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Barnes extension starts clock on Raptors’ rebuild


TORONTO – Unofficially, Scottie Barnes was crowned face of the franchise the moment Pascal Siakam – the last remaining piece of the Raptors’ championship core – was traded this past January, but he’ll soon have the paycheque to match that title.

As ESPN reported on Monday and TSN can confirm, Toronto’s all-star guard has agreed to sign a five-year maximum rookie-scale contract extension once the NBA’s moratorium is lifted on July 6.

Barnes still has one year left on his rookie contract that will pay him just north of $10 million next season. His new deal, which kicks in for the 2025-26 campaign and runs through 2029-30, will make him the highest-paid player in the team’s 30-year history. It will net him at least $225 million and up to $270 million depending on individual incentives, which include making All-NBA.

It a huge payday for the 22-year-old and a big, public vote of confidence in the player he is and can become. If there was ever any doubt following a shaky sophomore showing, Toronto saw everything it needed to see well before a hand injury prematurely ended his impressive third season. While surgery cost him the final 22 games, Barnes averaged 19.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks through the first 60 contests, becoming the only player in the league to put up those numbers in 2023-24.

The Raptors plan was to offer Barnes a max contract extension the moment he became eligible – which turned out to be last Tuesday, the day after the Finals ended – and players coming off their rookie deals generally don’t turn down max money. So, while this was inevitable, the fact that they got it done early is encouraging and should be helpful for the team going into a busy stretch of the off-season.

Of course, in the modern era of the NBA, signing a five-year deal with a team doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be with that team for five years. By all accounts, Barnes is happy in Toronto and wants to be a Raptor long term, but there will undoubtedly be pressure on the organization to make sure it stays that way.

That means surrounding Barnes with the right pieces – beginning with this week’s draft, where Toronto owns picks No. 19 and 31 – and building a competitive team around him.

It’s not going to happen overnight, and Barnes understands that. Coming off a disappointing 25-57 season, the Raptors are in the early stages of a rebuild, with only Barnes and a few other potential core pieces under team control moving forward.

Barnes’ continued development will also go a long way in determining how quickly they get things turned around. He knows that too.

But staying patient is easier said than done. This is not a player who has much tolerance for losing, which is one of the reasons the team was willing to bet on him as the fourth-overall pick back in 2021, and then again with a max deal three years later.

In Toronto’s position, having a player of Barnes’ calibre can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s not a bad place to start, as Masai Ujiri often points out. Most rebuilding teams need to be bad – in a lot of cases very bad – for multiple seasons in the hopes of getting their hands on a franchise cornerstone. The Raptors are confident that they already have one.

But what if Ujiri, Bobby Webster and Co. decide that the best way forward is to take a strategic step backwards next season – a plan that became more appealing when Toronto’s top-six protected first-round pick in the 2024 draft fell to eighth and conveyed to San Antonio?

One could argue that being bad – or, for lack of a better term, tanking – for one more year and adding another high lottery pick in the stacked 2025 draft to pair with Barnes might put them in a better position to build a contender. But with a healthy Barnes, this team, as currently constructed, is probably too good to completely bottom out, especially if he takes another sizeable leap in Year 4. And then there’s the question of whether he would be on board with something like that, and if not, whether it’s worth the risk of alienating him just as his new deal takes into effect.

If they’re in need of a blueprint with which to sell him on, look no further than MVP runner-up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Oklahoma City Thunder, who went from being a 14th-place team to the West’s top seed in two years thanks to a well-executed tank.

Gilgeous-Alexander signed his max rookie extension between two seasons in which OKC went a combined 46-108. He stayed patient as the Thunder developed young players, lost games, shut him down early, and collected the lottery picks that ultimately turned into Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams, among other key pieces in their eventual turnaround.

How much longer would he have remained loyal to the cause before setting his sights on more glamourous markets, as so many other stars have done before? Fortunately, they never had to find out and are well-positioned to contend in the Western Conference for years to come.

That’s not the only attainable path, to be sure. The Raptors must decide what makes the most sense for them.

