Ujiri On An Unacceptable Finish And Planning Next Steps

Holly MacKenzie - Raptors.com

Masai Ujiri didn’t expect to be speaking about his team’s season so soon. Meeting with the media two days after the Washington Wizards completed a four-game sweep, snuffing out Toronto’s hopes of reaching the second round, Ujiri expressed his disappointment. 

“It’s not acceptable,” he said. “For the way we ended our season, I think we owe our organization a little bit better, we owe our fans a little bit better. I think we’ll be better.

 We feel we’re in a good place as an organization, but the ending for us, playing Washington and getting swept by Washington, I think it was tough for us,” he continued. “It’s something that we’re going to take serious because we want to be competitive, we want to be competitive in this league and we want to win. We have to learn how to win.”

Good Base, But Post-All Star Questions

Ujiri opted not to commit to Raptors head coach Dwane Casey on Tuesday, saying instead that the front office would meet with the coaching staff in the days and weeks to come before arriving at a decision with respect to Casey’s future. Stressing a commitment to evaluating each of their pieces this summer, the front office wants to look at what happened post All-Star break.

“Our struggles was not only in the playoffs,” he said. “I think right after All-Star [break] we started [to struggle], and maybe there’s a little bit of that, a lot of it that was on me. Maybe I didn’t get a pulse on our team. Those are all the things that I think we’re going to evaluate and then move on from there. 

“There’s a lot of good things,” Ujiri continued. “We broke the winning record this year, we won our division the last couple of years. Coach Casey has created or helped create a good culture here and we had the Sixth Man of the Year [in Lou Williams], we had a couple All-Stars, so there’s a lot of good. The base is very good for us and he’s a big part of our base.”

Despite the abrupt postseason exit, Ujiri said he felt 100 percent comfortable with his decision to stand pat during the trade deadline. Sticking with this group has allowed the front office the opportunity to learn who the players on the roster are, for better or worse. 

One of the biggest question marks is the style of play this team will use next year. Flipping from a top-10 defensive team to a high-scoring team that relied on its offence as the defence floundered (all the way to 23rd in the league according to NBA.com), wasn’t something Casey was comfortable with. Ujiri pointed to the stylistic change as a necessity due to injury.

“I don't think it was mostly on coach Casey, but mostly, maybe on injuries which happens to every team,” Ujiri said. “It’s kind of not an excuse, but he was forced to play a certain way because it was the way we were going to be able to score to survive DeMar [DeRozan’s] injury or to survive when Kyle [Lowry] was out. Now we have to go back to the drawing board and decide, now that we can maybe bring in a couple players, maybe figure out a couple things with our players, how we want to play.”

Individually, Lowry’s decline in the second half of the season is something that will be looked at closely. Earning a starting spot in the All-Star game because of his stellar start, Lowry was a much different player after the break and had a nightmare series against the Wizards. Ujiri said the organization is even more confident of the point guard today than when inking him to a four-year deal over last summer’s offseason because they know who he is. Their challenge is to figure out how to put him in the right situation to succeed.

“I think when DeMar got hurt, Kyle used so much energy in carrying this team in those three months, you almost, you run out of gas,” Ujiri said. “We tried to give him some rest. Unfortunately, he came back and he had the back issues then he tried to come back and maybe there was not enough time in the playoffs, but we obviously saw it.

 “Kyle is determined,” he continued. “He’s determined to get back to where he was. It was a big effect on our team because we all know this guy is the engine of our team. It’s one of the things we’re going to study and figure out where Kyle slowed down a little bit.”

Ujiri shrugged off questions about whether Lowry’s style of play was sustainable for a full season, saying he had done it the year before. He also brushed off talk of a strong 2013-2014 campaign being a result of a contract year for him, calling that “BS” and said that Lowry cannot play differently.

“You can’t control how a player like that plays,” Ujiri said. “Because that’s what makes him good. That’s what makes him an All-Star. I have no doubt in my mind, 100 percent, he’s going to come back to being Kyle Lowry. [He] is a competitor. That’s the honest truth. Kyle wants to win.”

NBA D-League Entry On Horizon

As much as the sweep stung, it provided an honest look at how the team is currently constructed. From defensive woes to the lack of veteran leadership, Toronto's deficiencies were highlighted for all to see. Sometimes you have to lose in order to learn how to win. 

“There’s no doomsday here,” Ujiri said. “This is not as dramatic as we are making it. It’s just that, we want to win here, we want to keep building. The process is, you sometimes get kicked in the face, and we got kicked in the face. Now we have to go back to the drawing board and see some of the things that we didn’t do so well.”

Looking toward the summer ahead, Ujri is excited about adding pieces to the core. He revealed that the MLSE Board of Directors has approved the purchase of an NBA Developmental League team which will help young players like Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira develop and said that Caboclo started the season at 207 pounds and is now up to 221 pounds.

Although the team got off to its best start in franchise history, the start was misleading. In addition to providing a false sense of confidence in a new-found offensive identity, it made it easy to forget that this was the first year this group had expectations beyond just making it to the playoffs. Casey had spoken about being a work in progress from training camp onward. Heading into the offseason, Ujiri is preaching the same. Putting together a winning team takes time.

“It’s how you build,” Ujiri said. “We’ve had to be patient with a couple expiring contracts that we had to wait on now we’re excited about the young players we have. We’re excited about some of the good contracts we have. Excited about a couple of the All-Star players that we have and the flexibility. Not just this year, next year [too]. The roster spots, the development of our young players, I think that’s the good thing for us. We have that to look forward to.”

There will be clarity in the days and weeks to come as meetings and conversations have taken place and decisions are carefully made. 

“It takes awhile,” Ujiri said. “You guys know me. There's no knee-jerk reaction here. we're going to be patient. I think that's going to be our nature of building here.”