Coming into this season there was a very polarizing view of the Toronto Raptors amongst fans; some liked the roster and others hated it (like yours truly). Then the season started and everyone had the same view, this team was not very good. Instead of chalking this up to a tough schedule (a la Colangelo) Masai accepted his team had no chance to contend and made a change. At this point I am not sure if he was doing it to improve the team or not; while Rudy Gay's talent was obvious the fact is he did not fit with this team. He had a -0.8 OWS in his time with the Raptors this season; if you look at all the NBA players Rudy was at the bottom of that category.
When Rudy was traded some thought that the tank was on, however the exact opposite happened; the bench was solidified, the starter's roles were defined and the team took off. Very rarely does trading away your most talented player have this effect but I think that is because rarely is a plan so flawed and a pieces fit so poorly. I don't know if Masai saw this coming but either way the rest of the story is history: the team took off, won their second Atlantic division title, DeMar DeRozan was an all-star, Kyle Lowry was even better (even if not acknowledged) and the team won the hearts of Toronto. The team is young, with improving talent but the question is where do we go from here? And this question makes the future of Toronto more complicated than ever before.
When discussing the future of this team it is important to keep our hearts out of it. This team won the hearts of Toronto by playing unselfish and hard. However, if we are truly bent on building a contender, the team is going to have to make some very difficult and calculated decisions in the near future. When talking about a contender I think it realistically has to be a team that has a 5 year window where they are considered to have a shot at a championship. I don't think it is realistic to expect the Miami Heart or San Antonio Spurs' level of success, the team just doesn't have many of the same caliber core pieces nor the culture/history at this point. However, if the Raptors can achieve Detroit Pistons-level success - the 2000's Pistons, not the recent Josh Smith incarnation - it would be great. Having a team that is always in the hunt to get out of the conference and potentially challenge for a title should be within the realm of possibility, especially in the East, so the question is, how do we get there?
Masai has shown that he is incredible at managing his assets, look at the Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay trades; both players had a value (which was at an all time low) and he was able to turn them into a pieces that had more value and helped the team. Think of it as selling a stock at a high point and then buying another stock at a low point and watching it soar. A few months ago I wrote an article about why tanking is the necessary path for the Raptors, however several teams have shown why this is a risky strategy. The 76ers had their sights set on Wiggins but look like they will now miss him and teams like the Lakers and Celtics do not look like they got the 'luck' they needed and are now forced to make tough decisions regarding their next steps. I don't think tanking is an option anymore for the Toronto Raptors, however, I don't know if the picture has become any clearer then it was before this season. Masai has shown a tremendous ability to manage assets and have great regular season success, but playoff success is much different. All four Conference Finalists have legitimate stars; George, Duncan/Parker, LeBron and Durant/Westbrook. (And despite age and injuries, you could throw guys like Ginobili and Wade in the mix.) The Raptors do not have a player at that level.
The question is, do they need one?
I would say yes as we've seen time and time again, that once you reach game two or three of a playoff series there are no more tricks and you need an individual talent that can consistently get their own shot or draw a double team. At some point if you want to win a championship the management of assets likely means turning some of the lesser ones into a high-calibre player. What that means is that the Raptors will likely have to package some young players, draft picks, and/or sacrifice financial flexibility to obtain said player.
Let me be clear, I am not advocating blowing up this team. They played great basketball after the Rudy trade and had a chance to get out of the first round. This is a young, and developing team. However, what I am very leery about what is going to happen in the future because I want to see continued growth from this team and not regression and plateauing. Is this group a young Thunder or Pacers team that will soon be challenging for Conference titles, or are they an Atlanta Hawks bunch, with a second round ceiling? The key for the future of this team is going to be correctly predicting what some of their assets are going to become. Predicting the future is an extremely difficult job but to be successful long term, it needs to be done. For the Toronto Raptors I feel there are certain assets that need to be handled correctly if the team is going to reach a level where they can contend for a title.
Let's start with...
