Ujiri: Raptors future hinges on chat with owners

Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri said Wednesday morning that his decision to re-sign with the franchise this offseason will be determined by conversations he is set to have with the team’s ownership group in the coming weeks.

“Everybody says, ‘blank check, blank check,’ but I’m not as much focused on a blank check,” Ujiri said during a news conference that lasted for more than a half hour, when asked what he will think about in making his decision about whether to remain with the Raptors. “A lot of the things that we’ve done here, we have to move forward as a franchise to compete with the best in the NBA. This is all about winning a championship again.

“Let me tell you something, guys: everybody has forgotten what happened two years ago. OK, yes, we won. But nobody cares anymore, OK? We want to win another one. That’s what you want to do. Yeah, you want to prepare yourself to win another one. Not play in the play-in game, not play in the playoffs, you want to win a championship. Everybody’s like, ‘Why don’t you get into the play-in?’ Play-in for what? We want to win a championship here and we have to put ourselves in position.

“I want to know, ‘So, what’s the next lift? What’s the next five years? What’s the next 10 years? What are we doing to put ourselves in conversation with all the great teams and all the winners?’ That’s what we want to do, and that’s the conversation that I’m going to have with [ownership]. And, yes, I’m going to have asks, and I’m going to have a lot of things that I think we need to put forward here to address these things, and I think ownership is open to hear this.

“So, in terms of that conversation, that’s going to be had.”

Ujiri’s future has been a topic of conversation around the Raptors for almost a year now, as he’s repeatedly refrained from talking about what would happen once his contract with the franchise he’s been in charge of since 2013 expired. Initially, Ujiri said he’d get coach Nick Nurse and general manager Bobby Webster’s contract extensions done before dealing with his own. That has since happened.

Now, though, the spotlight is squarely on him, and his future. And Ujiri made it clear that he’s spent time thinking about the things that will make his decision for him.

Ujiri made several references to his impending conversations during his sitdown with the media Wednesday, which came three days after Toronto’s season in Tampa, Florida came to an end with a loss to the Indiana Pacers.

But he also didn’t mince words about the situation the Raptors were put in this season, as the only NBA team that was forced to spend its entire season away from home due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And while Ujiri stressed that he appreciated everything the city of Tampa did for the Raptors — “There’s no hospitality or no welcome that we’re going to get that’s better than this,” he said — he also said no team in the NBA was put at a bigger disadvantage than his was this season.

“We have been incredibly disadvantaged from all of this,” Ujiri said. “The displacement really did not work well against us. But I give, from the top, ownership, everybody from our coaching staff, players, they were incredible during this process. They tried to persevere as much as they could through adversity. Our medical team, they were incredible for us, the front office, even scouts, everything, we tried to come together.

“[But] in this environment, this which is the NBA, we were No. 30 in terms of what we went through. We had an outbreak on our team. We had a rough start. That’s on us, that’s on me, maybe, because of our roster and some maybe we can call mis-fits as we started the season. But we did climb up to being fourth in the East sometime in mid-February or end of February or something. We climbed back out of that, and then we got hit again. We had a 1-13 month, and that was tough, to be honest. We were playing teams that I know, games were winnable games that we could win. But these guys, they were working in mud. They were running in mud. Their bodies and everything that they were going through, it was really, really tough.”

“This was a tough situation because none of us have gone through this before, and our case was even worse than the 29 other teams. We are not looking for excuses here. We know the work that we have to do going forward, and how we need to get back on our feet. It’s a great challenge for us going forward.”

Ujiri also had some veiled criticisms for the NBA, as well, saying that while the Raptors got the “basic support” they needed this season, that at times the fact Toronto is the only NBA team that isn’t located in the United States makes for difficulties on both sides that both the league needs to be more aware of, and that the Raptors need to fight harder for.

That was one of the things, Ujiri said, that he planned to speak to ownership about after he returns from a trip to Africa that will begin this weekend.

“I think it’s difficult sometimes for the league to always include us in everything because we are the one team that is based outside the U.S. I’m sure sometimes it’s a pain in the ass sometimes for them. But guess what? That is the business you have put yourself in. You have put yourself on a global platform that you have one team in the NBA that is outside the United States and we have to be considered in every single way. There are difficult decisions that have to be made based on this.

“[NBA commissioner} Adam Silver has been very considerate. The league has been very considerate on all levels whether it’s basketball operations or even [NBA chief innovation officer] Amy Brooks and the marketing group. I think they have all really treated us with respect and maybe, in some cases, sympathy here.

“But, yeah, there is a lot of work to be done honestly. I don’t want to call out anybody here. But there is a lot of work we need to address. And to be honest, me being back here, there is going to be a lot of things I have to address with ownership in terms of some of those things we need to really address with Toronto.”

One thing Ujiri said he couldn’t provide an answer on was if the Raptors will be able to play in Toronto next season. The Raptors were unable to play there this year because of the ongoing pandemic, and Toronto’s other professional sports teams remain in flux as a result of it, too. The Toronto Blue Jays are playing this season at their minor league complex in Dunedin, Florida and soon to relocate to Buffalo, New York for the summer, while the six NHL teams are playing in their own division against one another to mitigate the travel complications due to COVID-19.

But Ujiri said that, at this point, the Raptors don’t know if that will change in time for the start of next season, which the NBA hopes to begin in October. And he made an impassioned plea to the government to allow for some way for the Raptors to be back in Scotiabank Arena this fall to give their fans something to watch.

“First of all, I think when I talked about issues, as a team that plays outside the U.S., we have our issues too that we have to deal with, and we all know what some of these issues are. So, the situation we are in in Toronto now, I’m hoping that we’re seeing it and we’re hoping that it gets resolved, hopefully soon. And all over Canada, people continue to get vaccinated, and then we go from there.

“I respect the health officials, I respect the government, there have been mistakes made but as leaders, it’s on to the next, how do you continue to solve these problems, solve them well, with good time. I don’t want to be selfish on the sports part, and as an NBA worker or executive, I don’t want to be selfish and push our agenda before other people, but yes, timing matters and we would like to be considered, because we do not want — I repeat — we do not want to play anywhere else but Toronto.”

The other major decision facing the Raptors this offseason is attempting to retain star free agent Kyle Lowry, the team’s longest-tenured player and one of the driving forces behind its 2019 title. Ujiri said that decision will be made, in part, on what direction Toronto looks to go as an organization this offseason.

“It just depends on what we are doing,” Ujiri said. “When we evaluate this, we are evaluating in many ways. One of the ways we have looked at is giving the young guys even more opportunity and building the future rather than now. We have to look at the organization that way.

“If you remember, I spoke like that a lot when I took the job here. We have to build. I know we won a championship and last year we were considered a team that was close, and a contender, but we’re at a place, too, where we have to look at the young players we have and maybe lift them up a little bit. And that’s kind of one of the options we will continue to examine as we look at the team. So I understand your question when you say is there a better player out there. It’s hard to find a better player than Kyle, now even, in this environment. He’s been incredible to us and his value is even more to us than an outside free agent in more ways. But when we look at it the other way, you can look at how do you start to build again, to get to the level that we got to?”

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