Raptors president Masai Ujiri took time out of his year-end press conference on Tuesday to thank former players DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and coach Dwane Casey, who he says helped to build the foundation of the Championship team.
Speaking to reporters at the OVO Athletic Centre, Ujiri kicked off the event by talking about how this year’s media availability was different from last year’s, when the team was coming off being swept out of the playoffs by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In the weeks after that sweep, Ujiri shocked fans by firing Casey, a day after he was named Coach of the Year, and trading fan-favourite DeRozan in a blockbuster trade which brought Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Toronto from San Antonio.
Fast forward to July 2019 and the team is celebrating its first-ever NBA Title after dethroning the reigning champions Golden State Warriors in six games.
“To DeMar DeRozan and Casey, Valanciunas, the foundation … these guys laid it out for us to get to this moment and it’s huge,” Ujiri said. “I want to use this opportunity again to thank them. The growth of the team was started by them.”
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Ujiri said the hardest thing in the business is trading players and dealing with free agency and that he always tries to be prepared for both situations.
DeRozan wasn’t shy about voicing his disappointment in being traded from the team he helped bring to the forefront of the NBA. His best friend and teammate, Kyle Lowry, was also relatively outspoken when the trade news broke.
Ujiri spoke about how when DeRozan came to Toronto with San Antonio for their season game against the Raptors, the All-Star walked right up to the executive and gave him a hug and asked him how his family was doing.
“It meant the world,” Ujiri said.
“It’s remarkable I think, with everything that happened last summer. DeMar DeRozan is unbelievable,” he said. “People don’t understand how hard that was for me. I know it was harder for him, he’s the subject, he’s the person who got traded, but man, I think of the growth of that kid and even my relationship with him and where it got to.”
Ujiri said he walked around his hotel room in Kenya for two hours at 4 a.m. trying to sum up the courage to call DeRozan to break the news.
“It’s not an easy thing, I still think about that. So it meant a lot for him to come and give me a hug.”
As for Casey, Ujiri said they still stay in touch and text. The president said Casey has been great and that he really believes that time heals.
“I think they’ll understand why these decisions came about.”
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In regard to Leonard’s upcoming free agency, Ujiri could not confirm whether or not the playoff MVP would be re-signing with the Raptors. He did say, however, that the team remains confident.
“Kawhi is his own man. He’s shown us that since he came here and he’s a confident human being. He’s an unbelievable person, he is his own person,” Ujiri said. “I’m glad we got him for the year. I think we built a trust there, but at the end of the day the relationship I’ve developed with Kawhi and the relationship this organization has built with Kawhi — we will respect his position.”
He said the team, including GM Bobby Webster, have had good conversations with Leonard and his team around him.
“They’ve been positive and he challenges me the same way I challenge him. The goal is the same and I appreciate that.”
Regardless of whether Leonard stays or whether Marc Gasol picks up his player option, and the future of Danny Green, Ujiri said the players are hungry for more.
“All of them want to win some more. They believe … and when you taste it, it’s over and you want to do it over and over,” he said. “That experience of the playoffs and seeing the intensity and the rollercoaster and the ups and down, there’s nothing like it.”
“I can see how Golden State and how all these guys who have done it are inspired to do it again.”
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