Holding court with the media for nearly an hour Thursday, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri spoke with the media on a wide variety of topics, including an update on his and general manager Bobby Webster’s respective contract statuses, how the team is looking to tackle free agency with so much uncertainty in the air and, of course, the important work his team did (and will continue to do) regarding social justice.
Here’s some of the highlights of what he said with a little bit of analysis on what it all could mean.
Ujiri’s and Webster’s contracts
On Tuesday, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was announced to have signed a new multi-year contract extension with the team. His deal was set to expire at the end of next season, and this ensures he won’t be a so-called “lame duck” coach next season.
That was an important piece of business, but more important is probably the status of Raptors GM Webster and president Ujiri, whose deals are also set to expire at the end of next season.
Regarding Webster, it sounds like an announcement of them locking him into a new deal is imminent.
“We’re close, we’re close,” said Ujiri. “We are getting there. Like I said, it is a priority for me to get to our leadership team and take care of the team and the organization in general so we’re close.”
However, Ujiri’s own contract status looks to be more up in the air.
“No, I haven’t had discussions and, honestly, coming out of this, things are a little raw,” Ujiri said. “I’m going to reflect a little bit and we will address it when it’s time to address it. It’s not something I’m going to do in the media and publicly, with respect, but no I haven’t had conversations.
“It’s been an obligation for me to take care of my leadership team, obviously starting with Nick Nurse. Super excited about that, and him. The future is bright. But in terms of me, I haven’t had those conversations and I’ll wait ’til those happen in the future.”
This is obviously a worrying quote for Raptors fans as Ujiri is the most responsible for what has been an outstanding seven-season run of success and counting that, of course, included an NBA championship that he helped architect in 2019.
But as nerve-wracking as things are right now, there’s no real need for panic. As Ujiri said, his priority right now is taking care of his own executive leadership team below him and that includes Nurse, Webster and even before that with hires such as John Wiggins.
Though it may take longer than many would like, Raptors fans should still feel confident that their president isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
How will Raptors handle the off-season?
A mountain that every NBA team will have to face is an off-season of great uncertainty with the Raptors facing a particularly steep-looking climb.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, no one really has any idea what next season will look like or when it’ll start, but if there’s one thing Ujiri knows he wants is for there to be fans back in arenas.
“I want to play with fans, I want us to figure this out,” he said. “This pandemic is serious, we know there could be a second wave coming … for me it is a priority for us to figure out how to get our fans involved and how to figure this out going forward.”
And in the more immediate future, the Raptors have a lot of free agents they’ll need to make decisions on Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who are all unrestricted, as well as restricted free agents Chris Boucher and Malcolm Miller.
This would be a difficult landscape to navigate in any normal circumstance, but in this coronavirus world we live in, it’s even harder to do so because we still don’t know yet what sort of financial ramifications the lost revenue will have on the league moving forward.
“Yes, there are challenges, we don’t know what the cap numbers are, we have to figure out how we maneuver where we keep our cap space for the future and for that year, ’21,” said Ujiri. “We have to address that in some kind of way. We are going to speak to all the agents when the time is right and speak to all the players when it is right and we’ll try and figure this out the best way we can.”
There’s likely a million things on Ujiri’s to-do list but taking care of the problem in front of him is obviously the most important, and by the sounds of things that’s where his focus lies right now.
“You want to start with whoever our free agents are,” said Ujiri. “We go from Fred to Serge to Marc Gasol to Rondae to Chris Boucher, they’ve been incredible. So there’s a priority for us, there’s a priority with Fred, with our bigs, this has been our signature as a team, we also have to look at the game and see where the game is going, and we also have to wait on the NBA, we’re all waiting on the cap and seeing where the numbers are going to fall, and that’s going to be interesting to see.
“But you know how we’ve dealt with this, with our team, we have to really look at what is now, we have to look at the short-term future and we have to look at the long-term future, and after that, we have to look at key year which is 2021 and free agency.”
Yes, as big as this off-season is, next year’s off-season will be that much bigger with a remarkable potential free-agent class that could include Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard. So any move Ujiri looks to make this year must come with it keeping flexibility in mind to have a max slot open for next year.
As such, it’s got to be incredibly frustrating not being able to have a solid projection of what next season’s cap might look like as that will have to influence what kind of offers the team looks to send players like VanVleet, Ibaka and Gasol’s way – should the Raptors look to re-sign them, which, as Ujiri appeared to indicate, is something they want to do.
