This is, if not the biggest off-season in Raptors history, then definitely the one with the most variables. The team has four free agents, potential looming salary cap issues, trades to explore, and a host of other concerns. And unlike in years past, Toronto actually has something to lose. They’re not merely a bottom-feeding team casting around for relevance and respectability, but an Eastern Conference power looking to maintain their position near the top of the heap.
So then, what will Toronto do? The first and biggest variable is, as we’ve been saying for weeks (months?), Kyle Lowry. As he goes, so goes the rest of the Raptors. Re-signing Lowry means team president Masai Ujiri is committed, at least in part, to keeping the Raptors competitive in the conference for at least a couple more years. It also means a likely effort will be made to re-sign Serge Ibaka as the team’s starting power forward (or centre?). But what it means for P.J. Tucker or Patrick Patterson, or the Raptors’ other young players, or the Raptors’ luxury tax situation is anyone’s guess. And that’s just what we’re doing here today — making guesses.
(An aside: Ujiri was never going to go to the Knicks. The amount of breathless reporting around this story was truly awe inspiring. The Knicks stink, their owner is a dingbat, and just because they make some decree to the media does not mean everyone — including cool-ass customers like Masai Ujiri — suddenly lose their head. The pull of New York City is powerful, but not that powerful. Now, back to the story.)
Back in May (if you’ll recall), our dudes Dan Grant and Daniel Hackett went through a series of sliding doors to figure out the pros and cons of each scenario. They discussed a return of all four free agents, a disheartening mass exodus, and then some combination in between. They ended off their series by trying to guess at the logical path forward. In all possible futures, there were questions on top of questions for Toronto. Trying to re-sign everyone would mean a capped out roster, letting everyone walk would necessitate a full rebuild, a step along a middle path would require some faith in the roster’s internal growth. It’s days like this one, less than 24 hours from the start of the free agency period, when Raptors management, including newly promoted general manager Bobby Webster, will earn their money. It’s also where we all try to predict the future, in all its impossibly complex glory.
There is an emotional calculus to factor in here, of course. In all probability, the Raptors can’t keep everyone. Much like their wave goodbye to fan favourite Bismack Biyombo, Toronto will necessarily be saying goodbye to somebody in the next week — be it through a player signing elsewhere, or through a trade for some sweet cap relief. Something will change, it just remains to be see how close we get to a reorganization of the team’s core. While emotional attachment to say, DeMarre Carroll, is not exactly at an all-time high, significant trades in that vein could mean the end of an era of a certain (fun, wildly successful) brand of basketball in Toronto. The last time such a pivot came was back in 2010 when Chris Bosh made his way to Miami, and before that, the uglier divorce from Vince Carter.
My prediction: the safe bet is on the Raptors re-signing of Lowry and Ibaka. In both cases, both sides have the most to gain from staying together. Despite all the hand-wringing about massive change coming, I don’t think Toronto has the assets to move any other way. I don’t believe Ujiri is one to just toss everything in the garbage. Of course, the follow-up to those returns means farewells to Patterson and Tucker, the latter of whom rapidly became a fan favourite. Could one of Cory Joseph, Jonas Valanciunas, or Carroll still get traded as part of a modest restructuring or to keep a player like Tucker? Yes, but my guess is only Joseph finds a reasonable market waiting for his services — and that he stays in Toronto for now.
In other words, though the Raptors are still lagging behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, and they don’t have the assets of the Boston Celtics, and they also don’t have the superstar-in-waiting like the Milwaukee Bucks, they do have a way to stay competitive and a stable of young players to shore up the core. My final prediction is this: next season will not be particularly glamourous. We’ll likely see the Raptors end up in a similar place, with similar players on-board, having only logged more experience for the team’s young players. The big swing is not coming yet.
Still, I turn it now to you. I could be way, way wrong on this (there’s a good chance, in fact!). Maybe the Raptors have some other super secret deal in the works, maybe there is a way to make a trade for a truly valuable player, maybe Norman Powell becomes an All-Star next season and the math changes again. Who knows?
Let’s go to the poll and see how everyone feels.
What do you think the Raptors will do once NBA free agency starts?
This poll is closed
Sign Lowry, let the rest walk
Sign Lowry and Ibaka, let the rest walk
Sign Lowry, Ibaka, and P.J., trade one of JV/CoJo/Carroll
Sign Lowry, Ibaka, and Patterson, trade one of JV/CoJo/Carroll
Sign all four, trade two of JV/CoJo/Carroll
Let Lowry walk, blow it all to hell
Some other combination, my brain hurts