Media day is usually a time for reflection, not deflection, but Masai Ujiri opted more than once for the latter to kick off the Raptors season.
At an annual junction that nearly always revolves around positivity — nobody’s lost a game yet and every player says he’s improved in the summer — it’s rare for vibes to be off, yet even though Toronto brass had previously and continued to vow that last year’s chemistry issues were history, the spectre of a foul odour wafting back into the locker room was impossible to ignore on Day 1 this week.
Ujiri, the team’s president and vice governor again repeatedly referenced the “selfishness” that plagued last year’s disappointing .500 team, a squad he’d also described as one he “did not enjoy watching” play.
Oddly, it felt like Ujiri was implying Fred VanVleet, the point guard who opted to sign for big money with Houston, and franchise forward Pascal Siakam had a lot to answer for where 2022-23 was concerned. While it’s fine to think that both VanVleet and Siakam forced the issue a bit last year, it’s not like they had much choice. Nearly every teammate they shared the court with shot the ball at a below league average rate from outside, so it’s natural that the club’s single game scoring leader, VanVleet, and the two-time All-NBAer Siakam, who averaged nearly 25 points a game, would determine that they were better options than most of the others. They still averaged a lot of assists, and were willing passers. And the front office didn’t give VanVleet an effective pick-and-roll partner until acquiring Jakob Poeltl at the trade deadline, finally ending the 2.5 season drought between employing a viable NBA starting centre.
Yet, Ujiri matter of factly said that he wants to see how Siakam adapts to new head coach Darko Rajakovic’s system of offensive meritocracy before determine if Siakam, a free agent come next summer, should be signed to a long-term extension.
“We do believe in Pascal. 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,” Ujiri said about why a deal has yet to be offered.
“I said that we were selfish, I’m not running away from that. We were selfish and we did not play the right way,” Ujiri said.
“So, let us see it when we play the right way.”
Rajakovic, in his first year at the helm of an NBA squad, talked of an expected adjustment curve for Siakam, one of the league’s premier talents, to the way he wants the offence to run.
If all of that, particularly Ujiri’s offerings, sounds like unnecessarily tough love for a player who is the greatest developmental story and draft pick in franchise history and who was the No. 2 scorer on an NBA title winner, well, who are we to argue? If sour vibes held your team back, it stands to reason being so direct, even if that’s how you feel, is a bold approach with little upside. In a league that revolves around All-NBA players it’s hard to see the why of Ujiri’s stance.
It also contrasted with his assertion — while taking the blame if it needed to be meted out, for VanVleet not being moved before leaving for the Rockets— “Could we have traded Fred at the deadline? If that was a failure, we’ll take full responsibility for it” — that they were doing right by VanVleet by hanging on to him, giving him a chance to either return to a franchise that has always “done right by its players” or deciding to leave.
All in all, media day was easily the most defensive Ujiri has been since some wrongly grilled him for his masterful trade of fan favourite DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. Emotions got the better of critics at the time and maybe emotions stirred up Ujiri on Monday more than we’re used to. It’s understandable that the Raptors don’t know if Siakam fits the long-term plan, given his age, compared to that of Scottie Barnes, Gradey Dick and any other young player on the way.
But the hardest thing to do in the NBA is acquire players as good as Siakam. Yet, it felt Monday like a door was being opened for Siakam to be pushed out of in due time. Even after the Raptors held onto Kyle Lowry ahead of his free agency and then VanVleet. Now it’s Siakam, OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. all heading into contract years. Ujiri admitted having that many key players in a potential walk year is “difficult to navigate.” At least Siakam didn’t outwardly seem too bothered by it all. “I’m focused on the present and that’s all I can really care about right now,” Siakam said, after insisting he was a team player who has “never been a selfish player in my life.”
The present says Toronto is 0-0. Maybe it only feels like the trouble has already started.