Raptors president Masai Ujiri on the clock, embarking on tough rebuild

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Every Masai Ujiri gab-fest with the media inevitably turns into a love-fest when the Raptors’ chairman and chief architect of the 2019 championship holds his annual state-of-the union address in the days following the end of the season.

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In recent times, these gatherings have arrived much sooner in the basketball calendar than fans would have liked, a sure sign that things did not go well for the home side.

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Things went decidedly south this year and beyond given all the trials and tribulations that began with a lawsuit involving the New York Knicks.

There were trades involving two of the team’s best players would get engineered, a fringe player embroiled in an NBA investigation looking into irregular betting activity and then banning him for life, an anointed franchise face forced to miss the season’s final 22 games when injury struck, two players acquired in one trade forced to sit out games when tragedy hit home, epic one-sided losses, a 15-game losing streak, a team defence that redefined the word brutal and, in the end, a 25-win season.

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All this with a rookie head coach in Darko Rajakovic, who said during his end-of-season availability Tuesday that his first priority this off-season is to get some much-needed sleep.

You can’t blame the guy after enduring so much.

So many positive reviews have been written about Rajakovic, so many flattering words expressed by players when they appeared on the podium during their Monday availability, but for anyone to say he’s a good coach would be foolish.

Objectively speaking, you can’t even begin to judge Rajakovic when he basically was deprived an opportunity to coach in the wake of so much turmoil that seemed to persist for the entire season.

Ujiri hired him and unsurprisingly endorsed him Wednesday.

“We dealt him a tough hand,” the team’s president said. “For what he was given, in terms of everything else outside of results, Darko did an incredible job.”

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Anyone who has spent the smallest amount of time being around Ujiri knows he’s capable and quite skilled at putting a positive spin on anything.

Scottie Barnes would say he was “blessed” to see the game from a different vantage point once he hurt his hand on March and wasn’t able to return to the court.

The perpetually positive Rajakovic also sounded optimistic of the team’s future.

Ujiri isn’t about to wave the white flag.

“Tough year for us and a very challenging one off the court, but we learned a lot from this,’’ he said. “We’re going to take a lot of the positives, but definitely a very, very challenging year.”

He sees light at the end of the dark tunnel that the franchise just experienced.

Everything moving forward will hinge several factors: Barnes’ ability to take another step in his evolution; how serious the team’s young core embraces the off-season knowing obvious deficiencies must be addressed;, how Rajakovic grows as a head coach and how Ujiri can get a rebuilding team back to some semblance of relevance.

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It will not be easy when one considers how poor the club has been in identifying free agents in the past few years and the lack of prospects expected to be available in this year’s draft class.

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“I’m patient,” Ujiri continued, “but I’m not trying to wait six years, to be honest.

“We’re hoping. You hope with these things that you make the right decisions, that we pick the right players. We’re going to be patient, but I’m glad that we’re starting off with (Barnes).”

The mystique surrounding Masai no longer exists, the team’s title run a distant memory.

Under no circumstance can the recently completed season ever be duplicated when so much was out of the team’s hands. What the Raptors did control, they often failed to execute on.

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What is left to ask is how much faith moving forward does one have in Ujiri and whether he can turn this around.

Until quality pieces are acquired, words — despite how positive they sound, how confidently they’re expressed — amount to nothing.

Fans should not and will not tolerate another season of losing.

The Raptors are part of the MLSE umbrella at a time when the organization has welcomed a new leader in Keith Pelley, who won’t stand pat.

Ujiri’s biggest supporter is Larry Tanenbaum, whose time and influence with MLSE is ticking. And with it, so is Ujiri’s time.

Words ring hollow when discussing whatever subject gets broached during a media availability.

What matters most is assembling a roster that can actually compete for a top-six playoff spot, regardless of how it’s achieved or what kind of luck is involved. Unless Ujiri is able to pull a rabbit out of his hat, that day appears to be at least two years away.

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He’s as competitive as they come, but Ujiri must regain that fire, that edge, that go-for-broke mentality that vaulted the franchise into one of the elite organizations in the NBA.

As he picks up the pieces from a truly regrettable season, the question must be asked whether Ujiri will still be in charge to see this rebuild play out to its end.

“We are super-excited about Keith,” Ujiri said. “It was much needed, but it’s not going to change anything about what we (Raptors) do.

“For me, there is no looming issue. As long I’m here we’ll build the best possible way to win.”

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