SPORTS

Addition of Ujiri as president, GM most significant Raptors off-season move

10/28/2013 11:06 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
TORONTO - Masai Ujiri addressed a group of Toronto Raptors fans recently, but it wasn't the message so much as the messenger that has injected some hope into a floundering franchise this season.

The hiring of Ujiri as president and general manager was by far the most significant off-season move the Raptors made.

Ujiri talked to fans that night about implementing a hard-nosed culture in Toronto, saying "We have to make this place a living hell for guys to come play here.

"When you come here on Sunday at 1 o'clock, guess what, you're getting your ass kicked," Ujiri said in his recent rousing speech to season-ticket holders. "When you come to play here on a Friday night, guess what, you're getting your ass kicked."

It was nothing Raptors fans hadn't heard before, but a different voice was a welcome change after what had become more of the same in seven years with Bryan Colangelo at the helm.

The Raptors finished 34-48 last season, missing the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.

And one of Tim Leiweke's first jobs after he was hired as the CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., was to demote Colangelo and hire Ujiri to replace him.

Ujiri, last season's NBA executive of the year with the Denver Nuggets, then jettisoned Andrea Bargnani — Colangelo's much-maligned No. 1 draft pick and a lightning rod for a team mired in mediocrity — in an off-season trade.

The Raptors raise the curtain on the regular-season Wednesday when they host the Boston Celtics at the Air Canada Centre, and hope to get off to a better start than the 4-19 beginning to last season that buried the team in a hole too deep to completely dig out of.

Ujiri, a native of Nigeria, said the season won't solely be judged on wins and losses.

"It's how much we grow, how much chemistry we have, it's all about our players and what they do on this basketball court," Ujiri said. "We talk to our players about responsibility, about accountability, about playing hard, about growth, about working really hard, about playing for your teammate and for each other, and growing together."

While the front office staff looks nothing like last season's, the lineup on the floor has more stability than it's had in a long time. The starting five — projected to be Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas — is the same that finished the season .500 after Gay was acquired in a mid-season trade with Memphis.

Bargnani and point guard Jose Calderon, sent to Detroit in the Gay deal, are gone from last season's opening-day roster.

Significant new faces are hard-hitting forward Tyler Hansbrough, veteran sharp-shooter Steve Novak, and point guard D.J. Augustin.

Here are five Raptors storylines to watch this season:

Dwane Casey — Casey survived the off-season staff overhaul, but has just a season left on his contract. Ujiri has been vocal in his support of the coach, saying "People say 'Hey coach Casey is here on a one-year deal. But we're here to grow, and we're here to grow with coach Casey." Casey, however, can't afford a similar start to last season's woeful 4-19 beginning.

Rudy Gay — The Raptors finished 17-16 after the deal that brought Gay to Toronto, but there were concerns about his questionable shot selection. The athletic swingman had laser eye surgery in the off-season to improve his vision, but whether or not it will improve his shooting ability remains to be seen. Plus, with his hefty contract — he has two years and US$37 million remaining — it will be interesting to see if he's still a Raptor at the end of the season.

Jonas Valanciunas — The 21-year-old Lithuanian was knocked about by the league's best centres in his inauspicious start to his NBA career. "Jonas took his whuppin' last year early," Casey said. "(Opponents) saw something good to eat with a rookie at centre." But his continuous improvement made him one of the few positive storylines last season. Valanciunas, who earned MVP honours in the summer league, shoulders heavy expectations for his sophomore season.

Point guard — The Raptors have had the luxury of interchangeable starting point guards, but last season's deal that sent Jose Calderon to Detroit put an end to that. Lowry has vowed to have a better season than last year's disappointing campaign, and came into camp significantly leaner. Still, with Augustin, who is coming off a career-worst season, and newcomer Dwight Buycks still an unproven commodity in the NBA, the Raptors could be one Lowry injury away from trouble.

Tanking — Canadian Andrew Wiggins is being touted as the No. 1 NBA draft pick this season, and potentially the best player to come into the league since LeBron James. There have been suggestions the Raptors should position themselves to potentially get Wiggins in the draft. But both Casey and Ujiri have scoffed at that notion, saying you can't teach a team to win by purposefully losing.

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