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Masai Ujiri not surprised by Raptors success

Ujiri talks building a champion, saying goodbye to DeMar and relationship with Kawhi

There was a sense of surprise about the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors.

Unlike most defending champions, this was a team that was expected to take a major step back. The team's 2018-19 superstar Kawhi Leonard was off to Los Angeles and Toronto was supposed to win around 46.5 games, according to Vegas oddsmakers, 12.5 wins worse than last regular season.

So when Pascal Siakam took another step forward in his development, Kyle Lowry showed no signs of regression, and the Raptors were on pace to repeat their 58 win total from last season, there were certainly some people regretting their prognostications.

Raptors team president Masai Ujiri was not one of them.

In an interview Wednesday night with TNT's Ernie Johnson, Ujiri said he and the Raptors were quietly confident in their group.

"Honestly, from the inside, you tried to keep your mouth shut, you know karma, you just want to keep going, but honestly, with our coaching staff, with the group we had, somehow you hope your talent level rises, you know the young players rise and players step up with Kawhi leaving and that’s all they did is step up and they were better," Ujiri said. 

"They fought, they were innovative, I think coach (Nick Nurse) has an incredible mind in how he thinks the game. I think the rise of Pascal, and how about Kyle Lowry? I think it’s basically reversed, it’s like the older he becomes the better he becomes. And then all the other guys, Fred (VanVleet) has become such a wonderful guard in this league, Norman Powell has stepped up, the team has great courage and they fight.

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"Yes, there is something to prove to the whole world almost, but we’re on a stage where we took pride in defending the title and I’m proud of these guys for really taking pride in that."

Ujiri touched on a bunch of topics with Johnson including what it takes to build a championship team and how hard it was to say goodbye to all the players and coaches that were part of the organization before the 2018-19 title run.

"It starts from the top," Ujiri said. "We all say ownership, leadership, culture, you have to be tough, you have to be resilient, you have to be creative, I can just keep going down the line, mental toughness, because the season is so up and down, the playoffs is so up and down, to really build on that championship mode and that championship team, there has to be camaraderie, there has to be understanding, there has to be the passion to win, you have to want to win."

He said trading DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay were some of the most difficult phone calls he's ever had to make.

“I’ve experienced all of it and it’s been with wonderful people. And it’s sometimes put a restraint on relationships as we saw with DeMar and – people don’t know – but even with Rudy Gay because I was close to Rudy. You’re trying to preach a culture of good, of trust, of being with people. And then you have to make these decisions."

That being said, Ujiri said he and his family remain very close with Kawhi Leonard and his family. He even joked that his son, Masai Jr., is one day going to marry Leonard's daughter.

“(Masai Jr.) was on FaceTime with (Leonrd’s daughter) yesterday,” Ujiri said laughing. “I’m serious. I have a great relationship with Kawhi, but my wife and Kishele (Shipley, Leonard’s girlfriend) have a really, really close relationship and (Masai Jr.) talks to (Leonard’s daughter) every now and then.”

If things go right for the Raptors, maybe Leonard's daughter forces his hand and the rise of Pascal Siakam makes Leonard regret moving to Los Angeles and the 28-year-old could be back in Toronto to start the 2021-22 season.