said he can only control what he can control, and that is to contribute towards winning. Meanwhile, Anunoby’s comment to The Raptors Show was, “I love the fans, I love the organization, I love my teammates, I love the coaching staff. I just love Toronto, I always have … Yeah, it is home for me.”

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While it’s nice to hear positive sentiments, the finances are more realistic. If Siakam were retained at the normal maximum extension (no supermax), Barnes extended for the rookie-scale max, Anunoby retained above his current extension offer (something like $35 million per year), and Trent Jr. were given a modest bump to an even $20 million per season, the Raptors would be above the salary cap for just those three plus Poeltl’s reasonable $20 million figure. The signs point towards one of them moving on with a cheaper replacement, and by all account none of Siakam, Barnes, or Anunoby were put into a potential trade package for Damian Lillard.

8. Darko wants to run a deeper bench

In a classic case of a new coach, Rajakovic’s ideas are essentially opposite of the man he replaced. One of the issues that doomed Nick Nurse was the inability to find a workable way to extend his bench, which led to Siakam (1st), VanVleet (5th), Anunoby (16th), and Barnes (30th) all ranking in the top 30 in minutes per game last season. At one point in the winter of 2021-22, Nurse was even running a seven or six-man rotation for extended stretches, including an infamous triple-OT win over Miami where five starters played between 53 and 56 minutes, while the three bench players who appeared combined for 37 minutes total.

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Rajakovic’s stated approach will be the opposite. He wants to play five off the bench, which will go a long ways both towards maintaining the workload of his starters, and also opening opportunities for players to develop. It’s a very sensible approach and hopefully it all goes according to plan, but there will be nights where compromises have to be made and that’s when we’ll know Rajakovic’s true resolve.

One of the trends to watch will be which five reserves he chooses. One of Trent Jr. or Dennis Schroder will be the odd man out, but they will likely be the leading scorer for the second unit. Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa were Nurse’s go-to frontcourt and they will likely resume their roles since no signings were made at their positions. To combat spacing issues, one of, if not both of, Otto Porter Jr. and Gradey Dick should feature for the bench, but that still leaves newcomer Jalen McDaniels and quietly solid sophomore Christan Koloko out of the mix.

9. Koloko remains sidelined due to respiratory issue

On the subject of Koloko, it was announced that he will miss training camp this week which is slated to begin tomorrow in Vancouver. It’s especially concerning since the same issue kept him from participating in 2023 Las Vegas Summer League, which was a prime opportunity for Koloko to showcase his progress. Fortunately, he did take place in various open gym runs set up by the team over the summer, but he will once again be forced to catch up when he eventually recovers.

Koloko put up a very modest statline last season and hardly saw the ball, but he was adored enough to be given 19 starts because the underlying metrics pointed towards his quiet effectiveness. Koloko proved to be an actual rim-protecting presence that was badly lacking on the team until Poeltl’s arrival at the trade deadline, and Koloko’s unfortunate habit of picking up fouls improved as the season went on. After practices, he consistently worked on his touch in the paint, and on his corner three-point shooting, and while he is very much a work in progress, these are the vital years where he must demonstrate his potential as he starts off in his career. Hopefully, he can overcome these setbacks in time to show it. He is under contract through 2025.

10. Anunoby’s sneaky British accent

One of the more lighthearted topics covered in my interview with O.G. Anunoby on The Raptors Show was his British background. The context is that Anunoby was born in London, but he moved to Missouri as a toddler and has been either in the States or in Canada ever since. However, his accent veers British every time he returns home, and so we put him to the test.

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