Masai Ujiri putting trust in Scottie Barnes to fuel Raptors’ turnaround

Raptors president Masai Ujiri says they're going to give this group of players the opportunity to play together, and develop and grow together, and says either we get a high pick this year, or next year we play ball.

TORONTO — It still stings.

In what should have been his moment of ultimate personal and professional triumph, team president Masai Ujiri couldn’t properly enjoy it. He couldn’t allow his mind to swim in the idea that he’d helped lead the Toronto Raptors to a place that, for decades, seemed unimaginable: the top of the NBA; champions.

Instead, Ujiri was forcibly shoved by a police officer working security as the Toronto Raptors president was trying to reach for his credentials on his way to the floor at Oracle Arena to celebrate with his team after Toronto’s historic Game 6 win over the Golden State Warriors. He was eventually pulled into the celebration by then-Raptor Kyle Lowry. A baseless lawsuit followed, claiming damages against Ujiri. It was eventually dropped when video evidence debunked the officer’s version of events.

But it took 18 months to resolve, and between that event and then Raptors star Kawhi Leonard leaving for the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency less than a month after winning finals MVP, the pandemic which the Raptors believe short-circuited their title defense, Ujiri’s post-championship glow was tarnished.

“I actually feel something was taken away from me when we won the last championship,” Ujiri said at his end-of-season media conference on Wednesday. “And my goal is to win another one here. That’s the focus,100 per cent.”

But how? And when?

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A goal is just a dream without a plan, and as Ujiri was sorting through the detritus of Toronto’s 25-57 season, the firm answers as to when — inevitably — are hard to come by. The reality is that so many things have to go right to build a championship-level NBA team that it’s almost pointless making predictions or giving timelines, and so Ujiri didn’t bother.

“Sometimes, rebuilds can take three to six years,” he said. “Sometimes, teams act before. I think we’re going to see how this process goes and use our instincts with it, but patience is going to be a big thing with this team.”

And as for how? The details are TBD.

Does he hope the Raptors hold on to their draft pick this season, given their 2-19 nosedive to finish the year gives them a 45.8 per cent chance of keeping it, but still leaving a 54.2 per cent chance of having it convey to the San Antonio Spurs to complete last season’s Jakob Poeltl trade?

Given that the 2025 draft is widely perceived as being exceptionally deep, would he prefer that the Raptors fall out of the top six in the draft lottery on May 12 and the pick conveys to San Antonio, assuring the Raptors keep their own pick in 2025 and 2026 (after which the pick would become two second-round picks if it hadn’t conveyed)?

We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, was the message. There are no wrong answers.

“Any way it goes, we will be grateful, we’ll be happy,” Ujiri said. “If we’re not in the top six [this year], we have our pick next year; if we are in the top six, you go out and find the best guy or find whatever transaction there is to make the best use out of it.

“I don’t go into any situation in the NBA draft or free agency thinking negative anything about it,” he said. “You do the best, try to win it, whether it’s a pick, whether it’s a transaction, anything you do, you are trying to do the best. That’s what we do here in Toronto to get back on track.”

There were questions from all corners.

His view on first year head coach Darko Rajakovic? “We’ve dealt him a tough hand. And that’s on us … but in terms of everything else outside of results, I think Darko did an incredible job.”

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His thoughts on new MLSE chief executive officer Keith Pelley? “I got to know him a little bit, I think [it was] so much needed with this organization, that lift, that energy that he brings to us. … We’re super excited about Keith.

“[But] … it does not change anything on how decisions we make or how we go about making those decisions,” Ujiri said. “I’m still Masai, nothing is going to f—— change that, I guarantee you that.”

After calling out last year’s Raptors for being selfish, how does he feel about the culture in place now?

“Maybe I was a little bit unfair with the other guys,” Ujiri allowed. “… I was trying to be very aggressive with our team in trying to get us back to who we are, playing the right way, playing for each other, and winning, which I think we’ve proven we can do in this organization. So, I don’t think as people, as persons, our culture ever went anywhere, but I think we got away a little bit from maybe playing how all of us would want to play or want to see the game. I think now Darko has instilled a certain way and we’re going to move with that.”

But if there was one theme that Ujiri kept returning to and which he has very much pinned to the Raptors’ hopes to, it’s that he believes Scottie Barnes — an All-Star in his third season — is the player and the person who can lead the Raptors back where they want to be. 

