Columnist image
Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

|Archive

TORONTO – This week, TSN will be exploring three different hypothetical ways in which the Raptors’ 2019-20 season could end.

In the team’s best-case scenario, the NBA returns with an abbreviated version of the playoffs late this summer and Toronto is able to finish what it started – coming out of the East and competing for another title.

On the other side of the coin, what if the season resumes but the result is less favourable for the defending champs? What if Pascal Siakam isn’t ready to take the next step and they miss the heroics of Kawhi Leonard? What if they can’t get past the Celtics in the second round? What if Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, or both, are healthy and the revamped Nets make things interesting in Round 1?

You could certainly argue that any closure is better than no closure, but ask yourself this: Would an early exit tarnish your memories of this Raptors team?

The alternative is something that nobody should want, and the NBA is desperately hoping to avoid: a lost season. Recent reports have been encouraging, as the league continues to explore a variety of contingency plans that might allow them to resume play. Cancelling the season altogether would be an absolute last resort but given the severity and uncertainty of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it remains a very real possibility.

Here, we’ll flesh out that scenario and how it could affect the Raptors in the short and longer term.

The silver lining, if the NBA is forced to cancel the campaign, is that Toronto’s legacy would remain untouched. There would be what-ifs, but no chance of heartbreak, no sour taste. Instead, we’d always remember the 2019-20 defending champion Raptors as the team that refused to be killed.

They survived the loss of Leonard and a barrage of injuries to key players en route to a second-place finish in the East. They defied the odds and exceeded all expectations. Then, in the end, the only thing that could stop them was an unprecedented, world-altering event that shut down sports.

With three prominent players – Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka – headed for free agency this coming off-season, would that unfinished business give the team or those players more incentive to run it back again?

Let’s start there.

How will the NBA’s hiatus influence Toronto’s plans in 2020?

This is not a great summer to be hitting the open market. Even before all of this, the free agent class of 2020 was expected to be underwhelming, and only a few teams projected to have significant cap space to spend with most of the league planning for what could be a loaded crop in 2021.

Now there’s a very real possibility that the cap could take a hit for next season (and beyond, perhaps), meaning there might be even less money out there for prospective free agents.

Without going into monotonous detail, the NBA’s salary cap is based off the previous year’s basketball related income (BRI) and projected forward. It has gone up in each of the past seven seasons – and 32 of the 36 seasons since it was created – in accordance with the league’s financial growth. It was set at $109 million this season and initial projections had it rising to $115 million for 2020-21.

However, with play suspended since March 11 – and factoring in the fallout from the incident with China in October – this year’s BRI will plummet. If the remainder of the season is cancelled, those losses may approach $2 billion, according to a league insider. Going by that, the salary cap could fall to as low as $95 million next season.

There’s a clause in the collective bargaining agreement that could prevent that, though. In the event of a drastic decline in revenue, the league and players association are able to negotiate and set the cap at an agreeable number. That’s what they did to normalize things after the lockout-shortened campaign in 2011-12 – taking the previous year’s cap figure of $58 million and freezing it there over the next two seasons – and they’re expected to do something similar again.

That’s good news for soon-to-be free agents, particularly somebody like VanVleet, who’s in line for a big raise. It’s a complicated situation though.

With so much cap uncertainty, look for players to avoid locking themselves into long-term deals this coming off-season. Guys who may have been planning to exercise their player options – including Spurs guard and former Raptor DeMar DeRozan – might decide to opt in instead. We could also see an influx of free agents signing one-year deals, which would allow them to re-enter the marketplace in 2021, when more teams will have space and the league is (hopefully) in a better place financially.

Suddenly, that seems like a more plausible option for VanVleet, who recently admitted he probably wouldn’t have considered a short-term deal under regular circumstances.

The undrafted point guard bet on himself again as a restricted free agent in 2018 when he signed a two-year $18 million contract with Toronto, and he’s done everything right since. At 26 and coming off a career season, VanVleet will be one of the best players available when free agency opens. It’s not unreasonable to think that his camp might ask for something in the neighbourhood of $80 million over four years.

“All of these things are fluid,” VanVleet said on a conference call last month. “I can’t talk myself into a corner. Everything’s on the table. I’m in a position where I feel like I’ve done my work and proven my worth. We’re going to position ourselves the right way, but also we’re kind of waiting to see what’s offered. We can create the deal, obviously, but nobody knows what anything’s going to look like.

“Best-case scenario, no, I wouldn’t take a short-term deal. But obviously this is not a best-case scenario for anybody. I’ll just say I’m flexible. I’m open. I’ll listen.”

Only six or seven teams figure to have that kind of cap space this summer and just a couple of them – Detroit and New York – are in need of a point guard.

To review, the Raptors want to keep VanVleet and VanVleet wants to stay in Toronto – both parties have made that clear. However, there’s probably a number Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster can’t or won’t exceed to retain him while also maintaining their coveted cap flexibility for 2021.

