Rap­tors are not ready to start over yet

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - TIM BONTEMPS

The Toronto Rap­tors are in the midst of what is, by far, the best stretch in fran­chise his­tory. The past four sea­sons have pro­duced the four best records of their 22 years in the Na­tional Bas­ket­ball Association, with three At­lantic Di­vi­sion ti­tles and three play­off series wins, in­clud­ing a trip to the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nal for the first time in 2016.

Still, as the Rap­tors en­tered free agency there was a feel­ing around the league that Toronto was stuck. Sure, the Rap­tors had won a lot of reg­u­lar sea­son games while de­vel­op­ing a cult fol­low­ing north of the bor­der due to the dy­namic talents of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and the steady lead­er­ship of coach Dwane Casey and GM Ma­sai Ujiri. But Toronto was over­matched in show­downs with the Cleve­land Cava­liers in each of the past two post-sea­sons, and while the Rap­tors ad­vanced to those East fi­nals a year ago, it took sur­viv­ing two heart-stop­ping seven-game series against lower-seeded teams to get there. So, as free agency ar­rived, there was some thought that Ujiri would consider pulling the plug and opt to let Lowry and Serge Ibaka — a mar­quee ac­qui­si­tion at the Fe­bru­ary trade dead­line — go, while po­ten­tially mov­ing on from DeRozan in a trade. These moves would have amounted to a youth move­ment.

But as the open­ing 48 hours of free agency played out, Ujiri stayed the course. By keep­ing Ibaka and Lowry in the fold on three­year deals, he de­cided it was bet­ter to keep a con­tender to­gether in­stead of opt­ing for a re­build.

Given the al­ter­na­tive, it’s hard to blame him — or the Rap­tors — for choos­ing this route. Mak­ing the play­offs will al­most hap­pen by de­fault in the East next year, pre­sum­ing teams have five play­ers with a pulse on the court at once.

With three play­off teams from a year ago (the At­lanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and In­di­ana Pac­ers) all ei­ther let­ting stars walk or trad­ing them away, there are seven teams — those three, plus the New York Knicks, Or­lando Magic, Philadel­phia 76ers and Brook­lyn Nets — that are in some form of a re­build at the mo­ment.

For those of you not look­ing at the Eastern Con­fer­ence stand­ings, that leaves eight teams that are try­ing to win ... and eight play­off spots avail­able to Eastern Con­fer­ence teams.

With so many teams try­ing to re­build at once, blow­ing up a team that’s both com­pet­i­tive and build­ing a sus­tain­able fan base sim­ply didn’t make much sense.

This was par­tic­u­larly true when con­sid­er­ing how much it took to bring Lowry and Ibaka back. No, the Rap­tors couldn’t keep their other trade dead­line ac­qui­si­tion, P.J. Tucker — though they tried, only to watch new Hous­ton Rocket Chris Paul be a bet­ter re­cruiter and lure the for­mer Texas Longhorn back to the Lone Star State. But in sign­ing Lowry and Ibaka to three-year deals (Lowry for $100 mil­lion, Ibaka for $65 mil­lion), Toronto man­aged to keep two of their bet­ter play­ers in the fold, and on short enough deals that they shouldn’t see ei­ther player de­cline too much be­fore they are com­pleted.

Now, Toronto will have north of $80 mil­lion in ex­pir­ing con­tracts, as­sum­ing DeRozan opts out of his cur­rent deal, in the sum­mer of 2020, giv­ing the Rap­tors a chance to com­pletely re­set then, while com­mand­ing max­i­mum flex­i­bil­ity.

And, as we’ve seen al­ready this sum­mer, flex­i­bil­ity will be in short sup­ply in fu­ture sea­sons as the salary cap be­gins to flat­ten out and prior deals be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to es­cape.

The tricky thing now for Ujiri is fig­ur­ing out how to nav­i­gate the fi­nances in the short term. By sign­ing Lowry and Ibaka — even to rel­a­tively team-friendly deals — for a com­bined $165 mil­lion, the Rap­tors must fig­ure out a way to get cre­ative enough to avoid heavy lux­ury tax pay­ments in the fu­ture, es­pe­cially if they hope to bring back for­ward Pa­trick Pat­ter­son.

That’s likely go­ing to be­gin with try­ing to move on from ei­ther Jonas Valan­ci­u­nas or DeMarre Car­roll via trade, which will be eas­ier said than done. While Valan­ci­u­nas re­mains an ef­fec­tive player, half the league seems to be try­ing to move away from play­ers like him — of­fence-first cen­tres who strug­gle with mo­bil­ity and rim protection. Throw­ing him into a mar­ket with play­ers such as Mil­wau­kee Bucks cen­tre Greg Mon­roe and Ok­la­homa City Thun­der cen­tre Enes Kan­ter seems like a du­bi­ous propo­si­tion. Car­roll could present sim­i­lar chal­lenges, given he’s got about $30 mil­lion re­main­ing on his deal and has been a com­bi­na­tion of in­jured and in­ef­fec­tive since sign­ing with Toronto two years ago as a free agent.

None of these choices, how­ever, was ei­ther easy or clean. They never are un­less teams are at the top of the moun­tain or the base of it. For teams such as the Rap­tors, who were half­way up, choos­ing be­tween con­tin­u­ing up the path or turn­ing around is al­ways dif­fi­cult.

In the end, the Rap­tors de­cided to stick with the sta­tus quo, bet­ting on con­tin­u­ing this era of good feel­ings in Toronto, along with all of the long-term ben­e­fits such a move al­lows.

By sign­ing Lowry and Ibaka, they en­sured them­selves a three-year win­dow to stay on the up­ward path.

GETTY IM­AGES FILE PHOTO

All-star point guard Kyle Lowry has signed a three-year deal to stay with the Toronto Rap­tors.

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