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NBA Free Agency Sliding Doors: What’s actually going to happen with the Raptors?

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With four players looking to free agency this summer, the Raptors have questions to answer. Let’s try to figure it out.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

With the Raptors off-season continuing apace, day after day, it's time to look at some of the possible ways in which things can happen for Toronto in the NBA free agency period. Today starts the discussion: Four scenarios, two Dans, one Raptors future. How will it all play out?

Read Part 1 of the discussion here. Read Part 2 of the discussion here. Read Part 3 of the discussion here.

Grant: Here we are, at the end of another Sliding Doors series. It’s time to take all our theorizing and posturing and actually lay our butts on the line. Last year, Hackett and I correctly predicted that the Raptors were most likely to resign DeMar DeRozan and let Bismack Biyombo walk.

That, compared to this year’s quagmire, was child’s play.

This time around there’s double the amount of free agents and far more constraints via the salary cap.

One thing we’ve agreed upon during the first three days of this series is that the Raptors are very likely to try to ship out one of DeMarre Carroll or Jonas Valanciunas to clear salary cap space, if their intention is in fact, to try to retain two or three of their free agents. We worked out the how they could do that previously; but the where seems like it would be equally important.

Any destinations in mind, Hackett?

Hackett: I can't pretend to know what teams would be interested in either one, but let's start with who could absorb a contract that size without sending salary back. Here is a quick list I threw together of teams with significant cap room this summer.

Note: This is a completely pessimistic list — it assumes these teams will waive their non-guaranteed salary and let their free agents walk, and assumes players will opt out of the player options (which is probably the case for most, but not all of them).

All figures per Basketball Insiders

Franchise Cap Room

Sacramento Kings $65,958,067

Philadelphia 76ers $65,040,027

Golden State Warriors $61,732,120

Chicago Bulls $56,381,971

Denver Nuggets $45,791,786

Los Angeles Clippers $41,251,587

Dallas Mavericks $41,100,354

Boston Celtics $39,266,074

Indiana Pacers $38,597,953

Brooklyn Nets $37,978,392

Atlanta Hawks $36,937,627

Utah Jazz $35,291,516

Phoenix Suns $35,053,748

Los Angeles Lakers $31,373,139

San Antonio Spurs $27,523,863

Miami Heat $26,348,354

Minnesota Timberwolves $25,915,813

New York Knicks $25,536,140

Orlando Magic $23,084,920

Milwaukee Bucks $18,364,304

New Orleans Pelicans $16,244,702

Grant: That’s a lot of simoleons!

Hackett: Yes, that's more than half the league that could conceivably have $15 million or more in cap room this summer. It's hard to predict what teams will do with that - there are a lot of interesting free agents, and many of them may return to their original teams, taking them off the list above.

For example, the Warriors project to a ridiculous $65 million. But in reality, they'll be keeping Durant, who has a $28 million player option, and if he opts out, will have his $36 million cap hold in place. Steph Curry has an $18 million cap hold. So that "cap space" disappears quickly, especially if they wanted to keep guys like Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston.

Grant: A lot of this ‘cap space’ is actually smoke and mirrors, but it seems best to consider every initial possibility.

Hackett: Right. Other teams clearly face the same situation as the Warriors - Dallas with Dirk Nowitzki and Nerlens Noel; Chicago with Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic; the Clippers with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick.

But still, these teams can conceivably end up with cap room. This is a double-edged sword for the Raptors — more suitors with cap space for a Valanciunas or Carroll trade could make those trades nicer for the Raptors. But more teams with huge cap room means more teams to drive up the market on Kyle Lowry and the rest of Toronto’s free agents.

Anyway, if we start to assume teams with big name free agents like that are going to try to retain them, or use their cap space on other free agents to replace them, we can narrow down the list to the most obvious candidate, listed below.

Franchise Cap Room

Sacramento Kings $65,958,067

Philadelphia 76ers $65,040,027

Denver Nuggets $45,791,786

Boston Celtics $39,266,074

Indiana Pacers $38,597,953

Brooklyn Nets $37,978,392

Phoenix Suns $35,053,748

Los Angeles Lakers $31,373,139

Miami Heat $26,348,354

Minnesota Timberwolves $25,915,813

New York Knicks $25,536,140

Orlando Magic $23,084,920

New Orleans Pelicans $16,244,702

Some of those numbers will still shrink a bit, based on free agent returns or draft pick cap holds, but these teams should still be able to absorb contracts easily enough. From there, I'll leave it to you to decide who might be interested in taking on Carroll or Valanciunas’ contracts.

