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Raptors president Masai Ujiri: ‘We need a culture reset’

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Last year, Raptors president Masai Ujiri oversaw signing coach Dwane Casey to a new three-year contract. Shortly before this year’s playoffs, Masai Ujiri said there was “no question” he’d try to re-sign Kyle Lowry.

But after Toronto got swept by the Cavaliers, ending another underwhelming postseason, Ujiri took a different tone in his postseason press conference.

He never said he’d fire Casey or let Lowry leave in free agency. Still, Ujiri opened the door for plenty of tea-leaf reading.

On Toronto’s direction:

I take responsibility first. I blame myself first. I’ve questioned myself. Should I have made those trades? What should we have done? How could I have done better to put these guys in a better situation?

And then, like I said, it goes down. We’re going to hold everybody accountable, because we need to.

After that performance, we need a culture reset here. Like, we need to figure it out. Yeah, there’s been some success, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to win a championship here. 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 this “super teams” or “super personnel” or whatever.

On losing to the Cavaliers:

The end of the year was disappointing. Let’s call a spade a spade. The end of the year was disappointing for us. That series was disappointing for us. We thought we could do better. I don’t know what it is. We’ve started to study it, and I can’t tell exactly what it is. At a point, we looked wide-eyed. We didn’t make shots, I understand. But I sometimes feel that wasn’t our team that we saw out there, to be honest.

On Casey:

There are things that I questioned. I think our style of play is something that we’re going to really evaluate.

One of the things that I discussed with Coach Casey is how we play. We’ve done it the same time over and over again. Is it going to work the next time? We have to figure that out. The one-on-one basketball we play, we have to question that.

The style of play is something that we need to change. I’ve made it clear, and Coach has acknowledged it, and he’s already thought about it. Just some of the things that we do, it’s not working anymore. I’ve just made it clear that it’s going to be difficult for me to keep changing players, just because of the way the CBA is situated. My short answer to that, honestly, is, yes, there’s commitment, but we are all going to question ourselves. We’re all going to seriously question ourselves now and figure out the best way to do it, because Coach Casey has been a phenomenal part of our success here. In some ways, we owe that to him. But I’ve told him that we all have to be accountable.

On Lowry:

It’s our jobs to try and get Kyle to come back and do it the best way that we possibly can. We want him back. He’s been a huge part of the success here.

You’ve built this thing for a while, and is there another level to it? We have to account for that and be accountable for that. And we have to decide, is this the way we want to go in terms of money spent?

There were mixed signals about Casey’s job security last year before his extension. It doesn’t sound as if he should feel safe now.

Likewise, Lowry probably shouldn’t bank on a full five-year max offer (worth a projected $205 million). Ujiri clearly wants Lowry back, but I’m not sure Ujiri is enthused to pay so much for Lowry from age 31 to 36.With Lowry sounding like he’s dropping hints about leaving, anything less than a full max could push him out the door.

Toronto’s ascent will be stalled until it answers a question: Would an offensive scheme other than Casey’s lead to more playoff success, or are Lowry and DeMar DeRozan ill-suited for postseason basketball? Or both?

There are many sub-questions: Can Casey change his style? Can Lowry and DeRozan change their styles? Who are the alternatives to the coach and players?

Ujiri enters a pivotal offseason, and as he said, there’s still more information to gather. But the early indications are Casey and/or Lowry might not like how it goes.

Jerami Grant: Not leaning toward taking $9,346,153 player option with Nuggets

Nuggets forward Jerami Grant
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The Nuggets have their starting point guard (Jamal Murray), shooting guard (Gary Harris), small forward (Will Barton) and center (Nikola Jokic) locked up a combined 11 more seasons.

The big question comes at power forward.

Paul Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Michael Porter Jr. has shown promise. And Jerami Grant holds a $9,346,153 player option for next season.

Jerami Grant on “Posted Up with Chris Haynes,” via Quenton S. Albertie of Nugg Love:

I’m definitely not leaning towards picking up the player option.

Grant appeared bound for a raise. He’s a good finisher who active seeks opportunities at the basket and has improved his 3-point shooting. His versatile defense is valuable in any system. And he has the track record of hard work that should make teams comfortable investing in the 26-year-old.