Meanwhile, VanVleet – a savvy businessman himself – and his camp will obviously be looking to maximize his value.

His options to get a big long-term deal this summer might be limited, but all it takes is one offer. Maybe a team like Detroit sees the quieter market as an opportunity to get ahead of the 2021 spending spree. If that big offer doesn’t come, or if it’s not desirable, a one-year agreement with Toronto might be mutually beneficial.

Theoretically, they could give him a generous amount – say, $20 million – for next season without tying up their space for 2021 (the same idea as Kyle Lowry’s extension), then VanVleet could test free agency in a more lucrative market the following summer.

As for Gasol and Ibaka, there’s a good chance the Raptors were already planning to offer one or both of them a one-year deal. Given the team’s aspirations for the summer of 2021, it’s hard to see them committing to either veteran centre long term.

That might’ve been a tougher sell before the pandemic, especially for Ibaka, who is only 30 and coming off a career year. Now, it’s certainly possible they’d be more agreeable to returning for next season and going from there.

With Lowry owed $30 million in the final year of his deal and Siakam’s extension kicking in next season, the Raptors were likely going to be acting as a cap team and wouldn’t have been active in free agency this summer anyway. They can go over the cap (and into the luxury tax, if they choose) to re-sign their own guys. The league’s current financial climate could actually put them in a better position to do that.

One player who would be most affected by a cancelled season and any hit to the cap for next season – not just on the Raptors but in the entire league – is Siakam. When he signed his maximum contract extension last fall it was for a reported $130 million over four years. That figure is just an estimate, based on the cap projection at the time.

Siakam actually signed for a percentage of the cap. Next season – the first of his new deal – he will make 25 per cent of whatever the salary cap turns out to be (or 28 per cent if he makes All-NBA Second Team for this season and 29 per cent if he makes All-NBA First Team), with annual raises each of the following three years.

In the unlikely event the cap falls from $115 million – as initially projected – down to, say, $95 million, Siakam’s four-year salary would go from $130 million to roughly $110 million. Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Denver’s Jamal Murray, who also signed rookie-scale contract extensions prior to the season, would be in the same boat.

That’s one of the reasons why the NBAPA is unlikely to allow a drastic decline in the cap. Still, any drop-off – even a minimal one – would have direct implications on Siakam’s salary and Toronto’s payroll over the next four years.

How will the NBA’s hiatus influence Toronto’s plans in 2021?

So much of the intrigue surrounding the summer of 2021 – for the Raptors and for the rest of the league – is tied to the potential availability of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The reigning MVP is under contract until the end of 2020-21, but he’s eligible to sign a designated veteran extension – commonly known as the supermax – this coming off-season. The Bucks have already said they’ll offer it. If Antetokounmpo accepts he could make up to 35 per cent of the cap over five additional seasons with Milwaukee.

Even in a cap freeze (or decline), the supermax would pay him more than he could get from another team in free agency a year later, but it would be worth significantly less than initially expected.

The bigger question is whether a lost season might impact his decision. After years of playoff disappointment, the Greek Freak has made it clear: he expects the Bucks to take the obvious next step and make the finals this year. Many believe his future in Milwaukee is contingent on it.

But what if there is no ending to the campaign and they don’t even get the chance to prove they’re on the right track before Giannis has to make his crucial, league-altering decision in the off-season? Would he be more reluctant to sign the extension and therefore more likely to play out his contract and explore unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career? The Bucks have a lot to lose if the season is cancelled, probably more than any other team.

Outside of Antetokounmpo, who will be highly coveted if he’s looking for a new home, the free agent class of 2021 might be a bit overhyped. Guys like LeBron James, Leonard and Paul George all have player options but are expected to stay where they are, even if they opt out and sign new deals.

Still, there will be talent available – maybe a lot of it if a bunch of the 2020 guys defer their free agency. In addition to Antetokounmpo, the pool of players could include Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday, Rudy Gobert, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge, Steven Adams, Spencer Dinwiddie and Lowry.

Anthony Davis, DeRozan, Gordon Hayward, Andre Drummond and Mike Conley all have player options for 2020-21. Meanwhile, any of the players from the talented 2017 draft class (Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo, Donovan Mitchell, Jonathan Isaac, Lonzo Ball, John Collins, Lauri Markkanen, De’Aaron Fox, Kyle Kuzma and OG Anunoby, among others) who don’t sign an extension before next season would become a restricted free agent in 2021.

Currently, Toronto only has one guaranteed contract on the books past 2020-21, and that’s Siakam’s. Norman Powell has a player option for 2021-22 ($11.6 million), though there’s a reasonable chance he’ll opt out (assuming he can build off his 2019-20 breakout). They’ll have to make a call on Anunoby, who is eligible for an extension in the off-season. VanVleet’s contract situation will also be a factor.

However it shakes out, the Raptors should have enough space to add a max player in 2021. That doesn’t necessarily put them in an advantageous position in and of itself – two-thirds of the league could have money to spend by that point – but it’s not a bad time to have financial flexibility.