Raptors are not ready to start over yet
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.
All-star point guard Kyle Lowry has signed a three-year deal to stay with the Toronto Raptors.