Columnist image
Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

|Archive

TORONTO – There’s no replacing a player like Kawhi Leonard. Anybody expecting the Toronto Raptors to try, at least in the short term, is going to be disappointed.

Leonard is arguably the best player in basketball right now. At worst, he’s a top-five NBA talent. A two-time champion and the winner of a couple of Finals MVP awards, he’s a true superstar in every sense of the word.

Those guys don’t grow on trees. In fact, some teams wait decades for one to come along.

The Raptors had him, albeit briefly. They won a title with him. However, they always knew this was a reasonable possibility, that he could leave and force them to regroup on the fly. They had no choice but to prepare for this scenario.

The immediate fallout is unfortunate, yet obvious: their chances of repeating in 2019-20 are slim. Their window to contend, as short-lived as it was, has closed but their outlook isn’t as bleak as one might imagine, given what they lost when Leonard decided to go home and join Paul George with the Los Angeles Clippers.

The biggest reason for that is the low-risk – or perhaps no-risk – trade that brought Leonard to Toronto in the first place. When team president Masai Ujiri pulled the trigger on that blockbuster deal with San Antonio last July, he declined to include budding star Pascal Siakam or intriguing young forward OG Anunoby – both of whom the Spurs pushed for – while also holding on to their first-round picks after 2019.

The price for Leonard and Danny Green, another integral part of Toronto’s rotation last year, was DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first-rounder – not an insignificant cost by any means, but it allowed the Raptors to retain their most valuable assets and should help make the transition to whatever comes next a lot smoother.

What comes next?

This upcoming season should be a bridge year. As currently constructed, the Raptors will remain competitive. Not unlike last year, they’ll tinker and experiment, this time with more of an emphasis on the future, but they’re talented enough to exceed expectations and win a lot of games in a wide-open Eastern Conference.

As of Thursday, most betting sites had the Raptors’ over-under set at 43.5 wins. Assuming good health and barring a roster overhaul, it’s hard to see them falling short of that number.

What’s lost in the narrative, as Raptors fans mourn Leonard’s departure and casual fans jump off the bandwagon, is that the team’s plan – both in the short-term and long-term – isn’t much different than it would have been prior to last summer’s blockbuster trade.

Are they worse off? If so, it’s not by much.

The DeRozan and Kyle Lowry-led Raptors won at least 48 games and qualified for the playoffs in five straight seasons. They won 59 games and finished first in the East in 2017-18.

That team had DeRozan – their leading scorer and all-star. This team has a much-improved Siakam – a player on an all-star trajectory. He probably won’t score as much as DeRozan did, but given his all-around skill set, versatility and upside, you can make a compelling argument that he might be – and maybe already is – more valuable than DeRozan.

That team had Lowry at, or close to, his peak. Lowry is a couple years older now, but he’s coming off an excellent postseason and his first NBA championship. He’s going into the final year of his deal with a chance to earn one last big contract, so he shouldn’t be lacking for motivation.

That team had Jonas Valanciunas. This team has Marc Gasol.

Depth could be the differentiator. The 2017-18 club featured the league’s best bench. It was the strength of that team throughout the regular season. Next season’s team won’t have Poeltl, Delon Wright or C.J. Miles, but Fred VanVleet, Anunoby and Norman Powell are all better than they were, and the Raptors are hoping that at least a couple of their recent additions will help fill the void.

Even without Leonard and Green, now a member of the L.A. Lakers, the Raptors are over the salary cap. It’s the reason why they were well positioned to wait out Leonard’s decision. There was no opportunity cost because they wouldn’t have been chasing marquee free agents even if they knew he was leaving. However, they should avoid dipping into the luxury tax this season.

Over the last week, the Raptors have used part of their mid-level exception – and possibly their bi-annual exception – as well as minimum contracts to add four wing players: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, former Piston Stanley Johnson, sharpshooter Matt Thomas and undrafted guard Terence Davis. They also re-signed three-time NBA champion Patrick McCaw.

In Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson, Toronto is taking low-risk fliers on a couple forwards who were once highly touted and have shown promise as NBA players, but never reached their potential. They both have elite defensive upside with significant holes in their offensive games.

Johnson – a former eighth-overall pick – is a 29 per cent career three-point shooter. Hollis-Jefferson shot 22 per cent from long range in four seasons with Brooklyn. McCaw, the long and active defender Toronto brought in last season, has hit 30 per cent of his threes through three seasons.

Ujiri has shown he isn’t afraid to gamble on those types of players. Shooting is a skill that can be taught. You can’t teach length, athleticism or defensive instincts. Anunoby had a similar profile coming out of college but he’s hit 35 per cent of his threes as a pro. Siakam had one of the worst three-point shooting seasons in NBA history as a sophomore (22 per cent on 132 attempts) but shot better than league average last year (37 per cent on 214 attempts).

The Raptors are betting they can turn at least one of their value signings into a threat from beyond the arc. They’re still young – Johnson and McCaw are 23 and Hollis-Jefferson is 24 – and each of them is a reliable jumper away from becoming a productive rotation player, at minimum.

The core should look similar, minus Leonard and Green.

Lowry, Gasol and Serge Ibaka are all going into the final year of their contracts and are expected to open the year in Toronto. As TSN reported on Wednesday, the Raptors aren’t planning to trade any of the veterans before the season.

At least part of their reasoning could be sentimental. Those three have earned the right to be at Scotiabank Arena when the team unveils its championship banner and hands out the rings on opening night – particularly Lowry – and at least try to defend the title.

Mostly, Ujiri wants to see what this group is capable of before choosing a path and deciding what comes next. We’ve seen that approach from him before. Ujiri has made some bold moves since taking his post atop the Raptors’ front office in 2013, but he’s also been patient and given his teams the chance to sink or swim.

He kept the trio of DeRozan, Lowry and Dwane Casey together longer than most anticipated in a credit to the success they shared in Toronto. After several missed opportunities to reach the next level, Ujiri finally opted to change course.

Depending on how this team fares over the first few months of the season, they could be open for business by the trade deadline. At some point, Ujiri will almost certainly gauge the market for the expiring contracts, though they might be tough to move even if that becomes the preferred option.

Lowry will make $35 million this season, with Gasol earning $26 million and Ibaka getting $23 million. The Raptors would have to take back matching salary to trade them during the season. They’re unlikely to do that if it means eating long-term money, unless a team likes one of those guys enough to send an asset back.

How good can this team be, assuming they’re kept together? Their ceiling isn’t far off those DeRozan-led teams – 50-plus wins and maybe winning a round or two. Their floor is probably a bottom-tiered playoff team and first-round exit.

Nobody in the East has run away with the conference this summer. Last year’s first seed, the Bucks, are likely the team to beat, though they took a small step back in losing underrated point guard Malcolm Brogdon. The 76ers will be different after replacing Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick with Al Horford and Josh Richardson, but different doesn’t always mean better.

Then what? Even if you believe Kemba Walker is a better fit for the Celtics than Kyrie Irving was, Boston will miss Horford, who they didn’t replace. The future in Brooklyn is bright after the Nets’ big coup this summer, but they won’t have Kevin Durant this season as he recovers from his Achilles injury. We also don’t know when Indiana will get Victor Oladipo back healthy.

The Raptors could have some issues offensively, particularly with their spacing. They were an inconsistent shooting team last season, now you subtract Green, who hit 46 per cent of his threes (second best in the NBA), and Leonard (37 per cent), and add a couple of non-shooters on the wing.

They may have to win games on the defensive end, where they still have the talent to be a special team. They’re long and versatile with guys who can play and guard multiple positions and give innovative head coach Nick Nurse some fun lineup combinations to experiment with.

They’ll hand the keys over to Siakam – who is eligible for a contract extension ahead of the season – and see if he’s ready to be a featured player. He averaged 19.1 points (up from his season average of 16.9) on 55 per cent shooting in 21 games without Leonard last season. The Raptors went 16-5 in those games.

After a tough sophomore season, both on and off the court, they’ll hope Anunoby makes the jump they were expecting him to take last year.

