The Toronto Raptors called all bets when they traded DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green last summer. They doubled down when they traded Jonas Valanciunas , Delon Wright and a future second-round pick for Marc Gasol (and to a lesser extent, when they picked up Jeremy Lin). On its surface, the moves haven’t made the Raptors significantly better than their 59-win campaign last season; they currently sit two games behind the Eastern Conference leading Milwaukee Bucks whereas last season they finished as the first overall seed in the East. But Toronto’s roster upgrades weren’t meant to improve their regular season results. Instead, the hope was that the Raptors are better prepared for success in the Playoffs.
It’s a bold move by a courageous front office, but courage doesn’t win championships; if Gasol or (more importantly) Leonard walks following this season, the Raptors will be left with nothing more than a few Atlantic Division championships for all their recent success. And they will be forced to start over. It’s impossible to predict what free agents – especially the soft-spoken Leonard – will do. Assuming the worst, what’s left to build around in Toronto? This piece takes stock of what’s left in the cupboard and what debts the Raptors must repay.
The Raptors owe the Spurs their 2019 first-round pick from the Kawhi Leonard trade. The pick is top-20 protected, which will almost certainly transmit to San Antonio considering the Raptors have the second-best record in the league. They also owe the Grizzlies their 2024 second round pick. The 2019 pick hurts given the perpetual need for cheap first-round quality talent, but it’s really the only obligation they must fulfill.
Assuming that Leonard and Gasol sign elsewhere, the team will have approximately $79 million in 2019-20 salary commitments with no other player or team options (beyond those of Leonard and Gasol – both player options). The 2019 NBA salary cap is projected to be $109 million, giving the Raptors approximately $30 million in cap space (minus their second-round draft pick’s salary) to play with come free agency 2019.
But if both stars choose to relocate, the Raptors would be wise to consider moving Kyle Lowry, too. Lowry will be 33 next month – not the ideal age of a point guard for a rebuilding franchise. And while he is owed approximately $33 million next season, Lowry will also be both a valuable addition for a team like the Lakers who might be desperate for star power, as well as expiring contract that requires a limited commitment. The Raptors could look to add youth and/or draft assets in exchange for one year of Kyle Lowry. And trading Lowry would likely result in at least one future asset or young player to add to their young core.
Pascal Siakam is quickly becoming seen as a franchise cornerstone. The 24 years old has played incredibly well this season, making considerable progress on his three-point percentage (up from 22% last season to 36.9 percent), his scoring average (up nine points per contest to 17.3 per game) and his true shooting percentage (up from 54.9 percent last season to 63 percent in 2018-19). He is viewed by many as a Leonard or Giannis-type of two-way stud who has generated serious buzz to become this season’s Most Improved Player. What’s more, the 27thpick in the 2016 NBA Draft is on the third year of his rookie deal remains under the Raptors control for at least the next two seasons.
OG Anunoby is in his second season and he projects to be a quality starter (if not more). He tied a career high 22 points as a starter on February 13. While he has struggled with consistency this season – especially on offense – he has scored in double figures 11 times and his defensive potential is through the roof. And he is only 21. He will continue to learn from Leonard, Danny Green and the rest of the veteran Raptors for at least the remainder of this season – never a bad thing for a talented youngster.
Norman Powell is the final piece that’s signed beyond next season. He, too, is relatively young (25). He is scoring 8.1 points in 18.5 minutes per game this season and is shooting 36 percent on three-pointers. Further, his effective field goal percentage is at a career high 54 percent and his turnover percentage is down significantly. Powell is a long, effective defender on an affordable contract – $9.367 million in 2018-19, which is the first year of a four-year, $42 million extension.
The Raptors financial outlook beyond 2020 is exquisite. They have [tps_title][/tps_title]limited commitments in 2020-21: Pascal Siakam ($3.5 million qualifying offer), OG Anunoby ($3.9 million – team option) and Normal Powell ($10.9 million).
The Raptors moved on from a number of long-term commitments since last summer. DeRozan was signed for nearly $28 million per year through 2021, Valanciunas has a player option worth more than $17 million next season, Delon Wright is due either the qualifying offer or a rookie extension and CJ Miles has a player option for approximately $8 million next season – all of whom were traded by the Raptors.
It stands to reason that the Raptors viewed their roster as being insufficient. And therefore, Ujiri may have believed it to be a better strategy to gamble on Leonard, knowing fully well that if he were to walk the Raptors could rebuild around Siakam, Anunoby and Powell more quickly than if DeRozan and Lowry are still in town. And through that lens, the trade is a win-win: either compete for a championship with Leonard for the foreseeable future or speed-up a rebuild by shipping out long-term salary commitments.
And the Raptors could also be in position to further speed up a rebuild through opportunistic trades, much like the Nets have done recently, accepting unwanted contracts so long as young players or draft assets are attached. Providing the Raptors even more flexibility and youth. And they can also swap Lowry for expiring contracts and as many assets as they can pry away from a trade partner, and then take their chances with free agents come the summer of 2020. It appears as though Ujiri is not patient enough for a complete rebuild, and he may have found a way to remain (very) relevant while jumpstarting the process.
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