Free from distractions, Raptors will go as far as the young core will take them

Teams across the NBA gathered to reflect on the past summer and the season ahead.

It was media day on Monday, the annual rite of players talking about the big step they hope, coaches how happy they are with the squad and executives how happy they are with the coaches.

In most places, the feelings don’t last long. The blistering pace of the NBA is picking up and keeping things together is becoming a challenge many teams and organizations are unable to live up to.

Of course, many of them start out in deficit as they come into the season trying to fix things, explain things, or desperately hold things together.

In just the past few weeks, Eastern Conference champions Boston Celtics have had to suspend their highly respected head coach Ime Udoka for having a sexual relationship with a staff member; Western Conference contenders Phoenix Suns are being sold because owner Robert Sarver had a long history as an abusive boss, and the superstar-laden Brooklyn Nets are trying to focus on basketball after one star — Kevin Durant — demanded the trade and his coach and general manager were fired and another – Kyrie Irving doubled down on his anti-vaccination stance that sewed up their season a year ago. Their other star, Ben Simmons, hasn’t played basketball in 18 months.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks have stars recovering from injuries and in Miami the team president accused his starting point guard – former raptor Kyle Lowry – of being out of shape

At least the Toronto Raptors were able to meet the media at Hotel X in downtown Toronto en route to the opening of their training camp in Victoria and convincingly put up a united, reassuring front.

The Masai Ujiri/Bobby Webster front office tandem is back for its ninth season; Head coach Nick Nurse and his developing staff are in their fifth year and the core of the squad is back, albeit with some new bits to bolster them on the fringes.

Nobody comes from the operation. No one is dealing with an off-season scandal and there are no new faces to disrupt the established order.

The Raptors are bringing back 13 players who used up 96 percent of the available minutes from a surprisingly good 48-win team a year ago, giving them the highest level of continuity in the league.

For the most part, this is all intentional.

“I think we’re committed to growing,” Masai Ujiri, president and vice chairman of the Raptors, said Monday. “We are a young team, a young growing team. That’s all we talked about last year, lots of players who can jump. Our veterans are also young veterans in the league with Freddy [VanVleet]Pascal [Siakam]upstairs [Anunoby] I think in this organization we’ve always wanted to preach patience. We want to win. We expect to win [but] Honestly, we can’t react to what’s going on in the league. Yes, we see other teams. We study all of that. But in terms of our plan, it’s to see our young players grow and develop further [where] that takes us.”

The hope—obviously—is that the goal ends up being a step or two further than last season, when their regular season was 48 wins and fifth-place finish in a good-but-not-good-enough first-round playoff loss ended against the Philadelphia 76ers.

No, the Raptors didn’t “get their ass kicked,” as VanVleet put it, in the six-game streak, but it’s not immediately clear how they closed the gap with the top few teams in an Eastern Conference , which is packed with high-level teams with big plans.

The addition of Otto Porter and Juancho Hernangomez to free agency, along with a full season from Thaddeus Young, should help improve both the team’s perimeter shooting and depth — areas that needed strengthening as the Raptors lost their minutes more than any other team at the top of their rotation, the NBA last year finished 26th in terms of effective field goal percentage.

But Toronto will go as far as their young core — a group that now includes sophomore Scottie Barnes, who can do anything — will take them.

how far is this We will see. The Raptors themselves had questions. The Raptors were deep in talks about acquiring Durant after the Nets superstar called for a trade, and were at least willing to listen when opportunities arose around the likes of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, though they were never too close to each other into a trap full of trade talks for the two Western Conference all-starts that were jettisoned by Utah.

With no outside forces to deflect the inevitable wave of pre-season hype and enthusiasm, internal expectations are high.

“We always look at these things. I think working with Bobby and Nick you have to open yourself up to different things,” Ujiri said of the off-season player market. “But we also have a plan with this team. We are focused on that and growing this team.

“I think any team can make the playoffs in the NBA, have a good year and make a leap. We have to take a leap as a team now and to see how all these pieces fit together is a good challenge for the future, for the season,” said Ujiri. “We’re always looking at things… and trying to be as active as possible. We also focus on who we are as a team and where we want to go as a basketball team. Sport is about winning. We want to win here. Sometimes it is also good to be patient and wait for the right moment.”

It is hoped that continuity will lead to chemistry.

“I think sitting up here a year ago today we had no idea who we were, in terms of our identity and how things were going to play out,” Nurse said. “And that’s how it went for the first four to six weeks [the Raptors started 14-17] …so this year we know a little bit more who we are… I feel confident that I know who we are now, a little bit more than I did a year ago.”

For a man, the Raptors are optimistic they’ve made progress while mostly staying still. Pascal Siakam feels he unlocked something in his game as he rose to All-NBA honors in the second half of last year and will have a full and healthy offseason to improve it. The 28-year-old feels he’s still scratching the surface.

“I was All-NBA, I was an All-Star,” Siakam said. “I want to be a top 5 player in the league. I want to be one of the best and I will do everything to achieve that.”

The mood was contagious.

Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes spoke of making All-Defense teams and earning All-Star status; Fred VanVleet spoke of using the long off-season to step up his training and preparation so he can maintain the blistering pace he’s played for the first two-thirds of the season before slacking off with injuries, while Anunoby all agree is ready for a big leap.

In a way, it’s the best time of the year. Everything is possible and nothing can be excluded. Healthy, deeper, and knowing exactly who they are and what they’re doing, the Raptors don’t have to navigate an off-season full of distractions on their first day on the job.

But the job remains the same. “Winning is why we play and we want to win here in the NBA,” Ujiri said. “We always want to win and we will win again.”

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