Ujiri was asked questions about the third-year star, but he also brought up Barnes — unprompted — five times when trying to explain how and why he believes a team that has finished out of the playoffs in three of the past four years and doesn’t control its own draft pick this year can return to championship form.

“I want our fans to know the most difficult [type of player to get] are the guys like Scottie,” Ujiri said at one point. “We’re happy that we are starting off [our rebuild] with Scottie in our hands.”

At another juncture he said: “I think the most difficult thing to do when you do things like this is finding the Scottie Barneses of the world, and we’re lucky to have a really good young player like this to build around.”

It’s a big ask, and the Raptors will find out as Barnes heads into Year 4 if the 22-year-old is built for the job of franchise saviour. They’re certainly going to have to pay him as if he is as the former rookie of the year is eligible for a five-year contract extension this summer that could be worth as much as $269 million.

But even a talent as versatile as Barnes — he was the only player in the NBA to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks when a broken hand cost him the last 22 games of the regular season — needs help.

And if there is one blemish on the Raptors’ front office’s track record under Ujiri, it’s that it hasn’t done a great job at identifying complementary pieces to enhance the ones they’ve gained through drafting, development or trade. Since Toronto was last at the top of Eastern Conference, its free agent additions have included a not murder’s row of Alex Len, Aron Baynes, Otto Porter Jr., Juancho Hernangomez and, this year, Jalen McDaniels, and Dennis Schroder, who Ujiri said on media day would be an improvement on Fred VanVleet, who left the Raptors in free agency last summer.

For whatever reason, Schroder did not turn out to be an improvement on VanVleet, a former All-Star who had a strong season with the Houston Rockets. Schroder proved such a poor fit that the Raptors had to trade him for nothing, essentially, as they waived Spencer Dinwiddie, who was the matching piece sent from the Brooklyn Nets when they made the deal at the trade deadline.

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“It’s interesting that we’ve studied all of this,” said Ujiri. “The last couple years, we just haven’t done very well in assessing like what those [free agent] fits could be. … We 100 per cent need to do like a better job of finding some of those players.”

It doesn’t help that their drafting and development pipeline has run dry lately. Luck has been a factor, as Christian Koloko, an intriguing defensive centre who showed promise as a rookie in 2022-23, had to stop playing due to a medical issue. Or that Jontay Porter, who showed some life when the Raptors signed him to a two-way contract mid-season, earned himself a lifetime ban from the NBA for betting games and — in at least one instance — intentionally underperforming in a game with the Raptors to help a gambling associate cash in on a big bet.

But, still, the Raptors traded out of the first round in 2022, the year they drafted Koloko, and missed the chance to draft Walker Kessler, who has emerged as one of the best shot blockers in the NBA for the Utah Jazz. And, in 2020, they chose (since traded) Malachi Flynn 29th, instead of Memphis Grizzlies star Desmond Bane with the 30th pick.

And since signing now-veteran Chris Boucher as their first-ever two-way player prior to the 2018-19 season, the Raptors haven’t turned a two-way player into a rotation player since.

Not that the Raptors are without options, or reasons for the mostly sunny brand of optimism that has been the consistent theme as first the players, then head coach Darko Rajakovic, and lastly Ujiri help forth on the season that was.

Barnes does indeed seem poised to become a star of some wattage. Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett, acquired via trade, are promising young players entering their primes. Rookie Gradey Dick looks like he’ll have a chance to be a winning rotation player sooner than later. Veterans Kelly Olynyk and Jakob Poeltl provide stability at centre that Toronto hasn’t had of late. And Ochai Agbaji could be a much-needed defensive stopper if he can sort out his cranky jump shot. The Raptors aren’t starting from scratch.

“For us to go through a year like this was tough on everybody,” Ujiri said. “But we really see the bright side. I think sports is a cycle and our organization is going to go through different cycles, and this is our time but we’re going to take all the positives from this and build on it as much as we can going forward.”

For years, the message among the Raptors fanbase was ‘In Masai we trust.’ His string of successes on their way to their 2019 title almost seemed preordained.

But as the Raptors lean in to a rebuild for the first time, it’s apparent that for Ujiri to be able to celebrate a title again — properly this time — he’s put his trust in Scottie Barnes.

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