Ahhh, NBA free agency. It’s time for all your angst as a fan to find its natural home. We are here.
More precisely, we will be there at 6 p.m. ET on June 30, when teams and free agents can begin negotiating contracts for the 2023-24 season. While there are scenarios that could free up some money to spend, the Raptors will be extremely concerned about their own unrestricted free agents: Fred VanVleet and Jakob Poeltl. If one of them leaves, the Raptors will have only the non-taxable mid-level exception, an expected $12.2 million, to replace them, barring an unlikely trade in which they move a bunch of players with guaranteed salaries to the next year and takes significantly less money back in return. If the Raptors waived the rights to all of their free agents and waived Thaddeus Young and Joe Wieskamp, that would leave them with just $18 million, roughly
Most likely, they will operate as an over-the-cap team, with the VanVleet and Poeltl situations determining their buying power.
With that in mind, here are the five (seven, actually) questions that will most determine how the Raptors look heading into September training camp.
1a. Is there a team with cap space prepared to make Fred VanVleet a huge deal?
The Raptors’ recent history is paying their best players when they hit free agency, even if a robust market doesn’t materialize for them. That was essentially their approach with Kyle Lowry for two free agencies and a contract extension. DeMar DeRozan got the same treatment, with the Raptors not having DeRozan, a star who had his share of skeptics around his league, prove his worth by taking other meetings in 2016.
In 2020, when Fred VanVleet last entered free agency, it wasn’t clear if there were many other competitive offers. Still, the Raptors gave VanVleet a four-year, $85 million deal worth about 20 percent of the cap, which included a player option for this season — the same one he just declined Friday to become an unrestricted free agent. Of the teams that have cap space, several of them are on hold: Indiana, Sacramento, Detroit and Oklahoma City. Charlotte, Orlando and Dallas also likely fall into the same group, with the Mavericks unlikely to have that room assuming Kyrie Irving sticks around. Utah is a bit of a mystery, but the Jazz took up a lot of their space on Monday when they agreed to trade for John Collins. The Lakers seem more interested in keeping restricted free agents Austin Reeves and Rui Hachimura, and potentially retaining access to the non-taxpayer MLE, than using a free agent.
That leaves two potential VanVleet destinations, both of which are big wild cards: San Antonio and Houston. (We talked about VanVleet’s suitors earlier in the offseason, though things have changed since then.)
You’d figure San Antonio would take from the Oklahoma City model — there’s a lot of commonality between these two franchises — and slow-play a build, perhaps taking on unwanted contracts from other teams with draft picks attached at the end to play with Victor Wembanyama. Then again, if Wembanyama is indeed a generational prospect and ready to go, they might want to be able to compete sooner rather than later, and that might mean they’ve already got players in their prime.
Houston is the more likely VanVleet suitor. If James Harden stays in Philadelphia, the Rockets could have $61 million or more in cap space. That’s a lot of money to throw around. Will VanVleet now take a lot of money (no state tax!) to be the adult in the room for a team that is very, very young and unproven? We will see. Perhaps the Rockets prefer to make a run at younger restricted free agents first. The Rockets, either with their own checks or just the threat of them, are likely to make a few players richer than they otherwise would be.
1b. Is there an attractive sign-and-trade scenario that works for both VanVleet and the Raptors?
If the Rockets or Spurs don’t pursue VanVleet, another team could still make a push for the guard. They would just need the Raptors’ help to facilitate that since they won’t have the cap space needed to sign VanVleet outright.
Who could a) use a starting guard; and b) offer the Raptors something of value? Chicago? Minnesota? Brooklyn? It feels unlikely since the Raptors don’t have a big fallback option and are therefore incentivized to keep VanVleet, but it’s not impossible.
Forecast: The Raptors re-signed VanVleet to a four-year, $130-million contract, with a fourth-year player option. I think the Raptors will be aggressive in trying to keep VanVleet unless the bidding reaches extremely high levels – perhaps in the $40 million range annually.
Note: Get used to those kinds of numbers. A starting salary for VanVleet on that contract would be about $29 million, which would be more than 21 percent of the projected cap. That’s right around where his last contract started.
Koreen: On or after draft night, the Raptors need long-term clarity in the backcourt
2. The same questions, but to Jakob Poeltl
Poeltl is very good, but also a non-shooting center. Those guys don’t break the bank in general. Still, with so few impact players available to sign, it’s not certain Poeltl will stay.
A minor change in the CBA is a big reason for that: Teams must reach the floor for total usage by the first day of the regular season instead of the last day of the season. At 90 percent of the projected cap, that’s about $122.4 million. That leaves less time to arrange trades during the season to take on salary, and could mean teams look to sign players more instead of absorbing other teams’ unwanted contracts. Or maybe it doesn’t mean that at all.
If so, Poeltl is ranked 10th in John Hollinger’s BORD$ rating of free agents and has moved up to ninth with Kristaps Porziņģis, who opted to enter the final year of his contract as part of his trade with the Celtics. Of the teams with cap space, only the Thunder and Spurs (someone with the muscle to play the next Wembanyama) make real sense for a non-shooting center, and spending long-term guaranteed money on any player is again not really in the DNA of both franchises at this stage of development. You never know though.