They could have paid Barnes while also retaining Siakam, who just agreed to a four-year, $189.5 million max contract to stay in Indiana, and OG Anunoby, who’s said to be looking for an annual salary upwards of $35 million in free agency. But doing so would have meant paying the luxury tax for a play-in calibre team that, for whatever reason, could never deliver on its potential. And, according to a couple sources with knowledge of the team’s innerworkings, the front office was concerned about muddying the waters if Barnes – the future face of the franchise – wasn’t the highest-paid player in the locker room.

Now that he will be, the question is: How do they intend to maximize the seasons leading into his prime? We may not have a clear view of that plan this summer, which is fine, but the decisions they make over the coming weeks should still be telling.

They have until Friday to make a call on Bruce Brown’s $23 million team option for next season. All indications are that the Raptors intend to pick it up and look to move the veteran guard as early as this week. They continue to shop him ahead of the draft, but at least a few league insiders are sceptical about what Toronto could get in return.

In theory, Brown and his expiring contract make for an interesting trade chip – even after a down season, a contending team could surely use a player who’s just two years removed from filling a key role off the bench for the title-winning Nuggets.

Still, there’s a reason why the Raptors weren’t enamoured with the offers for Brown at last season’s deadline, or why they needed to add a first-round pick to Goran Dragic’s big expiring contract – a similar asset – just to get Thaddeus Young back in 2022. As one league source put it, a player loses value when everybody knows you’re trying to move him, and that he isn’t part of your long-term plan.

Per the rules of the new CBA, the Raptors have been able to negotiate with their own free agents since last week. The belief is that they’ve had preliminary conversations with Immanuel Quickley (a restricted free agent) and Gary Trent Jr., though it’s hard to see anything getting done before Saturday, when free agents can test the market and start talking to other teams.

Outside of a Barnes extension, retaining Quickley was the closest thing to a lock for the Raptors going into the off-season and that hasn’t changed. It won’t be cheap. Whether they re-sign him outright or are forced to match an offer sheet, the annual salary on his next deal is expected to start at $25 million. Still, they didn’t trade for him just to let him walk.

Together, he and Barnes could be making nearly 50 per cent of the cap by 2025-26, but the Raptors remain excited about that duo, especially after Quickley’s strong finish to the season. The dynamic guard, who turned 25 last week, averaged 21.2 points and 7.8 assists, shooting 39 per cent on 7.9 three-point attempts in 18 games after the all-star break.

How Trent fits in with those two, in addition to fellow perimeter players RJ Barrett and Gradey Dick, and how much it might cost to bring him back are less clear. He too is 25, so he checks off that box, and the Raptors will need shooters on the floor as Barnes continues his evolution as a playmaker. But with the holes in his game, especially on the defensive end, and after Sixth Man runner-up Malik Monk just got $78 million over four years, he may have to take a pay cut on the $18.5 million he made last season.   

But before the Raptors really dig into free agency, the draft awaits and remains the most realistic way to complement Barnes with the young and inexpensive talent they’ll need to turn the corner. The 19th and 31st overall picks in what’s believed to be a weak draft aren’t where you would generally expect to a hit a home run, but in Toronto’s case, even a single or a double will do.

“It’s wide open,” Raptors assistant GM Dan Tolzman said on the eve of Wednesday’s first round. “The range of players is about as wide as I can ever remember, so that really makes it difficult to try and project which guys we can safely cross off the list. So, there’s an added level of uncertainty that I’d say isn’t common for this close to the draft.”

The Raptors have kept Barnes in mind throughout this pre-draft process, as they do whenever they’re making important personnel decision. Fortunately, his versatile skill set pairs well with many different player types.

Unfortunately, this is not a team that’s in the position to be drafting for need. They need more shooting. They could use a physical wing defender, or a rim-running big, or a backup point guard. They need a lot of things. Their general philosophy has always been to take the best player available, and now more than ever, they simply need to be adding talent, wherever, whenever, and however they can.

They’ve got their core piece, and now that Barnes is under contract long term and being paid as a young superstar – the type of player the Raptors believe he’s well on his way to becoming – the clock starts on their rebuild.