Grant: That’s still a hefty amount of suitors, to be sure. The Raptors also have the 23rd pick in the draft to toy with, if that would entice a team to take on a contract like Carroll’s. With that said, I think Valanciunas makes the most sense to move out, especially if Toronto thinks it can retain Ibaka. He’ll play a hefty amount of minutes at the center position, lessening their need for JV. Valanciunas is also on a very good contract for the forseeable future, something that increases his value to any team that might want to acquire him.

The biggest problem with moving him, that I can see, is that every team on that list already has the center position solidly filled, if not cluttered. How many teams are going to want to pay 16 million per season for Jonas to play 15-20 minutes off the bench?

It’s a hard question to answer, and one we really won’t be able to have a clear handle on until the dominoes start falling in trades and free agency, but I don’t think the demand for him is going to be particularly high, especially with similar options like Brook Lopez and Enes Kanter also likely to be available.

So instead, let’s have some fun. I’m going to throw out a wild trade idea, and I want you to tell me why it wouldn’t work, Hackett.

Hackett: Can do.

Grant: The Raptors sign and trade Kyle Lowry and DeMarre Carroll to the Dallas Mavericks, for Nerlens Noel (signed to a max-ish offer sheet), Wesley Matthews and Dwight Powell. Toronto then retains Serge Ibaka, but lets both Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker walk in free agency.

My reasoning is this: you add a young, defensive big in Noel, plus a wing player who can shoot the three and play defense in Matthews, plus another young big in Powell. The Mavericks add a star point guard like they’ve always craved, in Lowry, and a first round pick. They also save some money on the Matthews/Carroll swap.

I’ll admit this is far-fetched, and it is, of course, only a move you’d consider if Lowry was definitely going to leave. All things considered, I’d still rather have him. But it’s silly season, so let’s get silly.

Does this crazy idea work? Is it even legal?

Hackett: Although your crazy idea would be legal (depending on the exact contract amounts of course), sign and trades are incredibly rare these days.

There have been, by my count, just three over the past three full seasons. That volume is way down from what it used to be. With the proliferation of cap space and the change in sign and trade rules (teams can no longer offer the higher raises and longer term that come with Bird Rights to players they are sign-and-trading), they are just very hard to pull off.

In your case, Lowry would have to want to sign with Dallas, and Dallas would have to want to sign Lowry to a salary he'd want. At the same time, the Raptors would have to want to sign Noel (presumably after shedding Valanciunas somewhere), and Noel would have to want to play in Toronto, and they'd have to agree on a salary. Then on top of that, both teams would have to be sure they don't have another use for their cap space, as they'd be eating into it to sign and trade their own free agents.

Grant: Yeah I included the double sign-and-trade just so you could shoot it down, to be honest. I see a lot of fans pining for these deals, and they just don’t really happen. With that said, I think I found one that isn’t totally insane.

Hackett: Then there is the rest of the deal — does Dallas want to give up a young player like Powell in the deal, when they could presumably just open up cap room (by pitching Dirk on a cheap one-year) to sign Lowry outright, if they were losing Noel anyway? Does Dallas really want to swap Matthews for Carroll? It's the same term as Matthews, and only slightly cheaper, while Matthews has played more games and shot better than Carroll over the past couple of seasons.

Nevermind that pairing Noel and Ibaka seems an awful lot like pairing Biyombo and Ibaka, which as you mentioned yesterday, worked just fantastically in Orlando this season...

Grant: Oh crap. I did not make that connection, somehow.

Hackett: See? Complicated. The best way to approach the off-season is to ignore the possibility of sign and trades entirely, except perhaps for teams that definitely will not have cap space.

