With a championship culture as their foundation, Ujiri embraces the Raptors' path

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri gets a bit emotional when discussing his pride for Pascal Siakam, for his perseverance after what he went through these last couple of years, and for the fight he's shown throughout his career.

When it comes to the big things, the important things, the hard-to-do things, you get the sense that Masai Ujiri believes the Toronto Raptors are closer to winning a title than they were, say, early on in the years long build up to the 2019 championship.

There are question marks on his current roster and gaps that need to be filled. He knows that — the man is an optimist, not a fantasist.

And no one knows better than the Raptors vice-chairman and president — who can still get emotional when he talks about having to trade a franchise cornerstone like DeMar DeRozan for one year of Kawhi Leonard — that taking the step from very good to great is often difficult, perilous, and fraught.

But the circumstances required to win? The environment that allows teams to reach their potential, for talent to thrive? The foundation to build on?

That’s in place, nurtured over years, and a source of confidence as the Raptors try to navigate the climb from good — 48 wins and fifth in the East this past season — to something better than that.

The likes of DeRozan, Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol are long gone — at least in the hyper-speed timelines of NBA life — but they left a legacy beyond memories and a banner.

They left behind an expectation.

“Those guys built a culture for us. And we're proud of that. We're very proud that those guys were part of our program, you know, and they elevated our program,” said Ujiri at his end-of-season media availability on Tuesday. “And to a certain extent, these guys have to continue that. And those guys set the level that they have to continue and that's where character, that's where tradition — that's where everything you build inside you as a sportsman — you learn.

“And Freddy [VanVleet] saw that he saw that every day; Pascal [Siakam] saw that every day. OG [Anunoby], all these guys. And that's what hopefully we try to teach here … we expect to win.”

It’s hard to argue that, or that they’ve made it a habit. Apart from the one lost season in Tampa, the Raptors have made the playoffs eight times in nine seasons.

But the task ahead for Ujiri, his coaching staff and the core of his team is how to keep winning, and what needs to be done to win it all.

True to form, the message was that a championship is a journey of many uncertain and incremental steps. It’s fine to be in a hurry, but it’s a mistake to rush.

“When you have young players, I think we have to always be patient, we have to be, and it’s not gonna go good all the time,” said Ujiri.  “It’s gonna be up and down, that’s just how development works, how building works, but the mindset has to be winning.

"I think we’re the third or second-youngest team in the playoffs. [So] we have to build, we have to grow, and I know that sometimes when you win the expectations start to become a little bit higher from fans, from media, from everybody, just sets a tone, but inside we have to see it, we have to have the vision of what we feel, what we project these guys are going to be.”

But Ujiri believes firmly in what he has to work with. It would be impossible for him to walk back the comments he made about his cornerstone pieces.

Consider, when asked about rumours that the Los Angeles Lakers were going to try and lure away head coach Nick Nurse, who still has two years left under contract:

“No team has contacted me, and I see all the stuff you see,” he said. “I dream like they dream. I want Messi. I want Ronaldo. I want Kobe Bryant. So they can keep dreaming. I dream too.”

Or why 6-foot-1 point guard VanVleet defies the franchise’s preference for long-armed, athletic big wing players: “He's a winner. He's a champion, he’s an all-star. He beats everything. That’s bigger than 6-9. That’s the truth. It’s bigger than 6-9. That guy's heart is bigger. And you need those guys on your team. Every day.”

Or this thoughts on the bounce back year turned in by Siakam, who struggled with his mental health, a vicious social media pile on, a slip in performance and off-season shoulder surgery since being an all-star and all-NBA player in 2019-20.

“… what that guy went through, we all go through it, [but] it's not advertised. His is advertised, his is public, because he is a public figure,” said Ujiri. “I'm so proud of him … I want that guy on my team. I want that kind of fighter on my team. If you can come back from that in life, you saw it: you saw what people called him, racist, all the things that were said about that guy because of basketball. Because of sports.

“Yeah, he gets paid, but he's also a human being. Right? And he stood it, withstood it when he was coming back got hit again, got injured. Those things crack people, right? [But] to see him on that stage, fight, and fight, that's who we want to go to war with, to battle with. I'm proud of him. Incredibly proud of Pascal.”

Which doesn’t mean the Raptors can afford to be keep things status quo in the off-season; standing still is moving backwards.

It’s just that with the benefit of hindsight, of having seen the six-year path from the Raptors' first playoff appearance under Ujiri in 2013-14 and their title in 2018-19, it’s not a process that can be accelerated by wishing it to be so.

The Raptors will be an over-the-cap team next season, meaning their most likely tools to add to their roster will be the mid-level exception and the biannual exception, which Toronto can use to sign players to contracts for $10.5- and $4.1-million, annually, respectively. Ujiri said he’s open to using those means to add talent — and yes, he’s aware his team could use some size, shooting and depth — but wasn’t over-selling it. Free agency — he implied — would be used judiciously to fill in some gaps, rather than as a place to hit a home run.

“The core is the core,” Ujiri said.

Instead his expectation is that the top seven or eight players and someone from the bottom of half of the roster, from which contributions were sporadic — at best — this past season will have to improve if the team is going to move closer to title contention next season.

“Pascal needs to make a jump. Fred needs to make a jump. There is plenty [to do],” said Ujiri. “OG needs to play more games. He needs to make a jump. Precious, Boucher, all these guys need to make a jump. Scottie? Who used to say it best? Coach Casey. ‘You told on yourself’

"That’s why I love that they had that six-game [playoff] experience. So they see, they see how it is in those kinds of situations. We need to make a jump. We need to get better. This is what this summer is for.”

There is a lot to do, but the Raptors and Ujiri understand the nature of the path they’re on.

They’ve been here before.

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