But the NBA’s coronavirus-caused revenue decline presents a major variable. We’ll have to see where the salary cap lands. If the wrong teams have space, Grant could be stuck with just the mid-level exception, which – depending on the cap – could be less than $9,346,153.

In any cap environment, Denver has optionality. Millsap is still solid, though at 35, it’s unclear how many more good years he has left. Porter is exciting, though he’s still raw, and health remains a concern. Another impending unrestricted free agent, Mason Plumlee plays in plenty of two-center lineups with Jokic.

The Nuggets – who just traded a first-rounder for him – surely want to keep Grant. But they have other options, which gives them leverage.

Grant’s leverage comes with declining his player option and exploring unrestricted free agency. He’s setting that stage now.

Report: One last push for NBA to return with all 30 teams

Thunder owner Clay Bennett
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The NBA has 30 teams.

Some teams don’t want that forgotten as the league heads toward resuming with just 22 teams.

Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Near the end of the NBA’s Board of Governors call on Friday, Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett delivered an impassioned soliloquy on why the league and owners needed to consider the competitive and financial plights of smaller market teams that could be left out of the season’s summer resumption in Orlando — and the potential symbolic power of all 30 teams gathering there to play as one united association.

As the NBA moves toward a plan of inviting 22 teams re-start a truncated season in late July, sources told ESPN, Bennett spoke of exhausting ways to accommodate non-playoff teams still wanting to play. He wondered: was there a way to safely bring all 30 teams?

The inequities facing smaller markets had to shape the league’s thinking, Bennett suggested. Nine months without games – March to December — could have an impact on developing players, cultivating sponsorships and selling tickets in markets where franchises struggle to gain a hold.

For those teams left out of the playoffs, there has already been dialogue on the possibility of mandatory summer training camps and regional fall leagues of four-to-five teams that could bridge the lengthy gap between seasons, sources told ESPN. Those are ideas many teams consider vital, and there’s an expectation that the NBA will raise possible scenarios such as these with the Players Association, sources said.

The financial elements of the plan are significant for the league too — with the 22-team format worth several hundred million dollars more in revenue than 16-team straight-to-playoffs plan would, sources said.

The irony: Bennett moved the Thunder to small-market Oklahoma City from larger-market Seattle.

Get past that, and he has a point: Ideally, all 30 teams would finish their seasons. That’s how the season was originally designed. It’d be nice if it could be completed that way.

But it’s also important not to become consumed by that goal in the face of other – sometimes competing – concerns.

The more teams playing, the higher the risk of coronavirus spreading. It’s that simple. In the NBA’s setup, maybe there’s negligible safety difference between 16 teams and 22 teams and 30 teams. That’s worth exploring. But increasing the number of teams increases the risk.

Of course, increasing number of teams also increases revenue. Just as 22 teams will draw more money than 16 teams, 30 teams would draw more money than 22 teams (if safe). That can’t be ignored.

It’s not as if this is a huge departure from normal, though. At this point in the season, many teams begin several months without meaningful games. Fix the tanking issue in normal times. Especially now, it seems absurd to recall teams just for games the organization prefers to lose.

This also isn’t simply a market-size issue. The Knicks, Warriors and Bulls are among the teams outside the top 22. Sure, there’s room for consideration for teams that aren’t resuming. But it’s not as if they’re just small-market teams left to wallow.

Plus, an extended period without basketball is an all-too-convenient concern all of a sudden. Where was that rallying cry while owners held lockouts? Owners canceled games to serve their greater objectives then. It’s a reasonable consideration now, too.

Mandatory summer training camps won’t help eliminated teams sell sponsorships and tickets. Those camps might not even have much value in team building. With contracts generally shorter now, so many players are heading into free agency. For impending free agents on finished teams, protecting their health is most important – not practicing with a team they won’t necessarily stay with.

There are no perfect answers here. NBA commissioner Adam Silver must decide on the least-bad option. It’s perfectly fine if that doesn’t include all 30 teams.

How many teams will make 2020 NBA Playoffs?

Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan vs. Kings
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The NBA could resume with 16, 20, 22 or 30 teams. The league is weighing playing more regular-season games, jumping straight to the playoffs, holding a play-in tournament and even drawing for a group stage. The most important thing is finding the proper format for this unprecedented season interrupted by coronavirus.

But that still leaves a question: How will playoff inclusion be determined?