For example, if you wanted to pitch sign and trade deals moving Lowry to Charlotte or Detroit or Memphis, that would make more sense in terms of there being a reason for a sign and trade. Of course, none of those teams make much sense for Lowry himself, but therein lies the complication of sign and trades. You need three parties all on the same page - and it's hard enough to get two on the same page to execute a regular trade in the NBA.

Grant: OK, enough frivolity—

Hackett: Wait, don’t I get a crazy move?

Grant: Really? You want one?

Hackett: I can get crazy sometimes! Check it out:

Let's say the Raptors do decide to move on from Valanciunas, and want to go all out with spacing the floor. Call up Phoenix, who have a pile of cap space, and try something like this:

Valanciunas, Carroll, Joseph and LAC's 2017 1st rounder

for

Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa

That's two young contributors, a vet shooter, and a 1st rounder for two shooting vets who are both on short deals (Dudley is 2 years, Barbosa 1 year). Phoenix's interest would depend on them realizing they will not be players in free agency even with all that cash to throw around with how terrible they've been.

For Toronto, this deal gives them another guard and forward who can shoot the three (Dudley shot 38% last year, Barbosa 36%), and clears $25.5 million off the cap.

I admit, on the face, this deal looks bad for the Raptors.

But a benefit is that it leaves them with only $56.5 million in committed salaries. Meaning the Raptors could likely bring back Lowry, Ibaka and Tucker and stay just below the tax. Leaving them with...

Lowry-Wright-Van Vleet

DeRozan-Barbosa

Tucker-Powell-Bruno

Dudley-Siakam

Ibaka-Poeltl-Nogueira

Sign a depth forward for the minimum (maybe DeAndre Daniels, whose draft rights the Raptors own and who shot 39% from three in an Italian league last year, comes over) and you've got a solid top 9 who can mostly shoot the three, with the exception of a few backups.

Let me finish by saying that personally, I think they shouldn't be making a crazy move at all, so that’s not something I actually want to happen. But if you’re looking for a way to go all in on small ball, that seems like the sort of scenario that could play out.

Grant: Yeah maybe. I just think Phoenix is pretty stacked at centre with Alex Len and Tyson Chandler, not to mention soon-to-be sophomores Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, who could play the five in smaller lineups. Also, I just looked it up and I can’t believe Barbosa is only 34. I could have sworn he was 34 the last time he was in Toronto. But I did say crazy!

Alright Hackett, that’s enough frivolity. Let’s get down to it. Prediction time.

What do you think is actually going to happen for Toronto this off-season?

Hackett: I think Casey is back with a mandate to change the offence. I think the Raptors look to shed Carroll and Joseph to a team like Brooklyn. I'd hope they manage to hold onto their pick, maybe sending out Nogueira instead. They bring back Lowry, Ibaka and Tucker, leaving them just under the tax with the following roster, plus a depth signing (again at forward).

Lowry-Wright-Van Vleet

DeRozan-1st?

Powell-Tucker-Bruno

Ibaka-Siakam

Valanciunas-Poeltl

They'd be stuck hoping for real contributions from current depth pieces, like Siakam, Poeltl and Wright, and would maybe even end up throwing Bruno some minutes to see if he can survive. But such is life when you have a high salary top end and want to avoid the tax.

In the ideal world, they decide to pay tax and also bring back Patterson, leaving them with a very solid front-court, and assuming Powell splits his time between the 2 and 3, a pretty full back-court as well.

Grant: Yeah I was going to say, in this scenario (which is also what I feel is most likely to happen), I’d want to see them start Tucker at the 3 and have Powell spell both him and DeRozan, to the tune of 25 minutes per game. If you have both Powell and P.J. averaging a base of 25 minutes per night and DeRozan around 35, that still leaves 11 minutes to play with two point guard lineups, or smaller lineups where all three are on the floor together.

So there you have it. Our prediction is that Lowry, Ibaka and Tucker will be back, while Patterson is likely headed out of town. You could swap Patterson for Tucker in that scenario and I wouldn’t be surprised either, though Tucker’s versatility and toughness seems like a better fit for this Raptors team.

We also think that due to fit and salary needs, Carroll is the most likely trade candidate, followed by Joseph, and then Valanciunas (but realistically, all or none could be moved).

It’s going to be a tumultuous off-season for Toronto, and the reality of what happens could just as easily be something none of us expect.