Masai Ujiri doesn’t mince words when it comes to the high expectations he places on the Toronto Raptors. The president and vice-chairman often talks about how he wants the Raptors to have sustained success—how they are “thinking about the long game here” and how “the goal is to win the championship at the end.”
At Ujiri’s season-ending press conference on Tuesday, he stressed the need to continue focusing on player development after almost everyone on the roster improved this season, saying that the key to long-term success is to continuing to develop internally, going so far as to say “the core is the core” and that “we’re trying to build from within.”
After all, Toronto has never been a free agency destination for NBA players, with the Raptors’ most successful signing (aside from the undrafted Fred VanVleet) being either Bismack Biyombo or Cory Joseph. So it only makes sense that the Raptors are focused on acquiring young talent and helping them improve through their 12-month development program.
But just because Toronto has never been a sexy destination for NBA players doesn’t mean it never will be. Admittedly, it’s difficult to envision something like a marquee free agent signing with the Raptors when it has never been done, especially when you have gotten your hopes up in the past only to be let down time and again. But the landscape of the modern NBA marketplace is changing, and Toronto is becoming an increasingly enviable franchise to play for and city to live in for the next generation of NBA player. It’s only a matter of time before that becomes a competitive advantage for the Raptors.
“I see this place as an incredible platform,” Ujiri said about Toronto this preseason. He notably called it a “sleeping giant” when he originally arrived in 2013. “I don’t think players have even scratched the surface of what they can do here. Toronto sits on a place where you can really, really attack the world from here.”
From a competitive standpoint, the Raptors have won 449 games over the last nine years during Ujiri’s tenure, the second-most wins in the NBA behind only the historically good Golden State Warriors. They have been to two conference finals and won an NBA championship in 2019 with the same head coach and several of the same core players that they have today.
In 2021-22, the Raptors surpassed everyone’s expectations by winning 48 games and clinching the fifth seed in the East, in large part due to their player development. They have one of the NBA’s best leaders in Fred VanVleet and a roster made up of high-character individuals who are resilient, often being overlooked throughout their careers and taking untraditional paths to the NBA. The Raptors showcase that resiliency on the floor nightly, scrapping their way back into games and series, becoming only the 14th team in NBA history to force a Game 6 after going down 3-0 during their recent series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
“We got a winning team, a first-class organization, amazing fans, an unbelievable city. I’d want to play here if I was a free agent.” – Nick Nurse
“My message was that as a whole, I thought we went through a tremendous amount this year with a number of things and we just kept fighting and kept playing and kept getting better and kept figuring things out,” Nick Nurse said of his message to the players when they were eliminated from the playoffs. “It was continually picking ourselves back up all year long. And I give ‘em a lot of credit for that. For hanging in there.”
Plus, the Raptors play with a certain level of selflessness that isn’t all that common across the NBA, especially because it’s driven by 20-year-old rookie Scottie Barnes, who is himself a draw to play with. They move the ball well and play with a democratic style of offence, where any player could lead the team in scoring on any given night. In fact, they are the only team to have five different players average at least 15 points for each of the last three seasons.
“I think the [unique] piece that we have is just the togetherness. Like we all understand what we have to do, we understand the job, we understand the task at hand. And that togetherness is what brings us into the building each and every day. And it brings us and makes us work. It gets us the wins that we need. And it puts us in the mode of knowing that we can trust each other,” 14-year NBA veteran Thad Young said about the Raptors after joining the team at the trade deadline. “Everybody listens to each other. No one man is bigger than the team and that’s why we’re able to go out there and win basketball games.”
And lastly, the Raptors have Toronto, Canada, one of the biggest, most global cities in the world and a fanbase that spans an entire country.
“It’s a great city, it’s a great organization, it’s a great place to play, and our groups have been able to retain a lot of players over the years due to the fact they love playing here,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said about returning to Toronto this season after COVID displaced them for two years. “So if you’re a few of the players who actually haven’t been here, I think that’s actually really important to them [to experience it].”
“I like that it’s very diverse, it’s a multicultural city, and that the fans are amazing,” Young said. “And then the fact that there’s always something to do. This is a great city. Toronto is amazing, the fans are amazing, like I said, this organization is amazing. Everything is just elite about this experience and it was a great experience for me.”
And here’s Gary Trent Jr. on his first season in Toronto: “It’s a fun city, it’s a great city. There’s a lot going on, they love their sports teams. Nothing but love everywhere you go around the city. The best place I played so far, fan-wise, organization-wise. I really enjoy myself here.”
And Precious Achiuwa: “I love the city of Toronto. It’s very diverse. You meet people from all over the place. I love that, I like to meet people, I like different cultures. I’m very cultural myself so I like to learn about peoples’ cultures. And the fans are crazy but I love them.”
