The Toronto Raptors ended the 2022-23 season with a groan, but now the latest edition is assembling, opening training camp with some new looks.
Head coach Nick Nurse and all-star point guard Fred VanVleet are gone, and Darko Rajakovic and Dennis Schroder have arrived. Rajakovic, the new head coach, brings a new staff and a different style of play. Team president Masai Ujiri has made something crystal clear following last year’s mediocre 41-41 regular season that ended with his ninth-seeded team losing to the Chicago Bulls in the play-in tournament.
“There’ll be no selfishness this year,” Ujiri said at Monday’s media day in Toronto before the team flew to training camp in Vancouver.
“We believe that a lot of our players didn’t play the right way last year and we want to see them play the right way. I said that we were selfish, I’m not running away from that. We were selfish and we did not play the right way. So let us see it when we play the right way.”
After seven seasons with the Raps, VanVleet left in July to sign a reported three-year US$130-million free-agent deal with the Houston Rockets. Ujiri addressed speculation about whether the team should have tried to get something for him in return.
“Could we have traded Fred at the trade deadline? I think, if that was a failure, we take responsibility for it,” Ujiri said. “But sometimes it also depends on opportunity and also respect of the player, and we respected Fred. So when Fred decided to go somewhere to better opportunities, I think it was good for him, and maybe it was good for us, too.”
It remains to be seen whether the Raptors have done enough to replace the things VanVleet contributed to the team.
To address the shooting he provided, the Raptors acquired Schroder, Germany’s freshly minted FIBA World Cup most valuable player; they’ll get Otto Porter Jr. back from injury; and they drafted Gradey Dick, whom they felt was one of the best shooters in college basketball. Replacing VanVleet’s leadership may fall to several players. OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes were two who said they intend to help fill that void.
“There’s more opportunities for me to step into that leadership role,” said Barnes, a former NBA rookie of the year who now enters his third NBA season. “I feel like that’s something I’m really trying to step into.”
Barnes may take on more of the ball-handling after VanVleet’s departure, too. In anticipation of having the ball in his hands more this year, Barnes said he focused more on running this summer in different ways – full-court runs, jogging outside or getting in a run while tired after his workouts to practice pushing through late-game fatigue.
Rajakovic said Barnes will be on the ball more, but he won’t be the only one. His system will see players one through four used interchangeably, so multiple players will be able to bring the ball up the floor.
Wearing a full suit at media day, and eager to talk X’s and O’s with media, the Raptors’ Serbian-born head coach said he wants this team to be hard to scout. He stressed the importance of the pass in today’s modern basketball, from Germany and Serbia during this summer’s FIBA World Cup, to the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat in the NBA playoffs.
“The basketball is played less and less giving the ball to one guy and just getting that guy to go to work. It’s more of interchangeable pieces, multiple players contributing. It’s hard to scout opponents when they play that way,” Rajakovic said.
He doesn’t want to see selfish basketball – taking poor shots or over-dribbling the ball.
“I never liked heavy iso-style of basketball; I don’t think it can be winning on the highest level,” he said. “My biggest thing is going to be getting guys to buy in that doing less is actually doing more.”
The Raptors were rumoured to be in trade talks for a superstar this summer. Exactly how close were the Raptors to trading for Damian Lillard, who landed instead with the Milwaukee Bucks?
“Sometimes these things are sensationalized in a way,” Ujiri said. “We’re always going to put ourselves in the right place to have opportunity when these things come along and I think there’s a reason why our name’s always mentioned. … Yes, we are aggressive, we put our best foot forward. It takes two to do a deal. And we believe in our city, we believe in this place.”
Three of the Raptors’ players are set to be free agents at the end of the season: Pascal Siakam, Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. Ujiri said he believes in his players but first wants to see how they play in Rajakovic’s system.
When the three players were asked if they’ve had extension talks with the Raptors, all three gave variations of the same reply: they let their agents have those conversations with the team.
Siakam considers himself adaptable and ready to be part of any system.
“The ball finds the best players all the time,” Siakam said. “The game is just going to go into finding the guys that make a difference. So it doesn’t really matter. I’m a player that adapts to everything and I play the right way.”