The Toronto Raptors are the champions, and they aren’t. They won it all, and had a part of it taken away from them. It’s a strange place to be, this new beginning in this odd hereafter. The Raptors ascended to the peak. They’re here now.
“I think last year when we did this press conference I was sitting with Kawhi (Leonard) and Danny (Green) and I’m sitting all alone now,” said team president Masai Ujiri, smile on his face. “I’m lonely.”
“I think Fred (VanVleet) said it somewhere: like, all the bandwagons and all the people that came after Kawhi and kind of went away, it’s kind of like back to us,” said forward Pascal Siakam, the centrepiece of the new era, on the team’s media day. “Just continue to grind and be, you know, who we are: the Toronto Raptors, always known to be that team that everyone kind of like don’t look at.”
Back to us. Kawhi gave this city and country and franchise a glimpse of what true superstardom, and therefore a championship, looked like. And then he executed a mammoth power play and went home to Los Angeles, and this is what’s left: a team with quality veterans on one-year contracts, young players with the ability to form part of the next core, and a sense of an odd, satisfying interlude. The most likely scenario is this: This team should be very good, and the league won’t truly take it seriously. Which is, as Siakam said, the old Raptors all over again.
“We go in confident about who we are as a team, and we’re excited about the flexibility we’re going to have in the future — picks, young players,” said team president Masai Ujiri. “And we’re going to go from there.”
Every team simultaneously exists in the now and in the future, but this team more than most. Last year’s Raptors went 17-5 without Kawhi, and every major returning Raptor was a huge piece of the title. Siakam has added muscle and worked on his shooting and his burgeoning creator skills, and OG Anunoby is the piece that could blossom this year after his last season was wasted by injury and personal loss. His potential is real.
Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka say they’re hungry for more. Kyle Lowry says he will catch up after off-season thumb surgery. VanVleet only took 10 days off. The defence should remain superb. Coach Nick Nurse seems excited about crafting a ball-motion offence, which will exist without Kawhi’s individual workouts grafted on.
But Toronto also has $90 million U.S. of expiring contracts: Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka. The next free agent class that can change a franchise comes in 2021 — the year of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more — so there will be decisions to make as always. What can Toronto get for veterans who might make a difference to a contender in a year of extreme parity? How much do you try to win now, when you can’t win it all?
“I think the expectation in sports always is to win,” said Ujiri. “We play sports to win, there’s nothing else. We can do all the dance we want, we say whatever we want — we build, blah, blah, blah, anything you do — you play sports to win. It’s that simple, and we’re playing to win.
“You build from there, you see how your team reacts. I think guys are going to step up, I think guys are up for the challenge and, for me, the focus of our team is always going to be winning. We said this from the beginning when we got here, and we believe in that. This team will win, and I think it rests on my shoulders to adjust whatever we need to adjust with this team, to prepare us for what’s coming in the future.”
Ujiri has balanced winning and development for years, and then he jumped when Kawhi became available. You always have to be ready in this crazy league. Lowry mentioned that he and the Raptors have engaged in early extension talks. The belief is the Raptors would offer a big-money one-year addition to his deal to help bridge the gap to 2021 and give Lowry the respect he deserves with the franchise. The franchise adores Gasol and appreciates Ibaka, but Lowry is different than the other expiring contracts.
“No question,” said Ujiri. “Kyle has an incredible legacy here that I think we all have underrated … There’s legacy status for him in my opinion, everything he’s given. We can say whatever we want about Kyle. He comes and he gives it his all on the court. He’ll give me a headache once a month, but that’s fine. That’s our relationship. I really respect him for that. We’ll always pay Kyle that respect. What he’s done for this city, for this ball club, is remarkable.”
“I think it’s been a long time,” said Lowry. “I’ve been here the longest now, I’ve been through the ups and downs and I was able to help bring a championship here, an unbelievable team … I’m not saying I’m the sole reason, but I feel I have a great pride.”
And then the league moved on. Remember when the Raptors demanded respect? They earned it, and now have to earn it again.
“I don’t worry about the respect,” says Lowry. “I think from our counterparts, everywhere I’ve gone the guys are so happy for our team, for me. The peers that I’ve seen this summer, it’s just a lot of respect. I don’t care what other people say … We know what we’ve accomplished, and who cares what other people think? We know what we’ve accomplished, and our peers understand what went into it.”
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“We have the same group of champions,” said Ibaka.
Well, nearly. Lowry and Ujiri said similar things: It hasn’t sunk in yet, not fully. Ujiri said one day he will lock himself in his basement and watch it all again. And now they will roll out again, the defending champs, living the life that happens while you make other plans.
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