Free of distractions, Raptors will go as far as young core will take them

Eric Smith and Michael Grange talk about the off-season that the Toronto Raptors had, the Kevin Durant rumours, the depth of the team, and how Pascal Siakam can be that leader to learn from for Scottie Barnes.

All around the NBA, teams were gathering to reflect on the summer past and the season ahead.

It was media day on Monday, the annual rite where players get to talk about the big step they hope to take, coaches about how happy they are with the roster and executives about how happy they are with the coaches.

In most places, the sentiments don’t last long. The rapid-fire pace of the NBA picks up, and keeping things together becomes a challenge, and a lot of teams and organizations can’t meet it.

Of course, many of them are starting in a deficit as they are coming into the season trying to fix things, explain things or desperately hold things together.

In the past few weeks alone the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics have had to suspend their highly-regarded head coach, Ime Udoka for having a sexual relationship with a female staff member; Western Conference contenders Phoenix Suns are being sold because owner Robert Sarver’s long history as an abusive boss and the super-star laden Brooklyn Nets are trying to focus on basketball after one star – Kevin Durant – demanded to be traded and his coach and general manager fired and another – Kyrie Irving doubled-down on his anti-vaccination stance that sewered their season a year ago. Their other star, Ben Simmons, hasn’t played basketball in 18 months.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks have stars coming off injuries and in Miami the team president blamed his starting point guard – former Raptor Kyle Lowry – for being out of shape

The Toronto Raptors – at the very least – could meet the media at Hotel X in downtown Toronto en route to opening their training camp in Victoria and convincingly put on a united, calming front.

The Masai Ujiri/Bobby Webster front office tandem is back for their ninth season; head coach Nick Nurse and his evolving staff are in year five and the core of the roster is back, albeit with some new pieces that should bolster them around the edges.

No one is coming off surgery. No one is dealing with an off-season scandal and there are no new faces set to upset the established order.

The Raptors are returning 13 players that ate up 96 per cent of the available minutes of a surprisingly good, 48-win team a year ago, giving them the highest degree of continuity in the league.

For the most part, all of this is intentional.

“I think we made a commitment to grow,” Raptors president and vice-chairman Masai Ujiri on Monday. “We’re a young team, a young growing team. That’s all we talked about last year, lots of players who can make a jump. Even our veterans are young veterans in the league, with Freddy [VanVleet], Pascal [Siakam], O.G. [Anunoby] I think in this organization we’ve always wanted to preach patience. We want to win. We’re expecting to win [but] honestly, we can’t react to what’s going on in the league. Yeah, we see other teams. We study all of that. But in terms of our plan, it’s to grow our young players and continue to develop and see [where] that takes us.”

The hope – obviously – is the destination ends up being a step or two farther than they managed last season when their 48-win, fifth-place regular season ended up in a good but not good enough first-round playoff loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

No, the Raptors did not “get their asses kicked” is the six-game series, as VanVleet put it, but it’s not immediately clear how they closed the gap on the top few teams in an Eastern Conference that has become packed with quality teams with big plans.

Adding Otto Porter and Juancho Hernangomez in free agency along with a full season of Thaddeus Young should help improve both the team’s perimeter shooting and depth – areas that required shoring up given the Raptors concentrated their minutes among the top of their rotation more than any team in the NBA last year and they finished last season ranked 26th in effective field goal percentage.

But Toronto will go as far as their young core – a group that now includes second year, do-everything wing Scottie Barnes – will take them.

How far is that? We’ll see. The Raptors themselves had questions. The Raptors were in the thick of the talk about acquiring Durant after the Nets superstar demanded a trade and were at least willing to listen when opportunities arose around the likes of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, though they were never too close to putting themselves in the thick of the trade talks for the two Western Conference all-starts jettisoned by Utah.

With no outside forces to divert the inevitable pre-season wave of hype and enthusiasm, the internal expectations are high.

“We always look at those things. I think working with Bobby and Nick, you have to open your minds to different things,” Ujiri said of the off-season player market. “But we also have a plan with this team. We’re focused on that and to grow this team.

“I think every team can make the playoffs in the NBA, can have a good year and make a jump. We have to make a jump now as this team and seeing how all these pieces fit together is a good challenge to have going into the future, going into the season,” said Ujiri. “We always look at things … and try to be as active as we can. We’re also focused on who we are as a team and where we want to go as a basketball team. Sports is about winning. We want to win here. Sometimes it’s good to be patient, too, and wait for the right moment.”

The continuity, the hope is, should lead to chemistry.

“I think that sitting up here a year ago today we didn’t have any idea who we were, identity-wise and how things were going to unfold,” said Nurse. “And that’s how things worked out in the first four to six weeks [the Raptors started 14-17] … so this year we know who we are a little more … I feel confident in knowing who we are quite a bit more than a year ago at this time.”

To a man, the Raptors are optimistic that they’ve moved ahead while mostly keeping still. Pascal Siakam feels like he unlocked something in his game as he surged to all-NBA honours in the second half of last year and will a full and healthy off-season to hone it, the 28-year-old feels he’s still scratching the surface.

“I’ve been All-NBA, I’ve been an All-Star,” said Siakam. “I wanna be a top-five player in the league. I wanna be one of the best, and I’ll do everything I can to make that happen.”

The sentiment was catching.

Rookie-of-the-year Scottie Barnes was talking about making all-defense teams and earning all-star status; Fred VanVleet was talking about using the long off-season to hone his training and preparation so he can maintain the torrid pace he played on for the first two-thirds of the season, before fading with injuries down the stretch, while Anunoby, everyone agrees is ready to make a big jump.

In some ways, it’s the best time of the year. Everything is possible and nothing can be ruled out. The Raptors are healthy, deeper and know exactly who they are and what they’re about, and don’t have to navigate through an off-season of distractions on their first day of work.

The job, however, remains the same. “Winning is why we play and winning is what we want to do in the NBA here,” said Ujiri. “We always want to win and we are going to win again.”

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