Talk about selling high, the real question around DeRozan is how much better can he get? Demar had a career season after the Rudy Gay trade and he had a pretty good playoff showing. Right now he is viewed as an All-Star and the media buzz around him cannot do anything but help his value. He is on a decent contract (much better than many of us thought when it was originally inked) and he is locked in for another two seasons at $9.5M but will undoubtedly be a free agent (and turn down his player option) if his current progression continues or even stays at this level. So what does Masai do with him?
To be honest, I have no idea what Masai should do but there are two very clear paths to choose from; keep him and build around him as a budding all-star or trade him at his peak value. The conundrum about DeMar is this; I see clear limitations in him because of his lack of lateral movement, not great length and poor jump shooting. That being said the value that he presents at 9.5million makes him a definite asset, especially considering the dearth of top notch shooting guards in the L, and the fact that he's shown improvement every year, and could keep developing.
But does his development hinder that of a Raptors' prospect with higher upside? Another concern I have with DeRozan is that I see him and Ross both as 2-guards, and in the current NBA I think that Ross' length, lateral quickness and 3 point shooting makes him a much more valuable player than DeRozan. Allowing Ross to play the shooting guard spot and pairing him with another player of that build and skill set at the "3," seems much more beneficial to the team.
And yet maybe DeRozan solidifies that three-point shot, and continues to improve on D? I cannot over-emphasize how impressive DeMar's continued growth is, every season we say that he has reached his peak and every year he comes back even better. If Demar is able to add another facet to his game this summer it will improve on what is already a 21ppg/4apg/4rpg player, who also fared pretty well in advanced stats this year. (For a change.) Another step in the right direction and maybe he breaches that Paul George type level. So the question is, is this the best DeMar has to offer? If it is then Masai needs to sell high on him. But if not? Maybe DeRozan can be one of those key building blocks for the future?
Jonas and Terrence
While each deserves their own category I feel like it would be repetitive to talk about them both in separate fashion. The simple fact is if the team is kept 'as is' (no major moves) these two represent the most viable area for improvements. They are both so young and talented and showed that over the course of the season and to some extent in the playoffs (Jonas obviously much more than Ross.) Both have moments of absolutely brilliance but lack veteran consistency. Moving forward these two must becomes pillars for the franchise if they are to take the next step. Jonas poses absolute nightmarish match up problems for teams in the NBA and Ross has the length, skill and athleticism to be a great two way player. To add to their value, both will most likely be Raptors for the next 6 years if the team wants, based on the way NBA contracts are constructed. Both these players seem vital to the continued growth of the organization but like DeRozan, the key is how much do they improve? If both are able to make huge strides next year the Raptors could move from fringe contender to serious threats in the East.
And yet there's always the flip side; what if they don't?
Even if they did not improve they are good value players. Personally I think the playoff experience will help both and each will come back a better player. However, how much room is there for each player to grow? If the team is kept 'as is' the roles for each will not be of the primary options but as complimentary players. Obviously you need complimentary players but what Masai needs to evaluate correctly is who should be the complimentary players, and who should be tasked as key building blocks. Both Jonas and Ross seem to be better equipped to be focal points of a team because of their physical attributes, however, both are nowhere near as polished as DeRozan or Lowry. So the question is, how much room is there for them to grow and will they be able to grow while not being focal points in what the team does.
As much as everyone will talk specifically about Lowry; Patterson and Vasquez will have a huge impact on the future of this franchise as well. However, the Raptors need to make sure that they come back at a fair price. Dhackett recently posted a great break down of the Raptors salary cap situation. This year the Raptors can have a $18.7M in cap space if they let all four of their free agents walk. That will almost surely not happen. Realistically Toronto will have no cap space this year, however the year after they could have around $10M in space depending on future signings.
From Dhackett's article
"They could be looking at having a core of Lowry, DD, Ross, JV, Patterson, GV, 2014 draft pick and 2015 draft pick locked in and still have that cap space to play with in adding a big name. But signing players to multiple year deals with the MLE or bi-annual exception will eat into that cap space, so care needs to be taken this summer."
