TORONTO - No more excuses.
This has become the Raptors' mantra as they embark on a new era with a new regime and, in the not-so-distant future, a new image.
Those three words were echoed again and again by Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, during Monday's busy media day proceedings and have been filtered down throughout the organization.
The truth is, up to this point, there have been plenty of excuses. The schedule, it's been difficult. The injuries, there's been a lot of them. The officials, they haven't been kind. All valid excuses, but in the end, they've amounted to perennial heartbreak to the tune of five straight playoff-less seasons.
From the top, Leiweke, down to the general manager, their new global ambassador, the coach and the players, the message is clear; there are to be no more excuses.
"None of us have an excuse," insisted returning head coach Dwane Casey, who is entering the final year of his contract. "There's no out. What is your cop-out? It's right here, it's the same team, same group."
"That's why I'm saying we're past the talking stage. This is our team, our group, so let's go to work."
In addition to a punishing stretch to begin last season - 15 of their first 22 games on the road - they had a built-in excuse, getting three rookies and a couple of key additions acclimated on the go. That's not the case this year. The only rookie on the roster is undrafted signee Dwight Buycks, who doesn't figure to have a significant role out of the gate. Despite the change in management, incoming GM Masai Ujiri has opted to stick with the group that closed out last season in the starting five. For those returning players, the grace period has ended and the pressure is on them to put the excuses aside and perform.
"We've just got to take advantage of every opportunity," knows DeMar DeRozan, the longest tenured Raptor. "We've got to take advantage this week in training camp of [us] all being together, take advantage of [the] preseason and continue to get better and, as soon as that home opener starts, we've got to take advantage from game one to game 82 and just put it all out there because we have no excuses."
For the team, it's clear the bar has been set high but intentionally unclear where that bar sits exactly.
"I'm not even going to talk about playoffs," Casey said, tempering expectations after last season's failures. "My mentality right now is to get better and all those other things are going to take care of themselves. I'm not even going to mention it to our players tonight in our meeting when we talk about getting better. When you do that, good things are going to happen."
If things go south in a hurry, this group may not have much time to forge its path, whatever it may be, as the leash on the returnees could be a short one.
"We can't make any excuses of [a] tough schedule," Ujiri said. "So yes, how we start the season will be very important and then that's our jobs to make adjustments and the players' jobs and coaching."
"Chemistry is very key for us," he continued. "A lot of people think it's individual talent, at the end of the day, it all has to come together. We're hoping these guys come together quick."
Monday was overloaded with optimism for this Raptors franchise. With the addition of Drake to their staff, they will host the 2016 NBA All-Star Game with a brand new look expected to be unveiled that season. The organization, its players, coaches and fan base have experienced the feeling of optimism in the past and, needless to say, it hasn't necessarily translated in the standings.
"We're going to find out pretty quickly if we have enough to be a playoff team," Casey said. "If we make continuous growth, we should be going in that direction but we're not going to talk about it because talk is cheap. It's about doing it."
"I thought we talked about it a little bit last year and we started out 4-19. So I don't want to talk about where we should be, what we could be doing or anything. I want to talk about how hard the guys are going to work to get there."
That's what this season will be about for Casey and his brigade, many of whom - like their coach - are in the hot seat. To the dismay of some fans, they will not be tanking, it's simply not in the makeup of anyone currently affiliated with this organization to roll over. The mentality that is being preached, and will continue to be preached, is quite the opposite, in fact.
"No more excuses," Leiweke repeated. "I think what Drake helps us do is he sets a tone and I like the tone, which is; we're going to get better, we're going to get rid of the excuses [and] we're going to get rid of all the distractions."
"And for our players," he continued, "for the other players in the league and for our fans, now we talk about the positive and we talk about what we're going to be. For me, [it's about] accountability here, about our brand, our image, our buzz and our potential, that's what Drake's helping us do."
"I want accountability. No more excuses."
Back on the Defensive
It should come as no surprise that Coach Casey has committed to re-emphasizing defence in his third and most crucial season with the Raptors.
In his first year with the team, during the lockout shortened 2011-12 campaign, the Casey-led Raptors began to shed the perception that had been haunting them. They were, up until that point, a perennial doormat, a soft team. In 66 mostly hard-fought games, Casey changed all that. He took a team that ranked at the bottom of the league in nearly every defensive category the year prior and made them competitive. The Raptors finished that season as the NBA's most improved team in opponent field goal percentage (from .482, 29th in the NBA to .435, 8th) and opponent scoring (from 105.3 point allowed per game, 26th to 94.0, 9th).
Then, just as quickly as the defensive renaissance came to be the year prior, that progress was undone during a turbulent 2012-13 season.
"Last year," Casey said, "I don't think it was a mistake, we had to get better offensively, but we tilted the pendulum a little bit too far to the offensive side. This year, it's going to be back to the defensive side."
"When you emphasize something the way we did offence going into training camp last year, it took [on] a personality of its own. Somewhere down the line, you're going to rest and I thought our guys took a step back with the focus and the spotlight not being on the defensive end."
A Refocused Rudy
Gay is coming off an emotionally and physically exhausting campaign. He battled injuries and brushed off ongoing trade speculation as a Grizzly, eventually giving way to a midseason shakeup that took him from the only NBA home he's ever known - a winning team in Memphis - to a city over 900 miles away, one that hasn't seen playoff basketball in five years.
"Last year was kind of like a whirlwind for me," he admitted. "Not even having any place to stay or even put my clothes."
He comes to training camp this year - his first with the Raptors - 100 per cent healthy and refocused after a busy offseason of hard work. In addition to his day-to-day training, Gay worked on his post game with NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon, underwent a procedure to correct ongoing vision problems and added a noticeable 20 pounds of muscle.
"My trainer basically lived with me," said the Raptors' seemingly invigorated forward. "I worked all but three weeks this whole summer, after my eye surgery."
Admittedly, Gay feels underestimated and has his eyes - which now work as they're supposed to - set on proving his and the team's naysayers wrong. To do that, Casey wants to see his go-to scorer become more efficient offensively while bringing consistent effort on the defensive end.
As last season came to a disappointing close for DeRozan, who has missed the playoffs in each of his four years in the league, the Raptors guard vowed to return an improved three-point shooter. According to DeRozan, who has shot the three-ball at a 24 per cent clip over his career, he spent the bulk of the summer making good on his promise.
"Any type of way I could have the ball in my hand[s] and get off a three-point shot, [I did]," DeRozan said. "I definitely feel the most comfortable I've ever felt from the three-point line and I'm going to continue working on it day in and day out."
The 24-year-old spent Sunday morning hoisting up jump shots, knocking down 300 triples prior to his mandated physical. Despite this season's tempered expectations, failure is not an option for the young veteran.
"Personally, the way I approach workouts all summer is, this is my fifth year [and] I'm tired of going home early, watching everybody else play, watching my friends play," he passionately exclaimed. "It's sickening to me, I get tired of [it]."
"Me personally, I work my ass off so we can play in that moment. Be a team in that 8, 7, 6, whatever spot it is, to have the opportunity to play. So that's my goal and I'm sure everybody on this team feels the same way."