TORONTO — If other NBA teams are coveting Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, his boss Masai Ujiri says they can keep on dreaming.
Ujiri held his traditional season-ending media availability on Tuesday, and the Raptors president laughed when asked if he’d been contacted by any teams about potentially hiring Nurse, who reportedly was a top target for the Los Angeles Lakers job after the team fired Frank Vogel.
“No team has contacted me, and I see all the (rumours) you see. I dream like they dream. I want Messi. I want Ronaldo. I want (the late) Kobe Bryant. So they can keep dreaming. I dream too,” Ujiri scoffed.
Nurse had said Monday that his focus was on coaching Toronto, and a few days after the Raptors’ season ended in a Game 6 loss to Philadelphia in the opening round of the playoffs, he and Ujiri were already back to work on next season.
After last season’s “Tampa Tank,” and this year’s building season that exceeded the expectations of many, the focus is clear: winning.
Ujiri was asked how they assimilate the different characters, from the serious Fred VanVleet to the affable Scottie Barnes who famously loves to hug, it always boils down to that one thing.
“There’s nothing else, there’s only winning,” Ujiri said. “We can come hold hands, hug, wear masks, do anything we want, OK, winning. Empty stadium, full stadium, winning. That’s the kind of players we want to bring.
“Yeah, playoffs is good but win big, win a championship, that’s what we want. When we interviewed Scottie he mentioned winning 100 times. I just met with Freddy a couple days ago, and it’s winning. Win, win, win, it comes out of their mouths all the time.”
Ujiri even sees a big win in last season, when the team was forced to play out of Tampa, Fla., due to travel restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic. The team suffered a huge COVID outbreak in March and finished 12th in the East. The win? They landed Barnes with the No. 4 in the NBA draft.
After the challenges Toronto has faced, Ujiri said the team is grateful.
“It’s been a tough, tough couple of years. I don’t want to jinx it,” he said, and knocked on the wooden table.
Among the team’s hardest hit players in the past couple of years has been Pascal Siakam. A question about the growth of his all-star forward brought Ujiri nearly to tears. Siakam didn’t play well in the Disney World “bubble” in 2020, and was attacked on social media for it.
“It’s a touchy one, because what that guy went through,” Ujiri said. “I’m so proud of him. Watching his press conference the other day: yeah, I want that guy on my team. I want that kind of fighter on my team. You saw what people called him, racist, all the things that were said about that guy because of basketball. Because of sports.
“Yeah, he gets paid, but he’s also a human being. And he withstood it. When he was coming back got hit again, got injured,” Ujiri added on his shoulder injury that required off-season surgery. “Those things crack people, right? To see him on that stage, fight and fight, that’s who we want to go to war with. Incredibly proud of Pascal.”
The six-foot-seven Siakam averaged 22.8 points and career highs of 8.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists a night, and anchored a roster that was small by league standards.
Asked if fielding a small roster of mainly six-foot-nine players is sustainable, Ujiri pointed to the Golden State Warriors, who’ve been winning year in and year out with a roster of 6-4, 6-5 players.
“In my opinion you have to choose the way you want to play in the NBA,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean that we can’t find bigs that fit how we play and if we find those bigs that fit how we play, 100 per cent we are going to try to get them,” Ujiri said. “There’s no discrimination here, we’re trying to win and we’re trying to rim protect as much as we can.”
The Raptors had three Canadians on their roster this season in Chris Boucher, Khem Birch and rookie Dalano Banton, the first Canadian ever drafted by Toronto.
Asked if there’s continued interest in Canadian players, Ujiri compared the trickle-down growth in the country from the team’s 2019 NBA title to the influence Vince Carter had on Canadian kids back as a Raptor.
“You can’t project the kind of players that are going to come out of this country just from our championship year alone. I look at my five-year-old son, who I put immense pressure on every day,” he said, jokingly. “He’s looking at all this stuff and going ‘Wow.’ There’s noise every day in the basement, breaking stuff. I know that is happening in millions of households.
“It’s coming. I hope you guys keep me here for when it’s really ripe because even the Canadians in the league, everywhere — this game is going global.”
Shaedon Sharpe of London, Ont., is a projected top-five draft pick this year. The Raptors’ only pick, however, is No. 33.
Ujiri added “vice-chairman” to his title this season, which he said helped pave the way on numerous projects such as his mission to build 100 courts in Africa. He’s built 13 thus far, with another 15 under construction set to open by the end of the summer.
“As I said, the game is going global, and I’m really interested in the (Basketball Africa League). The WNBA. There are many things that intrigue us here,” Ujiri said.
Asked to clarify his mention of a potential WNBA team in Toronto, he shrugged it off with a laugh, saying: “Our dreams. Just like the Lakers’ (dreams of hiring Nurse).”