While all of these players were essential to the success of the Raptors bringing them back at the right price is essential for continued success. What is the right price? Here's my take:
De Colo: $1.5M-$2M
That would put the Raps somewhere between $72M and $78M. With $19Mn coming off of the Raptor's books next year that would put the team between $53M-$59M, with another expected increase in the cap (let's assume it goes to $66M) that would give Toronto between $13M and $17M to play with. Managing the books is something Masai has shown to be adept at and does not seem to be a major concern. However, the market for Lowry is going to be very important to the future of this franchise. Since he's been in the league for a while this could be Lowry's first and last big pay day. The question is what is the competition going to be for him? If the Lakers land Love and want to make a big play for Lowry it could be hard for Toronto to compete. If there is no competition for Lowry the Raptors may luck out.
The same ideas apply to the club's bench players. If a team sees Patterson or Vasquez as starters and targets them it could put the Raptors in a very tricky situation. They would have to down grade their current team in order to maintain long term flexibility.
Draft picks are a great way for teams to get players to keep for the long term and get them at a great discount rate. Unfortunately as this year has shown when it comes to getting high draft picks there is no exact science and it requires luck, and even then it requires a bit of luck to get a franchise changing player. The Raptors have four first-round picks in the next three years, including that magic Knicks pick from the Andrea Bargnani trade. What do the Raptors do with there draft picks? Do they use them or package them for another asset? Do they try and add a higher draft pick by packaging them together?
Last year the Raptors' options over the summer were very limited, however, this year while there may be more room for moves, the picture seems more confusing then ever. Last year the Raptors were a team that had a ceiling of a realistically making the first round, but now the club's trajectory has changed. The Dinos have free agents that need to be re-signed to continue the team's growth, however, these need to be done carefully so as not to put an unnecessary cap on the team's upside. And after watching the Miami and Indiana series something became even more glaringly obvious; you need a star on the offensive end. Indiana struggled for stretches because they simple had no individual player who could create enough offence (although Paul George had his moments.) The Raptors simply do not have that player right now, the two closest players would be Lowry and DeRozan.
It's DeMar who is the biggest question mark for me in this whole off-season mix. While I have tried to remain objective I think that if Masai can move DeRozan for a high draft pick (top 7 this year) in this year's draft it needs to be done. There was recently an article on Grantland about Paul George and here are a couple of excerpts from that article:
"But right now he feels like a Pippen without a Jordan, and trying to make up the difference just means forcing up long jumpers."
"His numbers are great, the defense is always there, but he also has games in which he just looks checked out for quarters at a time or settles for lazy jumpers as Indiana's offense breaks down. For the next few years, he'll be young enough for some of this to change, but if you're judging him next to the best players in the league - the ones who carry their teams every night - not many of those guys ever had this many violent highs and lows in the playoffs."
While it has become obvious there is a huge divide between Paul George and the true elite of the NBA, is there not that same difference between Paul George and DeMar DeRozan? Meaning there is an absolute chasm between DeMar and the elite of the NBA? With DeRozan's value so high he could net the Raps some very good long term assets, while creating more room for Jonas and Ross to grow, and giving us more flexibility.
By trading DeRozan both Jonas and Ross can become more vocal points of the offence and pillars for the franchise to build on. Both players had better eFg% and TS% than Demar, think of it like removing Rudy Gay and distributing his shots around. By giving the shots to more efficient players it improves the offence. While DeMar is a good player and no Rudy Gay, he has clear limitations and while trading him changes the team it also gives the franchise another young piece and more cap flexibility. How does a core of Lowry, Vasquez, Patterson, Jonas, Ross, a high 2014 pick and $16M in cap flexibility sound next summer?
Yet what can not be overlooked also is that elusive chemistry that this team has established. While it is obviously intangible it does exist. Those buzz words we all love like chemistry, teamwork and culture were very evident this season. How much of an impact would moving key players have on the Raptor's chemistry?
It's extremely hard to say.
The only thing I am sure about is....thank goodness Masai is making the decisions.