TORONTO (AP) — Masai Ujiri believes his Toronto Raptors are building toward something big.
They’re just not all the way there yet.
The 2019 NBA champions haven't been past the second round of the playoffs since beating the Golden State Warriors for their first title.
Nevertheless, their team president is preaching patience with his young squad, choosing consistency and continuity over sweeping change. The Raptors have 14 returning players this season, more than any other team in the league.
“We won a championship and now we’ve kind of stepped back, got hit and fell down a little bit,” Ujiri said. “We’re starting to come up again and we want to go all the way again, right back to where we were.
“Are we good enough to win a championship? I don’t know that we’re there yet. Are we good enough to grow and make a jump? I think so.”
Raptors forward Pascal Siakam was the league’s most improved player the year Toronto won the title. Last year he returned from offseason shoulder surgery to average 22.8 points and a career-best 8.5 rebounds.
An All-NBA player twice in the past three years, Siakam has set lofty personal goals for the coming season.
“I just feel like it’s time to take another step,” Siakam said. “I’ve been All-NBA, I’ve been an All-Star. I want to be a top-five player in the league, I want to be one of the best.”
With reigning Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes starting alongside him, plus veterans such as point guard Fred VanVleet and defensive specialist O.G. Anunoby, Siakam said he feels good about the direction the Raptors are headed.
“I think we have all the pieces,” he said. “We have a bright future as a team.”
One of coach Nick Nurse’s goals this season will be to ease the burden on his starting five. Both VanVleet and Siakam averaged 37.9 minutes per game last season, causing VanVleet to wear down by the time the playoffs arrived.
“He has played great and we needed him out there,” Nurse said. “We’ve got more depth. I think we learned in the playoffs we can move pieces a lot better and do some things.”
RUNNING WITH RICO
A new addition to Nurse’s staff is Rico Hines, a former Sacramento assistant who is well-known for his offseason scrimmages in Los Angeles. Toronto’s new player development coach, Hines also has a longstanding relationship with Siakam, working with him since 2016.
“He’s as good as there is in the business of player development,“ Nurse said. “That’s a big statement. Guys trust him.”
While preseason performances aren’t always reliable indicators, Toronto struggled from 3-point range in its four exhibition games, shooting a combined 33 for 135 (24%). The Raptors made 12 3-pointers in their preseason opener against Utah, but just 14 total in back-to-back losses at Houston and home to Chicago.
Barnes is one of several Toronto players working to overcome an injury as the Oct. 19 season opener against Cleveland draws near. A sore ankle kept Barnes off the court for three weeks ahead of training camp, and Nurse said his second-year star is “playing a little bit of catch-up here.”
Besides Barnes, other banged-up Raptors include newcomer Otto Porter Jr. (left hamstring), forward Chris Boucher (left hamstring) and guard Malachi Flynn (broken left cheekbone).
START OF SOMETHING BIG
Rookie center Christian Koloko is Toronto’s tallest player at 7-foot-1, giving the team a rim protector it didn’t have last season, when no Raptors player was bigger than 6-9. Koloko, 22, had four blocks in an Oct. 7 loss at Houston, and has six in four preseason games. Like Siakam, Koloko is from Douala, Cameroon. He’s one of three African-born players on Toronto’s roster – forward Precious Achiuwa is from Nigeria.