- Associated Press
Saturday, September 28, 2019

TORONTO (AP) - Kawhi Leonard has moved on and Danny Green is gone, but the Toronto Raptors still have an NBA title to defend.

This season, a group led by All-Star guard Kyle Lowry, breakout talent Pascal Siakam and defensive standout Marc Gasol is turning “We the North” into “We Want More.”


“If I had to express it in one word, I would say ‘hungry,’” Gasol said Saturday when asked what he expects of the new-look Raptors. “I think it’s a very hungry team. We all understand what Kawhi meant to the team and how well he played in the playoffs. But we also understand how good we can be as a team, and we’re all going to invest everything in it to be that team.”

Leonard signed a free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Clippers after leading Toronto to six-game NBA Finals victory over Golden State in his lone season north of the border. Once Leonard passed on returning to the Raptors, Green did the same, signing with the Los Angeles Lakers.

General manager Masai Ujiri, who traded franchise icon DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio to acquire Leonard and Green, insisted he had no reason to be upset with the way his big move worked out.

“That’s just the nature of the business,” Ujiri said. “We understand it and we move on as an organization. I think there are many bright spots with our team, whether it’s our veteran players, whether it’s our players coming up, and the younger group we’re developing.”

Still, even Ujiri couldn’t fail to notice what had changed around him since the start of training camp last year, when he sat at the podium in front of a packed crowd, flanked by newcomers Leonard and Green. This year, Ujiri was on stage all by himself.

“I’m lonely,” he joked.

One thing hasn’t changed: the Raptors still have talent. Lowry, Toronto’s longest-tenured player, has been an All-Star for five straight seasons. Siakam is poised to take another step after running away with the league’s Most Improved Player award last season, while Gasol, veteran Serge Ibaka, and youngster OG Anunoby round out an imposing frontcourt.

“I think guys are going to step up, I think guys are up for the challenge,” Ujiri said.

The ultra-competitive Lowry certainly is. His expectation this season? Another title.

“It’s always the same goal for me,” Lowry said. “I’m more motivated than ever.”

MORE CHANGE COMING?

Don’t expect this Raptors group to stick together much longer. Lowry, Gasol, Ibaka and guard Fred VanVleet are all eligible for free agency at the end of the season. So is forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who signed with Toronto in free agency. The Raptors will have money to spend next summer and are likely to look at younger players rather than paying to retain veterans.

PASCAL‘S FUTURE

Siakam has two years left on his rookie contract, but the Raptors have already approached the young star about a new deal.

“We’ve had conversations with Pascal’s representation and we’re excited,” Ujiri said. “He’s somebody we’re definitely going to keep.”

With Leonard and Green gone, coach Nick Nurse sees room for Siakam to become more of a weapon.

“He’s going to be given a great chance, a great opportunity here to really expand his role and his game,” Nurse said. “There’s going to be lots of opportunity for him to have the ball.”

VanVleet isn’t putting a limit on his expectations for Siakam’s growth.

“There’s nothing he can’t do,” VanVleet said.

CONTENDERS TO THE THRONE

After another busy summer of free agency, Ujiri sees new balance around the league and no clear-cut challenger to Toronto’s title.

“If you say who’s going to come out of the East, I think it’s a question,” Ujiri said. “I think, for the first time, it’s a question who’s going to win the NBA championship. I don’t think anybody knows. I don’t think anybody knows who’s going to come out of the West and there are very, very strong teams there.”

CHRISTMAS WISH

The reigning champs got a Christmas Day game, Toronto’s first holiday appearance since visiting the Knicks in 2001. This year, the Raptors are hosting Boston in a noon start.

“It means everything,” guard Norman Powell said. “I’ve grown up always looking forward to the Christmas Day games, watching the NBA after opening up gifts and presents. I know everybody’s really tied and locked into those games.”

BANNER MOMENT

Toronto opens the season at home to rookie sensation Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans on Oct. 22. The Raptors will raise their championship banner and hand out rings before tipoff.

“I think that’s when it’s going to finally hit me,” Lowry said. “I just feel I haven’t let it sink in as much. When the banner rises and the rings come on, that’s when you really feel it.”

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