Breaking off a great relationship for logistical reasons is an unpleasant punch to the gut. Sometimes you can do everything right and have a wonderful connection, but if you and your significant other's personal timelines aren't congruent, eventually you're probably going to have to move on.
That's the reality facing the Toronto Raptors when it comes to their flexing, finger-wagging, charismatic backup centre, Bismack Biyombo.
What a fun player Biyombo was to have in tow for the Raptors most successful season on record. Kyle Lowry is ultimately the biggest reason the Raptors reached such unprecedented heights in 2015-'16, but Biyombo was the sort of role player who added vibrant blasts of colour to the outline Lowry drew with his All NBA-level play.
His 16-point, 25-rebound game (both season-highs) against Indiana in March, the seven shots he swatted against his former team in Charlotte on December 17th, the 22 regular season starts (and 10 more in the playoffs) in place of an injured Jonas Valanciunas and rousing performances in Games 3 and 4 against Cleveland are only the low-hanging fruit when revisiting the stirring moments Biyombo was responsible for this season. Considering that all of those flourishes -- some of them season-saving -- came from a guy making less than $3 million, it's safe to say Biyombo, in relation to his salary, was one of the most valuable bench players in the league this season.
Biyombo timed his career season well. After a year that was all about recouping his value, Biyombo will now enter a soft free agent market with a coveted skill-set and two thirds of the league overflowing with cap space as a result of the new TV deal. Biyombo is about to become an exceedingly rich man. And this is where his timeline diverges from that of the Raptors.
Per a report from Sean Deveney of The Sporting News, NBA executives are already placing Biyombo's next annual salary in the $17 million range - and that's before any July bidding wars even take place. As a result of the Raptors making a big free agent splash with DeMarre Carroll last summer, and the hefty extensions of Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross set to take effect in matter of days, Toronto isn't blessed with the bounty of open room on its cap sheet that so many teams are going to enjoy this summer. With ensuring DeMar DeRozan's return being the "number one goal" of the off-season per Masai Ujiri, retaining Biyombo at such a ballooned price-tag simply isn't realistic.
Understandably, the imminent loss of such a beloved player has a lot of fans orchestrating schemes to keep Biyombo in town. At the risk of creating an army of straw men, let's go over some of the different ideas I've heard and seen posited on radio, TV or Twitter, and see if any of them might actually facilitate Biyombo sticking around long term.
He loves Toronto and turned around his career here -- what if he'll accept a discount to stay?
The hometown discount in sports is a novel idea in theory, but rarely is it ever actually implemented. Sure, some players like Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade have taken extreme pay-cuts in recent years in order to allow their franchises to build title contenders around them. But do you notice anything about that trio of players? Most guys who accept less money than the open market would pay them are accomplished superstars with staggering career earnings totals who are on the hunt for one final title before their skills decay entirely.
Biyombo is none of those things. He's only 23 (we think ... ) and his game isn't even done developing yet, let alone deteriorating. By virtue of being a top-10 draft pick, Biyombo's rookie contract wasn't exactly peanuts. Per Spotrac.com, he earned around $12 million in four seasons with Charlotte. Factor in the roughly $2.8 million be banked with the Raptors this year, and his career earnings sit just below $15 million -- nothing to sneeze at, of course. For comparison's sake, though, consider that Duncan has cashed in for more than 15 times that amount in his career.
If the reports are true, Biyombo stands to more than double his career total in year one of his new contract. And for Biyombo, a man whose Congolese upbringing was anything but storybook, that's game-changing -- not just for him, but for his entire family. He shouldn't be asked to take even the tiniest bit less than the market will pay him.
Biyombo has said all the right things, and even went as far as to say that he would be willing to accept a hometown discount on Sportsnet 590 The Fan on Monday.
Biz on @WalkerShow590 says he's willing to take a hometown discount to stay in Toronto. Continues to reiterate how much he loves it here— JD Bunkis (@JDBunkis) May 30, 2016
But loyalty only goes so far in the business of sports. Maybe Biyombo is willing to take less money to stay with the franchise with which he revitalized his career. But sticking with the Raptors wouldn't just be a matter of trading off one or two million dollars in exchange for a more comfortable living situation in a city he's come to love. If Masai Ujiri intends on keeping together the core of a team that just won 56 games and reached the Eastern Conference Finals, Biyombo will have to forego an immense amount of earning potential.
With the Raptors salary situation as it is, the absolute most the Raptors could offer Biyombo to stay, assuming DeRozan returns on a max or near-max deal, would be the Mid-Level Exception -- a meager $5.6 million starting salary over a four year deal. That seems like far too little for a guy on the verge of his first mega payday to settle for.
What if the Raptors let DeRozan leave in free agency, and use the freed up money to keep Biyombo?
Given how beloved Biyombo is and the polarizing nature of DeRozan's status with the team, this is a plan that would probably gain some traction among Raptors fans.
For a lot of reasons, this would be a tremendously poor use of cap space. As blood-boiling as DeRozan can be, allowing him to walk away in free agency is a suspect bit of asset management on its own. To then turn around and use the majority of the projected $18.8 million in available cap space (if DeRozan, Luis Scola, James Johnson and Jason Thompson all leave) on Biyombo would handcuff the Raptors from improving their weaknesses, while centralizing a huge amount of resources in one position. Forget the fact that if Biyombo fetches the full rumored $17 million average salary the Raptors will be paying more for their backup centre than they will be for their starter. Even if Biyombo does in fact take a few million dollars less per year, you're still looking at roughly $30 million dollars -- roughly a third of the salary cap -- locked up at the centre position.