As far as sign-and-trade options go, Poeltl is less likely to be coveted than VanVleet. However, there are scenarios where teams like Milwaukee, Chicago, Lakers or Mavericks make inquiries.
Forecast: The Raptors re-sign Poeltl to a three-year, $63 million contract, fully guaranteed.
3. How will the Raptors avoid the luxury tax cap?
If my guesses on the contracts are correct, Poeltl and VanVleet would combine to make around $57 million, at least next year. That would put the Raptors at about $164.8 million in salary, assuming Gradey Dick gets the normal 120 percent of his rookie cap for 12 players, not including players on 2-way contracts.
Add two players on minimum contracts and the Raptors would exceed the projected $165 million luxury tax threshold. They could get under the threshold by trading Otto Porter Jr. ($6.3 million), but just barely. Relief from his contract may also require the attachment of future draft compensation. Chris Boucher ($11.75 million next year, $10.81 million the year after) is more value neutral, but moving him wouldn’t even open up the full $12.2 million mid-level exception for non-taxpayers .
An unlikely scenario: Maybe the Raptors try to trade Gary Trent Jr. into a team’s cap space. Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT tweeted that both The Raptors and Trent are open to an extension — The Raptors could offer him a starting salary of around $26 million — but with as many questions as the Raptors have regarding their future, it’s not wise to give a player who hasn’t proven he can start an eight-figure salary starting with one two . Maybe the Raptors are trying to move his contract and replace his value on the court with the MLE.
Forecast: The Raptors find a receiver for Boucher and are left without much flexibility to fill out the roster.
Raptors’ Gary Trent Jr. chooses to play plays
4a. Will teams continue to make aggressive trade offers for Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby?
Haynes’ report just before the draft Siakam would not sign an extension with a new team, if traded, indicated two things, the first more than the last. The first: Siakam will want to use the leverage available to him with one year left on his contract to control his destination. The second: Siakam’s representation believed there was a chance he would be traded.
The draft was the most logical date to trade either forward. The Raptors were at the end of a scouting cycle, draft slots were locked up for this year, and Anunoby and Siakam are both extension eligible this offseason. Now, only that last part is true, and Siakam has hinted that he wouldn’t sign an extension with any team, except maybe the Raptors.
I think teams will continue to bid on Anunoby. Sure, he only has a year left on his contract, but he’s so young and malleable that he’s easily fit enough. Before the Marcus Smart trade, Memphis could have made a lot of sense. Still, it’s easy to rhyme with more than a half-dozen teams that would love Anunoby, even with long-term uncertainty.
As for Siakam, the passing draft really limits the possibility of him moving. It’s hard to find the team that will be allowed to trade for Siakam and is incentivized to do so. Maybe Portland if Damian Lillard intends to stay. (Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, more salary padding and picks could be a reasonable offer.) The Nets and Hawks could make sense in certain scenarios. However, they would have to be bold enough to act for him without any guarantees.
Time for the Raptors to seriously explore trading Pascal Siakam: Korea
4b. Will either sign an extension with the Raptors?
Starting in October, the Raptors can offer Anunoby a four-year extension worth about $117.6 million that would begin in 2024-25. Earlier in the offseason, the Raptors would be able to offer Siakam a maximum value extension worth at least $183.9 million over four years, which would also begin in 2024-25.
However, Siakam would achieve supermax status if he made an All-NBA team next year, which would increase the starting salary and length of his potential contract. For Anunoby, the 140 percent cap on his previous salary would disappear as a free agent.
Forecast: Both start the season in Toronto. Neither sign an extension, though I’d guess Siakam is a little more likely than Anunoby to surprise. Trent is probably the best candidate to sign a veteran extension with the Raptors this offseason, but I’d still rate it as less than a 50-50 chance.
5. Which of the Raptors’ other free agents will return?
Young has an $8 million salary next year, with only $1 million owed if he is waived on or before June 30. Wieskamp has a $1.93 million salary for 2023-24 that is not guaranteed until the day it becomes fully guaranteed.
Additionally, Dalano Banton is a restricted free agent, pending the Raptors tendering him a qualifying offer of $2.19 million by June 29. Ron Harper Jr. and Jeff Dowtin Jr. can be restricted free agents if the Raptors offer them qualifying offers at the cost of a 2-way spot.
Forecast: If all of the above comes to pass and there are no more trades, the Raptors will have 12 players under full-time contracts and Markquis Nowell on a two-way contract. I would expect Young to be waived — the Raptors need the extra $7 million to avoid the tax — and Wieskamp guaranteed. I would also guess that all three of Banton, Harper and Dowtin are back, with Harper and Dowtin perhaps fighting for the last full spot on partial guarantees, with another competition brought in to challenge them. Banton may well sign his qualifying offer.
Of course, any trade of a player to avoid the tax could open up another roster spot.
(Top photo: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)