Remember when Toronto won the NBA title?
They won their franchise’s first-ever championship in improbable fashion, effectively ending the run of one of the greatest teams ever assembled.
Hired-gun Kawhi Leonard piloted Toronto through a wildly entertaining postseason, playing at an MVP caliber level throughout. Pascal Siakam hosted his coming out party. Each supporting cast member had their moments. Kyle Lowry, the regularly criticized All-Star, put the nail in Golden State’s coffin with a strong elimination game performance.
That was only four months ago.
It feels like it has been years.
The Raptors had barely reached the end of their parade before we began clamoring for free agency (and even that timeline is generous – free agency has become a never-ending narrative). Because that is what the media does – we move on quickly. The NBA is a player-driven league, and as such, player movement often trumps team accomplishment.
Accordingly, as Kawhi was hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy, we could not help but wonder what his next move was. We had been waiting and hypothesizing for months. And by the time he and the rest of the league opened up free agency, Toronto’s title was already an afterthought to the rest of the world.
Despite Kawhi’s obligatory recruitment meeting with the Raptors, no one really thought Leonard would stay. Even after he left for Los Angeles, the noise about a Paul George-Westbrook package joining Kawhi across the border never felt like it held water.
Kawhi was gone, and Toronto found themselves in an odd spot.
Now, they open this season as the defending champions – but they do not open as contenders.
So, where do they go from here?
The majority of analysts predict the Raptors to finish in the middle of the pack of the Eastern Conference. As currently constructed, they are a playoff team. They won’t outpace Milwaukee or Philadelphia, but the order behind those two is anyone’s guess. A core of Siakam, Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol is enough in the East.
The question is, will Masai Ujiri keep them together?
Pascal Siakam is eligible for a rookie extension, and the two sides have undoubtedly raised the subject. Lowry is sure to be a coveted trade chip, and Gasol, Ibaka, and the venerable Fred VanVleet all on expiring deals, he holds the cards. How he reacts this season will largely depend on how confident he is building around Siakam, the players available at the deadline, and the direction of the regular season.
It seems unlikely Toronto and Siakam will reach an agreement by the October 21 deadline. Siakam is reportedly seeking a max – and why shouldn’t he? He is coming off a career year – one which saw him operate as the Raptors’ second option en route to becoming the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
The most plausible scenario is that Toronto’s offer will not be for the max, and Siakam will decline, opting to test restricted free agency next summer. Toronto will probably then match any offer he receives on the open market. By all appearances, Siakam is central to the franchise’s long-term plans.
If Siakam shines this season, Ujiri can be prepared to dump salary and open up more room for free agents. Siakam showed last season he can be the perfect ancillary player. That should be attractive to other stars. But if the increased attention causes Siakam to stagnate or regress, Ujiri would probably be more likely to hold this team together to keep the Raptors afloat.
Regardless, it is difficult to imagine Toronto letting Siakam walk. The murkier decisions revolve around the aging trio of Lowry/Gasol/Ibaka.
Lowry agreed to an extension in the last 24 hours. The one-year deal is worth $31 million and removes him from next summer’s free agency pool.
Lowry has been a popular pick to move at the trade deadline, and that does not change now. While the extension keeps Lowry in Toronto for an extra season, it does not restrict his Ujiri’s ability to trade him – and offers will appear. Lowry is a prime target for current contenders or teams that believe they are one piece away.
Gasol and Ibaka are in the same boat if a team is looking for frontcourt help. Both of their contracts are up after this year, and they are proven in this league. Front offices saw what they did for Toronto’s postseason run, and there will be interest for them, too.
Ujiri showed last year he is not afraid to make a splash when he traded longtime cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for the uncertain Leonard. If the right deal presents itself, be it in the form of unproven talent, draft capital, or younger assets, Ujiri will certainly consider it. The same rumblings in OKC for Chris Paul would theoretically be available for Lowry as well. Miami is always mentioned in these talks, and new suitors can surface at any time. All it takes is a good or bad stretch near the trade deadline for teams to change course, and organizations know Ujiri is bold enough to do something.
If the regular season goes a little better than or as expected, the Raptors may opt to keep their core intact. As mentioned, Milwaukee and Philadelphia are the cream of the Eastern Conference crop. The remaining six playoff teams of a year ago – Toronto, Boston, Indiana, Brooklyn, Orlando and Detroit – all have new additions, and with them new questions. A few nonplayoff teams – Miami, Atlanta, Chicago – all believe they are postseason contenders. Toronto could find themselves near the top of the standings as easily as they could the bottom, and how the playoff race shakes out will certainly inform Ujiri’s decisions regarding this roster. It is hard to break up a team that is looking at a three seed. It is not nearly as hard to do so for a team tied for seventh.
Toronto will receive their rings on October 22, as the first team since the 2014 HEAT to come off a title without a claim to the next one. But the most fascinating fact about the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors is intrigue on the court is overshadowed intrigue off of it. The shape of the other 29 teams will have a more significant influence on the Raptors than the Raptors themselves.
Last year, Ujiri’s moves made Toronto a contender. This year, their roster after the deadline could look vastly different from how it does now. How Ujiri feels leading up to and on February 7 will determine the Raptors’ immediate future – and will be far more impactful than anything that happens on the court this season.
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