Raptors make moves towards 2020 vision


Ibaka, DeRozan and Lowry, The Canadian Press

After a quiet Day 1 on the Raptors front of free agency, they kicked it into high gear shortly past midnight on July 2.

P.J. Tucker bolted to the Western Conference by agreeing to a four-year $32M deal with the Houston Rockets. Masai Ujiri and his staff did their level best to keep him, offering a three-year deal worth $33M. Alas, Tucker was further tempted by the prospect of playing with close friend Chris Paul and MVP runner-up James Harden. He genuinely believes they have a legitimate shot at a title, and he’ll be an asset towards that cause.

During his two-and-a-half months in Toronto, he took years off the Raptors’ other wing players by taking on the toughest defensive assignment, culminating in his first playoff start—a 46-minute effort against LeBron James in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. He will be sorely missed for his defensive intensity, leadership, and toughness. As I mentioned after the Raptors drafted OG Anunoby, it’s an easier pill to swallow with the presence of the rookie.

Shortly before noon, Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that Serge Ibaka, acquired before the 2017 trade deadline, will return for a reported $65M over three years. He brought outside shooting and scoring at a position of need and protected the rim in a way that Toronto was desperate for after the departure of Bismack Biyombo.

At 5:20pm EST, came the biggest domino Canada had been waiting for.

Kyle Lowry announced his return to the north with a touching letter via the Players’ Tribune. It was later reported that the deal is worth $100M over three years, and keeps both parties happy. Lowry gets paid for the Top 15 level of production he has provided over the past two seasons, and Ujiri is able to maintain the franchise’s flexibility.

This has been the fulcrum of Ujiri’s plans, and exactly why he would not offer more than three years to Tucker. He now has both Lowry and Ibaka expiring after the 2019-20 season, while DeMar DeRozan will be in a player-option year.

Back to present day, where the Raptors will have to make significant luxury tax payments as is, making it likely they will look to shed at least one, if not two, of Cory Joseph, Jonas Valanciunas, or DeMarre Carroll’s salaries. Patrick Patterson, the lone remaining free agent who Toronto still has bird rights to, is not expected back.

Joseph was rumoured to be part of a deal with the Indiana Pacers, pointing to just how unlikely MLSE is to pony up significant tax dollars for a team with a possibly lower ceiling than last year.

Without Patterson, Tucker, potentially Joseph, and barring usage of the full mid-level exception (which can’t be used unless they get back under the luxury tax), the Raptors will need to lean on Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo, and Anunoby more heavily.

It’s crucial to be mindful of the big picture here.

For a few years now, the Raptors have sacrificed maximizing the development of their younger guys in favour of wins. By handing the keys of the role-playing-bus to the kids, the front office can have a good look at them in NBA minutes, and determine which players are really  worth building around.

The departures of Jimmy Butler and Paul George have weakened the conference, and with the exception of Cleveland, Boston, Washington, Milwaukee, and Miami, the Raptors would be favoured against any other Eastern foe. This gives them the window they need to test their foals. There will be mistakes, there will be moments of frustration, but Lowry, DeRozan, and Ibaka provide a talent level high enough to sustain those blows and still navigate toward familiar waters.

Give a young player too much to handle too soon, and they could come apart at the seams. Siakam was evidence of this at the start of last season. With an injury to Jared Sullinger in preseason, the Cameroonian was thrust into the starting lineup on opening night, and had to do so another 37 times. His energy and hustle was never in question, but he missed rotations and gave opponents the advantage of ignoring him on offence. As the starting lineup continued to struggle, his confidence shrank.

Then the Ibaka trade happened, and Siakam was soon banished to what’s now known as the NBA G-League. Discarded from familiar surroundings and the big boys, Siakam grew discontent. But as he got to know his Raptors 905 teammates, and began to thrive in a featured role, his confidence was renewed. The team was successful, and eventually won it all. Siakam finished with the Finals MVP award.

The Raptors will need to keep that in mind once again. Powell has proven he can perform in high leverage situations and should be ready if called upon. Poeltl, who started four games last season, or Siakam could get a look in a starting role once again depending on what happens with Valanciunas (he could be transitioned to a bench role even if he remains a Raptor). As for Caboclo, it might just be time to prove where he fits in the organization’s plans. Wright and Anunoby will arguably have the longest leash, with Wright possibly receiving consistent minutes for the first time in his career, and Anunoby just hoping for his first minutes.

Genuinely struggle and show no signs of handling the big stage in limited minutes, and the front office will have easier choices to make when the time comes. Seize the moment and play like they belong, and Ujiri will have more chips to play with.

Rather than hoping and wondering what might be, the Raptors have put themselves in position to find out what is, and what should be come 2020.


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