Everything is different the morning after the loss that ends the season. The sun might be shining, signalling a summer that’s creeper closer by the day, but everything about the daily schedule that has been adhered to since September has changed. There is no practice to attend to. No morning shootaround or game-day nap. Instead, there’s the final day of media obligations waiting to be fulfilled. A room of reporters and cameras waiting to ask about shortcomings of the season as well as what’s next.
For the Toronto Raptors, the 2016-17 season was the second consecutive 50-win season. While last year’s squad made the first Eastern Conference Finals appearance in franchise history, losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games, this year’s team met the Cavaliers in the Semifinals, losing in a sweep. It was not the result that had been hoped for, nor did it unfold in a way that felt satisfactory. On Monday and Tuesday morning, Masai Ujiri, Dwane Casey and Raptors players spoke with the media about the upcoming offseason and how to get better.
“Going back to that locker room [after Game 4] just put everything into perspective,” DeMar DeRozan said. “Of being together since September, you know, working every single day. Being with one another every single day, more than our own families. Last night, after a game like that, everything just gets put in perspective of now you’ve got to be away from these guys, or, you just look at it from a different light and you find more of an appreciation for them.”
Part of what makes the final game in a season so bittersweet is that it’s almost guaranteed that all 15 players on the roster won’t be the same next season. There’s almost always changes in the offseason, be it tiny tweaks or larger moves. After a season where Ujiri and the rest of the front office are evaluating everything, it’s not known yet whether this year’s offseason will bring tiny changes or larger ones. One of the biggest puzzle pieces is the free agency of Kyle Lowry. When Ujiri spoke on Tuesday, he was quick to say it’s much too soon following the finish of the season for any decisions to have been made with respect to the direction the team will be going on. Ujiri was also direct when discussing the series against the Cavaliers.
“Let’s call a spade a spade,” Ujiri said. “The end of the year was disappointing for us. That series was disappointing for us. We thought we could do better.”
For DeRozan, this offseason is like every one before it: a time to keep working and return to training camp better. DeRozan was asked about the summer ahead, and whether he ever gives his input to the front office.
“I never step in that lane because, it’s understood,” he said. “When the organization understands winning and wants to win, you don’t have to worry about that. I just try to worry about myself and understanding I need to be better for whatever the next season brings. But I understand it’s going to be a team that’s going to try and compete to try and win, not to just figure it out or wait until next year. We showed it this year, winning 50+ again, and always being counted out. So it’s just a challenge for me, whatever other 14 guys out there will be.”
Lowry spoke on Monday after locker room clean out, saying he hadn’t yet thought about the decision awaiting him this summer, choosing to focus solely on the season at hand during the actual season. One thing he did know, though, was that what is important to him is winning. He wants to win and is confident he can help his team do that.
When Lowry was asked how he’s grown over his five seasons in Toronto, he spoke first about himself, and then about how the city has supported him.
“Just growing up, man,” Lowry said. “Pushing to be a better man. Growing, seeing things differently, looking at the perspectives of others. Everything I do is criticized, scrutinized, sometimes praised. Everything is always looked at like hey what’s next. It’s made me grow a much thicker skin. I understand that every day I have to be a leader on and off the court. I feel I’ve grown a lot here. The city has been amazing to me, supported everything I’ve done and always had my back. When I give back to the community I don’t do it for anything except because I want to give back to the community. I want to support the communities that support me.”
Ujiri was extremely open and candid on Tuesday. He talked about Lowry’s free agency and how the team will be affected by however that unfolds.
“When Kyle was out we tried to do the best we could and guys stepped in,” Ujiri said. “But Kyle is an All-Star, a phenomenal All-Star, and it’s going to have an affect on our team either way. But we feel, first of all, it’s his decision, too. Kyle has to sign here. We can’t say that we will make the best decision because maybe he decides something else. I feel strongly about our program, whatever happens we are going to try our best to be the best in the NBA. Whatever happens in this league, you can’t run and hide under the table. We know what we are with him at his best. The last couple of months we saw that without him, we couldn’t gel, we didn’t have the time to, and maybe there’s something to giving that a chance.”
Though there are many decisions to make, one thing Ujiri made clear was that the style of play will change for the team next season. He also spoke highly of the job the coaching staff — both in Toronto and in Mississauga with Raptors 905 — has done developing younger players on the roster.
“I had a good meeting with Dwane this morning, and the style of play is something that we need to change, and I’ve made it clear,” Ujiri said. “And Coach has acknowledged it and he’s already thought about it.”
After trading for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline, Toronto’s roster appeared to be deeper than ever before to contend with the Cavaliers. Thanks to an ankle sprain sustained in Game 2, Lowry was sidelined for the final two games of the series, after missing 21 games following the All-Star break because of wrist surgery. While his presence — both during the regular season and postseason — surely would have helped the Raptors, Ujiri wasn’t using Tuesday’s availability session to make excuses for the team’s postseason performance. Despite back-to-back 50-win seasons, the front office in Toronto wants to aim higher.
“Yes, there’s been some success, but at the end of the day we are trying to win a championship here,” Ujiri said. “To me making the playoffs is nothing. That was back in the day. Now we have to figure out how we can win in the playoffs. That’s the goal. I’m not trying to hear all of this super teams or super person or whatever. Yeah they’re great, but if I were that it would be a league of two teams or something. We need figure out how to beat these guys. That’s our job. And that’s our job. That’s what we are going to try and figure out. Whether it’s now or in the future, I have to figure that out.”