Without a substantial amount of cap space left over, the Raptors would be unable to sign a wing capable of coming close to matching DeRozan's offensive production or bring in a power forward to take over the black hole that was Luis Scola's minutes this year -- widely regarded as the team's biggest weakness. There's always the possibility of trades, but shipping off someone like Terrence Ross -- maybe Ujiri's most movable piece -- becomes a lot harder to do if DeRozan is no longer around.
And it's not as if having Biyombo and Valanciunas on the roster lends itself well to funky two-big lineups that are actually effective. Granted, we didn't get more than a few minutes at a desperate time in Game 5 against Cleveland of the two-centre front court, so we hardly have any empirical evidence on whether or not it can be successful.
On defense, it's not a bad look. Biyombo flashed an ability to guard stretchy big men, wings and even cyborgs in the Eastern Conference Finals. With Valanciunas being a little too heavy-footed to hang with smaller players and the Channing Fryes of the world, Biyombo could be a perfect complement to what ails him on defense. But even then, asking Biyombo to man the four on defense takes him away from the area near the rim that he protects so damned well.
The bigger concerns with the Biyombo-Valanciunas twin towers look come on the other end of the floor. Basic fundamentals of the Raptors' offense -- driving, accruing free throws and kicking it out to open shooters and/or secondary drivers -- suggest that a front court clogged by two players would be too cluttered for the Raptors to find success with the system they're used to. In areas where Biyombo has some success on offense, Valanciunas excels and expands upon. At the end of the day, you'd simply rather have Valanciunas rack up offensive touches than his more spry but less-skilled soon-to-be former teammate.
Ultimately, having both of this year's centres in the fold next year would create a situation in which Biyombo isn't only making less money than he's worth, but playing a similar role to the one he occupied this season -- except the Raptors would be out cap flexibility and their leading scorer.
What if the Raptors keep DeRozan, but trade Valanciunas to free up room to sign Biyombo?
When Biyombo was in the midst of a stand-out game this year, no Raptor, save for Lowry, was as much of a pure joy to watch. His bone-breaking screens, powerful jams and propensity for sending shots back where they came from created an intoxicating serum when they mixed.
When he was earning a few millions bucks, it didn't matter that Biyombo was unable to bring together all of those elements on a nightly basis. You could live with the nights where he missed a handful of gimme layups or accidentally punched away passes that might have landed gently in a more graceful player's hands. If the Raptors were to give Biyombo a raise of $10-14 million, the many off nights would begin to stick out more than the magical ones - especially if he were the Raptors only dependable horse at the centre spot. For as many times as Biyombo pumped up the crowd and energized his teammates this season, there were just as many games where he was a non-factor. Remember the Indiana series, Game 5 notwithstanding?
Valanciunas is an incomplete player. But at the same age as Biyombo, it's pretty clear which one of the pair has more potential to be a team's focal point of the future.
On offense it's not really a contest. Valanciunas brings a combination of rough and smooth that translates into one of the league's most efficient scoring big men in. It's easy to get lost in a daydream about the offensive player he can become once he gains more confidence with his mid-range jumper and, apparently, his step-back game.
Biyombo on the other hand is an awesome roller when he's in the mood the catch the ball, and has weird a knack for getting to the line after offensive rebounds, but doesn't give you much else on that side of the ball.
Biyombo holds a clear edge on defense right now, mainly because he's so fleet-footed. He spent possessions guarding LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in these playoffs -- and that didn't cause the kinds of heart palpitations Valanciunas would have if tasked with the same assignment.
Valanciunas's speed might always be the limiting factor on his defensive ceiling, but his ability to shut teams down around the rim has gone from non-existent to more than passable this season. Re-watch the last quarter and overtime of Game 2 against the Heat and you'll see Valanciunas contesting everything launched in his vicinity en route to a Raptors win.
None of this is to disparage what Biyombo did with the Raptors this season -- he was exciting, effective, and tons of fun -- but a decision to trade Valanciunas to let Biyombo start would be a bet on Biyombo being more likely to turn into a dependable offensive weapon than Valanciunas turning into a reliable defensive anchor. Considering that the latter might already be true, it's probably too much of a gamble to pass up the potential of Valanciunas to keep a fan-favorite in-house.
Fans are supposed to be emotional, and getting attached to certain players is part of the fun of following a team throughout a season, no matter how successful. Given what Biyombo provided the Raptors this season, it's entirely justifiable for people to want the Raptors to retain him at all costs. He transformed his career in 2015-'16. The fact that he did so while being one of the most quotable and inspiring members of the best team in Raptors history is going to make it that much more difficult to see he and the organization sever ties.
A split seems unavoidable, though. Toronto is light on cap space, heavy on needs at other positions and has a cheap replacement option waiting at the end of the bench in Lucas Nogueira. Biyombo on the other hand has a chance to make good on all of the improvement he displayed with Toronto, get paid a fantastic sum of money and play starter's minutes for some other NBA team.
Nobody wants to cut things off with someone they've grown so fond of over matters like finances or a complex at-home situation. But in both life and basketball, not every great relationship can have a fairy tale ending. Sometimes the best you can hope for is that both sides end up happy and prosperous down the line, and that your ex doesn't one day block Kyle Lowry at the end of a pivotal playoff game.
(Salary information courtesy Spotrac.com and our personal cap czar Daniel Hackett).