“We are very confident in our culture and, yes, Fred is a priority,” he said. “Our bigs are a priority. Serge had an incredible run, Marc Gasol brings so much to our organization and we have our young players coming up with Chris Boucher. Rondae, too, is a free agent and he found a niche on our team. That is what our jobs are.”
Belief in Siakam
Pascal Siakam had a remarkable regular season that earned him a spot on the All-NBA Second Team, but in the post-season he really faltered and even took the blame for the Raptors getting bounced in the second round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics.
With Siakam about to kick into a four-year max extension next season there’s obvious concern if he really is worth the investment the team made to him. The jury’s still out on this discussion but, for what it’s worth, Ujiri has the utmost confidence in Siakam to find his way again.
“We tried to understand what he went through. We talked extensively, honestly it wasn’t even just me. I think Kyle and Fred, those guys did an incredible job, coach Nick Nurse, Bobby, everybody stood by Pascal,” said Ujiri. “I know Pascal. We all know Pascal. Sometimes we need this, almost like a kick in the butt, some kind of adversity and he is going to bounce back 100 per cent from this. He acknowledged it. You guys saw it. He felt he let the team down. We feel that we will just stick by him, stay with him, as always.
“But let’s not forget now, Pascal helped us win a championship. And Pascal has showed every bit of being courageous, being a fighter, being a competitor and being a winner. He has shown every bit of that and we have value that and we see that and we know him as a person. He is going to bounce back from this and we support him in every way that we can.”
Perhaps a reason why Siakam stumbled had to do with the bubble environment. Ujiri said the bubble, while very well maintained, did no favours to players’ mental health and it could’ve impacted performance.
“I think the mental aspect was really the hardest part,” Ujiri said of the biggest bubble challenges. “It was hard for me, I can’t even imagine the players…. But the mental aspect of you being alone there, you’re going back to your room, you’re confined in your space, you don’t know what people are going through with families and all of that, what things they are dealing with and it’s beyond control.
“I will say this also, when you are inside the bubble, yes there is social media, I don’t follow and see a lot of that stuff like I’m sure some of the players do, but you don’t understand as much, you know, like how much you’re affecting the world and what’s going on outside and that’s hard because you are in that space, you know, you don’t have a feel for it. You don’t have a feel for someone to touch you and say, ‘Hey what’s up?’ Or, you know, it’s all the people that you are with and the people you are going to battle with either against them or with them and that was the 37 people we were with or the people we were competing against. I think it brought some camaraderie in the NBA. I got to know a lot of players, people better than I did, but on the overall the struggle was just the mental aspect.”
How the Raptors can keep up the fight for social justice
One of the most important goals of the NBA restart was to further the fight for social and racial justice and the Raptors were certainly one of the leaders in this regard during their time in the bubble.
Rolling through Florida in a bus with “Black Lives Matter” proudly emblazoned on the side and wearing masks and shirts with messages for positive social change in every availability, the Raptors did their best to make their message heard and Ujiri is proud of the job his team did, but there’s still more work to be done.
“I think the bubble was a great platform for us, all of these things talked about this in my op-ed, how there’s always a cycle and we cannot let it be a cycle, we have to address these issues straight on, and as an organization we’re going to do this. It started right before, obviously with George Floyd and we all started making our feelings known, I had my own incidents, and everybody has dealt with it in their ways,” said Ujiri.
“We see what’s going on with Pascal, we know of his struggles in the bubble and he’ll get through that, and we’re very confident with that, but the fans, people, they have every right to their opinion and to make judgements on our team, but I feel that to take it that far, where it went. There is racism everywhere. Let’s not make any mistake, there’s racism in Canada here.
“We know there’s a focus on the United States, but this is a global pandemic, this is something we are facing everywhere and as an organization we’re going to face it square on, and whether it’s calling people out, whether it’s developing programs, whether it’s hiring people, a focus on hiring Black people, minorities, Indigenous people, we’re going to focus on this, and I think we are showing that, our players have shown this in their commitment and I feel we were in the forefront of this, and I’m proud of not only our players, our coaches, everything we’re doing with, whether it’s voting, whether it’s polarizing, whether it’s talking about it, we’re going to do whatever we can, to continue this conversation.”