TORONTO – Precious Achiuwa scoffed at the idea that you could go into an off-season, any off-season, feeling like you know what to expect, and based on his early experience in the league, it’s hard to fault him for that.
The young big man was coming off his rookie season in Miami, less than a year after the Heat selected him with the 20th-overall pick, when he found out he was being sent to Toronto in the Kyle Lowry sign and trade.
Most NBA players get that reality check eventually – that no matter how comfortable you feel while you’re packing up your locker at the end of each season, there’s no guarantee you’ll be back – but Achiuwa hadn’t even turned 22.
“I think we have a good core of guys here that can play,” Achiuwa said on Friday, the day after his sophomore season came to an end with the Raptors’ first-round elimination. “But you never know. I heard the same thing last year too.”
There’s always some level of uncertainty going into the summer, but as the Raptors turn the page on a successful campaign, the team’s preferred direction seems clear and the off-season to-do list is relatively straightforward, at least compared to past years.
A year ago at this time, the future of two organizational pillars, Lowry and president Masai Ujiri, was up in the air. The year before that, Fred VanVleet was about to become one of the top guards on the open market.
Growing increasingly restless after another postseason ended in disappointment, Ujiri made a coaching change in the summer of 2018, then followed it up by trading a franchise cornerstone in DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. In 2019, fresh off the championship run, Raptors fans followed Leonard’s every move and anxiously awaited his decision in free agency.
All of that is to say, it’s been a while since they’ve had a quiet off-season.
This summer, most of the heavy lifting has already been done. The Raptors’ top-six players – the starters (VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam) and Achiuwa – are all under contract for next season. So is the head coach, Nick Nurse, who has a couple years left on his current deal, as well as Ujiri and his front office stuff, most of whom signed extensions last summer.
When Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster opted to keep the core intact at the trade deadline back in February, that decision was framed as a vote of confidence in that group. They wanted to give those guys the chance to continue growing together and to see what they could do over the stretch run and into the playoffs.
Although they came up short in their first-round series with Philadelphia, there’s no reason to believe the long-term vision has changed, especially after they were able to scrap and claw their way to a Game 6 after falling behind 3-0.
You never want to say never in this league, but it would be legitimately surprising if any of those six were not with the club for training camp next fall. That doesn’t mean Ujiri and Webster can take the summer off. There’s still work to be done. The challenge will be in building around that young core.
“It’s time,” VanVleet said on Friday. “It’s time now. That’s about as much building as we all want to do. I think we have the pieces and now how do you put those pieces together? Can you add a few pieces around the board, and then how do you make it work?”
Their most pressing needs were well documented throughout the season, and many of them were exposed during the Sixers series, particularly in the four losses. They could use a traditional centre or at least more size in the frontcourt for matchups against elite centres, like the one they faced in Joel Embiid. They needed more depth, especially at the guard positions, to help ease the burden on VanVleet and the other overworked starters, who all ranked towards the top of the league in minutes. Most of all, after hitting just 30 per cent of their three-point attempts over the six games against Philadelphia, they’ve got to add more shooting.
Those will likely be the top priorities as the front office looks to supplement the core with pieces that can help them get to the next level.
However, as a team that figures to operate above the salary cap, their resources to make those additions are limited. They won’t have the requisite space to be major players in free agency. They sent their first-round pick (which landed at 20th overall) to San Antonio at the deadline – the cost of swapping Goran Dragic for Thaddeus Young.
They own Detroit’s 33rd-overall pick, via the Spurs trade, and as of draft night, they’ll be able to move any of their future first-rounders. They have Bird Rights on their two unrestricted free agents, Young and Chris Boucher, which allows them to go over the cap to bring those guys back, if they choose. They’ll also have their $10.3 million midlevel exception to use.
That should be enough to help strengthen a bench that ranked last in the league in scoring last season, especially if they can retain Young and Boucher, a couple of key reserves who played important roles down the stretch. Although, it’s worth noting that for all of this front office’s success at finding talent in the draft or via trade, their track record in free agency – especially with those midlevel signings – hasn’t been great.