And finally Barnes: “I feel like for me they took me in, they’ve been supportive throughout the whole season. It’s a beautiful city, nice. People are just so friendly, so welcoming. It’s amazing. It’s an amazing city to be in.”
Since Ujiri took over in 2013, the Raptors have been trying to find ways to take advantage of the increasingly big and attractive market that they exist in, building a team that is competitive and respected across the league. They have also gotten ownership to show a willingness to spend deep into the luxury tax when the team is competitive, which it should be as soon as next season. And they have kept their books relatively clean in order to be as flexible as possible so that when the moment arises that a marquee free agent becomes available, they can pounce.
“You can’t project the kinds of players that are going to come out of this country just from our championship year alone… It’s coming. I hope you guys keep me here for when it’s really ripe because even the Canadians in the league, everywhere—this game is going global. – Masai Ujiri
That they haven’t had any luck in that regard only tells part of the story, because the landscape of the league is changing and teams no longer need a max cap slot and an unrestricted free agent to be available to take advantage of players wanting to join your franchise. In the modern NBA, star players can force their way to teams even when they have multiple years remaining on their contracts, such as James Harden or Chris Paul. And who you recruit to fill out the back-end of your rotation with limited cap space (mid-level exception or minimum salaries) matters more than it ever did due to the increase of injuries and newfound importance on depth.
Once a laughing stock of the league, the Raptors have completely turned around their reputation and become at the very least an enviable market to the new era of NBA players. Under Ujiri, they have consistently re-signed their best players (with the exception of Kawhi Leonard) multiple times to keep them in Toronto. When it comes to long-term success, retaining talent is crucial, and the Raptors are confident that they will be able to bridge the age gap between their best players with their young talent by keeping them together through multiple contracts.
“Sometimes we’ll say, ‘How does it fit into the timelines of Pascal or Fred or OG and these guys?’ Those guys are young, too. I look at these guys, people have been playing in the NBA 13, 15, how many years?” Ujiri said about the 27-year-olds VanVleet and Siakam having many years to give. “We have to build, we have to grow.”
But again, the Raptors are eventually going to need some help from the outside, too. As much success as they have had in the draft and through player development, in order to take the next step and/or to sustain longterm success, they will need to attract talent to Toronto, ideally in the form of a superstar player but also in the form of a player to fit into their mid-level exception as soon as this offseason, when they can go after a player like Gary Harris, Delon Wright, Joe Ingles, or Jusuf Nurkic to improve their depth.
But I would urge Raptors fans to think even bigger. While the Raptors don’t project to have a max cap slot anytime soon with the players already on their books, they can always look to trade for a disgruntled star, especially if that star wants to come to Toronto or asks for a trade there. Plus, the NBA is negotiating a brand new TV deal to kick in in 2025—when Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray are set to be free agents—which could mean a cap spike similar to the one we saw in 2016, when Kevin Durant had his pick of the litter because it opened up a max slot for almost every team.
“I think we got a lot to offer here, right? We got a winning team, a first-class organization, amazing fans, an unbelievable city. I’d want to play here if I was a free agent,” Nurse said about Toronto.
And the real competitive advantage that the Raptors should have when it comes to attracting talent in the near future has to do with the rising crop of Canadian players taking over the NBA. Whether it’s a player who is currently in the league who might grow frustrated with their situation like Shai Gilgious-Alexander in Oklahoma City, or one of the three potential Canadian lottery picks in the upcoming 2022 draft or beyond, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before a Canadian wants to make history and play for their hometown team.
In fact, the Canadians in the league already talk about Toronto as if it is a utopia. And there is only going to be more and more high-end Canadian talent in the league going forward, with the Raptors scouting that talent early and having a foot up on the rest of the league when it comes to developing relationships with up-and-coming Canadian players.
“Oh, we are looking. It’s coming. It’s coming,” Ujiri said about the rise of Canadian talent and the potential for the Raptors to recruit them. “I tell you what: nobody knows and you can’t project the kinds of players that are going to come out of this country just from our championship year alone… It’s coming. I hope you guys keep me here for when it’s really ripe because even the Canadians in the league, everywhere—this game is going global. I’m telling you. It’s going global. It’s big.”
Ujiri has always preferred to speak in vague terms when it comes to his grand plans—to let the actions do the talking rather than the words. But behind the scenes, as the Raptors build for sustainable success, Ujiri is working on taking advantage of all that Toronto has to offer, making it a more attractive free agency destination along the way, especially for Canadians.
The results haven’t been there yet. But between the Raptors core group developing internally and proving that they can compete, Toronto growing into an internationally esteemed city, the changing landscape of the NBA marketplace, and the rise of Canadian talent, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before the Raptors become a free agency destination for the next generation of NBA star.
After all, there aren’t many teams better positioned for future success than the Toronto Raptors.