Importantly, that affects which teams participate in the lottery. The whole point is to give every non-playoff team and only non-playoff teams a shot at the top picks in the draft.

A few notable streaks are also on the line:

San Antonio and Sacramento are in that tightly grouped 9th-12th range in the Western Conference (with the Pelicans and Trail Blazers). Phoenix has the league’s 21st-best record.

The postseason could simply include just the normal 16 teams. But the alternative formats open other possibilities.

It appears most likely 22 teams will resume, though it could be 20. Either scenario could include a play-in tournament – with an unspecified number of teams. Maybe four, maybe six, maybe some other number. Though the name – “play-in” – suggests those teams wouldn’t be considered playoff teams unless advancing, that’s not an official designation. The first NCAA Tournament games each year are commonly called play-ins. But teams that lose those games are considered to have made the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has formally called that round “Opening Round,” “First Round” or “First Four.” The NBA could do something similar.

Though momentum has appeared to stall for a group phase, that format posed the most uncertainty about which teams would be deemed in the playoffs. Would all 20 participating teams? Just eight teams would advance to a tournament (the equivalent of the second round of a normal playoffs). Would only those eight be considered playoff teams? Would the league designate the third- and fourth-place finisher in each group as playoff teams after the fact to reach 16 postseason teams? It’d be weird to “make the playoffs” only after getting eliminated.

But the NBA has had plenty of variance on this throughout its history.

We’ve grown accustomed to 16 teams making the playoffs, the system in place since 1984. But in 1984, there were just 23 teams. So, nearly 70% of the league made the playoffs.

The league has since expanded to 30 teams. So, just 53% of teams make the playoffs now.

Only two periods have seen a lower proportion of the league make the playoffs. From 1971-1974, just 47% of teams (8/17) reached the postseason. From 1981-1983, just 52% of teams (12/23) reached the postseason.

It wouldn’t be ahistorical for the NBA to include more than 16 teams in this year’s playoffs.

Here’s a history of the percentage of teams that have made the playoffs each year (blue). The orange lines represent how that would compare to various scenarios this season – 8, 16, 20 and 22 postseason teams:

Obviously, eight playoff teams would be a major outlier. But having 20 or even 22 playoff teams wouldn’t.

Like with many issues right now, the NBA had latitude and must just decide where to draw the line.

NBA coaches’ union: ‘We have the power and platform to affect change, and we will use it’

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Warriors coach Steve Kerr often speak loudly on political issues.

Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests around the country, the entire NBA Coaches Association is speaking out.

NBA Coaches Association:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In describing recent events of “police brutality, racial profiling and the weaponization of racism” as “shameful, inhumane and intolerable,” the National Basketball Coaches Association has established a committee on racial injustice and reform to pursue solutions within NBA cities.

[Hawks coach Lloyd] Pierce played a leadership role in the NBCA’s weekend dialogue and has shown a determination to encourage the entire roster of coaches — not just those traditionally speaking on issues of race and equality — to be part of a movement of voice and action within the profession’s ranks.

Floyd’s death was a tragedy that has shaken the entire country. It has compelled many – including within the NBA – to speak out and act.

It is wonderful that people are standing up to injustice.

Coaches also ought to carefully consider how to use their union as a tool in that fight.

Per the union’s website:

THE NBA COACHES ASSOCIATION WAS ESTABLISHED TO ACHIEVE THE FOLLOWING GOALS:
  • To promote the profession of NBA Basketball Coach
  • To assist in securing for its members maximum salary opportunities, disability and retirement benefits and individual and group marketing opportunities
  • To act as a liaison between the NBA and its body of coaches
  • To organize regular meetings for its members where information and ideas concerning the sport of basketball and coaching may be exchanged
  • To create opportunities for coaches in radio, television, the internet, publishing, and other related activities, and for opportunities in international coaching clinics and international basketball
  • To maintain contact with and support coaches between assignments
  • To take advantage of current technology as it applies to the game of basketball
  • Provide a forum for the betterment of the NBA coaches profession

There might be a narrow way for the union to take action while fitting its mission. But as its letter says, the National Basketball Coaches Association has a “diverse group” of members. The union should be careful not to collect dues from members to spend outside its purview.

NBA coaches are people, not just coaches. I applaud each of them who choose to speak out. They do have the platform and power to affect change.

I hope they find the right way to do that.