If they’re going to take another big step forward next season, the most notable improvements may have to come from within the current roster. After exceeding expectations in 2021-22, individually and collectively, the Raptors are banking on internal growth. There’s obvious cause for optimism.
“I think we can definitely get better from within without adding anything,” said VanVleet. “Whether we add more shooting or a big, that would obviously help, but the team we have right now, I think we can use our strengths a little bit better and that’s something we’ll address as players in the off-season to try to come back [better] next season.”
It begins with the 20-year-old Barnes, who is going into his first full off-season as an NBA player. He’ll have the summer to work with Toronto’s well-regarded development staff to try and build on his incredible Rookie of the Year campaign.
“The sky’s the limit after a summer of work and with a season under his belt,” Trent said of Barnes. “I can’t wait to see how he comes back next year.”
“He checked every box [as a rookie],” said VanVleet. “What that looks like for him next year, I don’t know. I’m not really into putting that pressure on guys for what they’re going to be, but if he comes back any per cent better than he was this year, we’ll be all right.”
Barnes has had a hectic few years, going from high school to his freshman and lone season at Florida State and then declaring for the draft. But don’t expect Barnes to take his foot off the gas now.
“I already took my deep breath,” he said on Friday. “It’s time to keep going… Just keep putting the foot on their neck.”
Achiuwa and Trent are both coming off their first full seasons in Toronto, and both made significant strides throughout the year. Achiuwa said it felt like this was his first season in the league after he played sparingly and in a very limited role with Miami as a rookie. In terms of in-season growth, there aren’t many players in basketball that improved at the rate he did with the Raptors. Now, he’ll be able to take that, and lessons learned from the highs and lows of the playoffs, into the off-season.
“If you take away youth and just put in more experience, I think we would’ve won that series,” Achiuwa said. “But I don’t see it as a bad thing. I think it was a great learning experience so this off-season we know what to work on, we know the type of focus we need to put in to avoid a situation like that, to grow and become better next year.”
Even the young vets, VanVleet and Siakam, have a lot to gain from these next few months, both financially – they’re both eligible for contract extensions – and in terms of their continued development.
Siakam was able to put together a career season, worthy of All-NBA recognition, despite spending the entirety of last summer rehabbing and recovering from shoulder surgery. This will be his first full off-season in years, and given his history of using the summer to improve his game, that’s an encouraging prospect.
“I think one thing that I’ve always wanted to do is be a complete player,” the 28-year-old forward said. “Play at all levels of the game – go all the way to the rim, mid-range and then be a threat at the three-point line. I think that is what makes me a complete player, and then ball handling. I think there is a lot more that I need to work on that I’ll probably touch on, but for now that’s what [my plan is].”
After taking some time to let a couple of his nagging injuries – the lingering knee bruise he’s been dealing with since just before the all-star break, and the hip strain he aggravated in the playoffs – heal, VanVleet plans to explore different types of treatment and conditioning routines to better withstand the grind of a long season.
“I'm never too proud to ask for help or seek out advice,” he said. “I think I'm at that crossroads where 20 points isn’t a good game anymore. I went from underrated, undrafted to overrated very fast. So I gotta start [thinking] outside the box. I gotta start doing things that I've never done before. I've gotta get uncomfortable. I’ve got to find ways to get better and so at least I can say I've done everything that I possibly could. There's still more things that I can I can explore, personally to get better and I'm looking forward to doing that this summer.”
This is a crucial summer for the Raptors, just not in the way the last few have been. They don’t have to worry about losing a key free agent or replacing a franchise icon. They might not make a big splashy move. They might not make headlines in June or July. All the while, though, the real work will be happening inside a gym in California, or Florida, or Toronto. That’s where these guys can take their games, and the team’s short and long-term future, to the next level.