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Raptors get head start on off-season with Olynyk extension

Kelly Olynyk Toronto Raptors Kelly Olynyk - Getty Images

TORONTO – In all likelihood, the Raptors’ season will end earlier than it has in more than a decade.

Last year, they played 83 games before their postseason hopes were extinguished in the play-in tournament. On account of the pandemic, their ill-fated campaign in Tampa started late and, therefore, didn’t end until mid-May.

Unless they can leapfrog 11th-place Brooklyn and catch 10th-place Atlanta for the last play-in spot – they’re 3.5 games back heading into Tuesday night’s slate – their final game of 2023-24 will come in Miami on Apr. 14. The chances of extending the season took a significant hit with the news that their best player, Scottie Barnes, underwent surgery to repair a broken finger on his left hand and is expected to miss most, if not all of the team’s remaining 21 contests.

Without much at stake over these next six weeks, it’s not too early to start looking ahead to and planning for what should be a crucial off-season, and that’s exactly what they did in signing Kelly Olynyk to a contract extension this week.

Olynyk and the Raptors have been working towards an extension since the veteran Toronto-born centre was acquired from Utah at the trade deadline last month. On Monday, they agreed to a two-year deal worth a reported $26.25 million – the most that he was eligible for under the league’s collective bargaining agreement. Think of it as getting a four-month head start on their summer business.

From the moment Olynyk joined the team – coming over with Ochai Agbaji in exchange for Otto Porter Jr., Kira Lewis and a late 2024 first-round pick – the Raptors made it clear, privately and publicly, that they saw him as a long-term fit next to the young core they were starting to build around. The feeling was mutual, as it turned out.

Olynyk could have become an unrestricted free agent this summer, where he would’ve been eligible for a longer and more lucrative contract. But instead of waiting to test those waters, the 32 year old opted for certainty and security in the form of an extension, which he could have signed up until the end of June.

“They traded for me, they wanted me here,” Olynyk said on Tuesday. “Just to reciprocate that love and show that I do want to be here, too – I’ve wanted to be here since I was four years old. It’s special, to create that trust and that bond. Hopefully I’ll be here for the rest of my career.”

His first three weeks and nine games with the club have only reaffirmed that desire to move forward together. While Olynyk has only hit 26 per cent of his three-point attempts with Toronto – down from a career-best 43 per cent as a member of the Jazz this season – there’s little doubt that the jumper will come around and his comfort level will continue to grow as he gets more reps with his new teammates.

He’s averaging 9.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists in nearly 21 minutes per contest with the Raptors. But beyond the numbers, he’s already established himself as the veteran lynchpin of a young and intriguing bench unit that’s included the 23-year-old Agbaji, 27-year-old Bruce Brown and rookie 20-year-old Gradey Dick.

“I think we have a lot of talent on this team, a lot of young talent trying to find their way and their niche in this league,” said the 11-year vet. “Just [trying] to bring my experience and versatility to help accent those pieces and bring them all together. Some leadership and experience on and off the court, and just helping them grow into what they hopefully they can be.”

With his ability to shoot and make plays, Olynyk has proven to be an ideal fit in head coach Darko Rajakovic’s offensive system. He gives them a bit of a different look as a floor-spacing big behind a more traditional centre in Jakob Poeltl, though both are excellent passers. He’s a steadying presence or “connector,” as Rajakovic has called him, off the bench but can seamlessly step in as a starter, which will be the case against New Orleans on Tuesday night and for however long Poeltl is out with a dislocated finger.

He’s also a good, high-character vet, which is important for a team in the initial stages of a rebuild, and not for nothing, he wants to be in Toronto. And $13 million or so – right around the mid-level exception or league average salary – is a reasonable price for a player who checks off that many boxes.

“It’s nice to replant some roots,” Olynyk said. “And really enjoy being home and helping this franchise be able to get back where it’s been.”

And the cost certainty doesn’t hurt going into the summer. Had he hit free agency, Olynyk’s cap hold would have been north of $18 million, higher than the annual salary of his next contract. Assuming the plan was to bring him back, and it was, that could’ve limited the Raptors’ prized flexibility early in the offseason.

If they decline Brown’s team option and renounce the rights to pending UFA Gary Trent Jr., they could theoretically open up as much as $36 million in cap space. That’s not to say that they’ll go that route or be players in free agency. If anything, that scenario seems unlikely.

Historically, this is not a franchise that’s had success recruiting stars – or even impact players – in the open market, and for what it’s worth, this is not expected to be a particularly strong free agent class. That said, their new-found financial flexibility could come in handy as tax teams look to evade harsh penalties under the new CBA and, perhaps, unload useful players or assets into somebody else’s cap room.

It may or may not come to pass, but getting the Olynyk signing done early keeps the door open to those options.

There’s also an added benefit for Olynyk: It clears the way for him to represent his country in the Paris Olympics this summer. Without a contract, it would have been difficult to secure his insurance ahead of Canada’s training camp, which opens in Toronto in late June, a few weeks before the start of NBA free agency.

“That was definitely a big part of it, as well, getting this out of the way,” said Olynyk, a long-time member of the national team. “To not have [the contract situation] on your plate and your mind, just be able to play free and easy, and then obviously in the summer just be able to work out, train, and be present right at the start with no complications was a big factor. That also played a huge part in the decision.”