Then, regardless of how this coming season plays out, Ujiri will have the roster flexibility he’s spent the last few years planning for. With Lowry, Gasol, Ibaka and VanVleet hitting the open market next summer, the Raptors will have more than $90 million coming off their books. Currently, they only have Powell under guaranteed contract following this season, though they’re expected to pick up Anunoby’s fourth-year option and extend Siakam.

Now, with Leonard and Green both gone, the DeRozan trade serves as a salary dump (oh, and they also got a championship out of it). DeRozan is owed $27.7 million next season and has a player option for the same amount the following year. While he likely would have opted out to sign another long-term deal – with Toronto or elsewhere – the Raptors no longer have to worry about that money.

Beginning in the summer of 2020, Ujiri can rebuild or retool or pivot in any direction he chooses. Maybe the Raptors become players in next summer’s free agency market, which isn’t expected to be a deep one. Maybe they use the space to take on big, unwanted short-term money and collect assets ahead of the more anticipated off-season of 2021 when Giannis Antetokounmpo – a player Ujiri has coveted for years – could be available.

“I think we got a great deal out of this,” Ujiri said on Tuesday, speaking for the first time since Leonard made his decision last weekend. “We won a championship, so we’re happy. And honestly it’s on to the next. This is the NBA and this is how it works. I always say there’s no time to go out and cry. You can’t hide under the table and cry. Honestly, I’ve lost no sleep. I’m not disappointed. It’s on to what’s next. I’m telling Raptors fans and everybody: don’t lose one day of sleep, one second of sleep. We’re going to be just fine. We’re going to be all right.”

Here’s a look at the Raptors roster for next season, as currently constructed:

Guard: Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, Patrick McCaw, Matt Thomas, Terence Davis, Jordan Loyd (two-way).

Forward: OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Malcolm Miller (nonguaranteed), Sagaba Konate (Exhibit 10), Dewan Hernandez (unsigned second-round pick).

Centre: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher (partial guarantee).

 

Notes:

- The Raptors have 12 players on guaranteed deals. They can have up to 20 players signed going into training camp but must cut the roster down to as many as 15 players, or as few as 14 on guaranteed NBA contracts, going into the season. They can also have up to two players on two-way deals.

- Miller’s contract becomes fully guaranteed on July 24. Given their newfound depth on the wing, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Raptors let him go before then. Boucher’s deal doesn’t become guaranteed until the start of the season so, at minimum, they’ll keep him through camp.

- Hernandez remains unsigned. As a second-round pick, he’s not bound to the contractual rules and restrictions that apply to first-rounders. The Raptors can sign him to a regular NBA deal, make him a two-way or affiliate player with Raptors 905 of the G League, or let him go altogether.

- The starters are and could remain fluid, especially into camp and early in the season, with Lowry and Siakam as the only locks.

- Even though Gasol finished last season as a starter, it’s conceivable he and Ibaka could platoon at centre again. The two bigs shared the centre position after Gasol was acquired last February and they fully bought in, though it should be noted they were doing so for a contending team. It’s fair to wonder whether Ibaka would be as willing to sacrifice for a non-contender. For what it’s worth, Raptors officials have spoken to Ibaka about the possibility of a platoon or even coming off the bench and don’t think it’ll be an issue. If it becomes a problem, they’ll address it then.

- Look for VanVleet to start a lot of games alongside Lowry. That’s a small backcourt and it may not work against some teams, but you can get away with it on most nights as more and more teams are using multiple point guards together. Both play bigger than their height and can hold their ground defensively and the Raptors would have size on the floor at the other three positions. Nurse loves that pairing and the team wants to see if VanVleet can be a starter and perhaps eventually inherit the point guard position from Lowry. VanVleet started 28 games last year, including 14 with Lowry. The Raptors went 13-1 in those games. Remember, Siakam and Anunoby were supposed to split starts at the four last season but Siakam ran away with the job. This could start off as a VanVleet-Powell platoon, but don’t be surprised if VanVleet wins out.​