19 June 2023, at 13.58
The most anticipated, hyped, overhyped and potentially transformative days of the NBA calendar are upon us.
Over the coming days and weeks, the NBA draft will have concluded and free agency will have mostly come and gone. The most significant business associated with each will be largely completed by the first week of July.
For a club like the Toronto Raptors, the next few weeks present an opportunity to reshape a team that seems largely trapped in NBA limbo — not good enough to contend, but not bad enough to start selling for scrap.
They could also do a whole lot of not much, which is also a choice.
Last season, the status quo translated into a 41-41 record, a loss in the first play-in game and a fired head coach. Raptors president Masai Ujiri then suggested that selfishness and a shift in team culture were factors in the way his club fell back from 48 wins the previous season.
How much is chicken and how much is egg for a team that otherwise finished 28thth in effective field-goal percentage and 29thth in the opponents’ eFG will be up to newly anointed head coach Darko Rajakovic to find out.
There is no debate that Toronto has some work to do and questions to be answered.
• Are they looking at trading one of their core pieces — and given the contract status of most of the key players in the Raptors rotation, do we really mean one of OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam — for a chance to move up in the draft?
• Will they (or can they) re-sign veteran point guard Fred VanVleet, who is a pending free agent?
• Do they resign shooting guard Gary Trent Jr., assuming he declines his player option before Tuesday and becomes a free agent?
• How much will it cost to re-sign free-agent center Jakob Poeltl?
• If they don’t trade up in the draft, which is Thursday, who or what kind of player might be available with the No. 13 pick?
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In isolation, the picks facing the Raptors aren’t all that important to an NBA team. It’s rare that the franchise doesn’t deal with important player personnel decisions. But given where the Raptors stand and the number of seemingly interconnected choices they have to make, it’s not too much to suggest that the calls the front office makes — or doesn’t make — in the coming weeks will shape the direction of the Raptors for years to come .
And while it’s common to suggest that the Raptors shroud the entire process in mystery, that’s not necessarily the case. They haven’t released a manifesto or anything, but their words and actions certainly provide a basis for where things could go in the coming weeks.
Perhaps most importantly, there is no appetite to tear things down and start over, as we have seen some other ‘limbo’ teams do in recent years. The Washington Wizards, who moved on from Bradley Beal over the weekend, are the latest example of that, and how moves made by the Utah Jazz last summer or the Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder before that can be categorized.
Breaking things up and selling them off for parts has never been seriously entertained in private conversations I’ve had. Publicly, the attitude has not been that different. The Raptors don’t see themselves as that inferior – if at all – to the Miami Heat, who have reached the NBA Finals two of the last four seasons. The ‘lowly’ Knicks reached the second round this year, and the Sixers, Bucks – and even the Celtics – have proven they can hit in the right circumstances.
Why step back if you don’t believe in yourself that far behind?
“There’s parity in the league and I just don’t see tearing down a team as the only way to build a team,” Ujiri said at his end-of-season media conference.
There are always reservations about unseen opportunities that may present themselves. This time last year it was a Kevin Durant trade request. Last week, it was Bradley Beal — even though Beal had a no-trade clause, he had the power to dictate where Washington could trade him. The Raptors are not dogmatic; they are open to possibilities.
But the most likely scenario? The biggest move they are making this summer has already happened with the departure of head coach Nick Nurse and the sacking of his staff.
“What I’m hearing now is they’re not going to trade from their core,” one league source said.
Another said: “It wouldn’t surprise me if they run it back. There’s a lot of holding and waiting.”
Ignoring whether or not they should, the challenge is how exactly to thread the needle and pay good players their market value while avoiding the luxury tax that would kick in on cumulative salaries over $162 million.
Sportsnet’s Blake Murphy did a thorough analysis of the Raptors’ off-season cap situation, and while there are plenty of variables, the simple math is that Toronto will have about $60 million to spend on VanVleet, Poeltl and Trent Jr. as free agents.
A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation tells me … that’s not enough to get it done.
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VanVleet will be looking for a starting salary in the $30 million range. Per league sources, Poeltl expects a deal with a starting salary of $20 million, or an average of And given that Trent Jr. would turn down an option worth $18.5 million, he won’t come cheap either.
There could be some creative solutions — for example, negotiating lower first-year salaries on longer deals — but it’s hard to see the Raptors not having to move some salary. It would be nice if someone would take Otto Porter Jr.’s $6.3 million off his hands, but that would require a player who has negative value (after playing just eight games last season) to attach draft- pick, to convince someone to take him into their cap space. “No one wants Otto Porter Jr.,” one league executive said. “He’s fragile. He’s always a lay-up away from being out six to eight weeks.”
He could be a useful low-rent pick-up for a team with championship plans, but none of those teams have cap space or trade exceptions.
Another option, but no easier to pull off, would be to trade Chris Boucher and the two years and $22.5 million left on his deal, ideally while taking back minimal money. The problem there is that you no longer have Boucher, who is hardly a perfect player but is a useful bench piece for his price on a Raptors team that lacks depth.
The simplest solution would be to let Trent Jr. go (assuming he declines his player option), which would give the Raptors plenty of money to sign VanVleet and Poeltl while remaining under the tax.
But that would mean the shot-deficient Raptors would lose a 24-year career 38 percent three-point shooter for nothing, which doesn’t seem like the best guard management.
There are more drastic alternatives: Letting VanVleet disappear into free agency or hoping to salvage a friendly return in an always-difficult sign-and-trade would certainly clear up any salary cap issues, but it seems like a terrible way to go on from an all-star point guard still very much in his prime.
The Raptors have certainly signaled publicly and privately that they intend to keep VanVleet. Either way, it would be a colossal travesty on the part of a front office that doesn’t make these kinds of mistakes to fail to do so without receiving a significant benefit in return.
Trade Siakam? It would be the most aggressive play they could make and could provide an opportunity to reorient the team around its younger core without having to completely rebuild. But rarely does trading your best player make your team better. And given the Raptors’ situation — not a free-agent destination, not a team that appears to be on the move anytime soon — moving on from NBA players who actively appreciate being in Toronto is beyond investment the low-risk pitch and who comes off a career season is the kind of decision that uses a lot of goodwill internally. Mess it up and be expected to answer for it.
That said, there are no indications that the Raptors are even entertaining offers for Siakam at this point. And given any team taking on Siakam — or OG Anunoby, for that matter — would likely have assurances that signing a contract extension would be a formality, it’s the kind of move that would be hard to keep entirely under secrecy.
Who knows, maybe whoever the Raptors draft with the 13thth pick (back-court help and shooting would be nice) would help clear things up, but the Raptors are keeping their cards close to their chest there, too. In the past, the team would hold media availability for prospects they bring to Toronto to work out, but not this year. Unless a player makes it known they’re in Toronto via social media, it’s like it never happened.
Of course something has to happen, sooner or later. Come back in a few weeks.