The Raptors are rolling along with their best first half record ever, and suddenly we find ourselves approaching some final decisions for the season. The trade deadline is earlier than ever before, having been moved this season to before the All-Star break, all the way up to February 8th. That means in three weeks the roster will be locked down, barring any waived players or late season signings, for the playoffs.
So, let’s take a look at where the Raptors’ roster stands right now, and try to figure which way the team will go (if they do anything at all) at the deadline.
The following is a breakdown of the current roster and the committed salaries, all shown as they count toward the tax calculation (as the team is well above the soft cap).
Kyle Lowry $28,703,704
DeMar DeRozan $27,739,975
Serge Ibaka $20,061,729
Jonas Valanciunas $15,460,675
C.J. Miles $7,936,508
Lucas Nogueira $2,947,305
Jakob Poeltl $2,825,640
Bruno Caboclo $2,451,225
Delon Wright $1,645,200
OG Anunoby $1,645,200
Norman Powell $1,471,382
Alfonzo McKinnie $1,471,382
Fred VanVleet $1,471,382
Pascal Siakam $1,312,611
Justin Hamilton $1,000,000
K.J. McDaniels $100,000
That totals to $118.2 million in committed salary, just under the tax line of $119.3 million. Presumably the team would like to stay below that line, but they are able to go above it if they please.
The real limit is the hard cap, which they are stuck under due to using the Mid-Level Exception to sign C.J. Miles this off-season. That is set at $125.3 million. But they do not have $7 million in room under that hard cap, as some things that aren’t counted above count towards the hard cap calculation — specifically unlikely incentives in Lowry’s deal (and possibly in DeMar’s as well). Between the two players, there are between $2.2 and $3.7 million in unlikely incentives that could be earned this season. We’ll be optimistic here and assume only Lowry’s $2.2 million in incentives, as they are more firmly reported, but keep in mind that the team may be more restricted than is presented here.
In any case, their room under the hard cap is more like just under $4.9 million. So that’s the most they can increase their committed salary by this season — period. No way around it.
So, with that restriction in place, let’s ask some questions.
Buyer or Seller?
Are the Raptors looking to buy or sell? Obviously with their success this year, they have no interest in selling any of their top talents. But the question becomes interesting if you look at the fringes of the roster, and especially the situation this summer.
Although the team is currently under the tax, they project to be about $10 million above the tax line next year with the roster as it stands (and that’s without bringing back any of Caboclo, Nogueria or VanVleet and replacing them with minimum salary players). So if the team sees an opportunity to shed salary at the deadline, they may pursue it.
As for buying: if the Raptors can find a trade for a star, they’ll likely pursue it.
Who Can They Trade?
The flavour of the day for excess salary for the Raptors is Norman Powell, who recently signed an extension and makes $9.4 million next season, and has struggled of late. Removing his salary would go a long way to bringing the team back towards the tax line next season, though it wouldn’t get them under it. But the main issue is that with Powell’s recent extension, he’s not eligible to be moved for another couple of months, and with the deadline fast approaching that means he can’t be moved until the Raptors’ season (and post-season) is over. So, scratch him off the list for now.
The other popular option is a Jonas Valanciunas trade. If the team can bring back an expiring contract, they can remove enough salary to duck the tax this summer. Though ideally you’d hope that ownership would rather keep talent and pay the tax, rather than potentially weaken the team to save money.
The other issue with any salary shedding move is the lack of assets to attach in such a deal. The Raptors do not have any 2018 draft picks to trade — they moved them in the Carroll and P.J. Tucker deals. And the NBA has a rule that you cannot trade consecutive future first round picks — so they cannot trade their 2019 pick either, until after the coming draft. So then to add value in a salary shedding deal, they are restricted to trading from their stable of good young players, or reaching far into the future (a risky move) to trade a 2020 or later 1st rounder. They can include their 2019 2nd round pick, but the value of that pick would be very low with the Raptors looking like a 50+ win team for the foreseeable future.
In terms of a trade for a star, as noted, they have very limited options in terms of assets, one of their young assets in Powell can’t be traded, they have no significant expiring contracts, and with their close proximity to both the tax and hard cap, it is very hard to make a deal work.
As for the rest of the roster, every player is eligible to be traded except for Powell, so if you really want to dream up a crazy Ibaka or DeRozan trade, go nuts.
What About Filling a Hole?
Assuming the team doesn’t go cheap and shed salary, and can’t find a star to trade for, are there any small holes they could try to fill?
The obvious issue is one more scorer/shooter to come off the bench, though that’s an issue that may resolve itself in the playoffs if Lowry gets his usual bench shifts again.
In any case, the issue with trading for a player, even a minimum salary player, is that all the salary on the roster is now guaranteed (after not waiving McKinnie before the January 10th deadline), so adding a player’s salary will move the team over the tax line. And considering that they seem to have an in-house solution for the bench’s occasional scoring woes, and that the bench has overall had plenty of success and will be used less when the games matter more, it’s hard to see the team paying that price to improve around the margins.
What about a dream scenario, a perfect trade that could boost the team going into the playoffs?
Personally, I get too bogged down with the complications (tax, hard cap, lack of assets, trade restriction on Powell) and I can’t dream up much of a trade that moves the needle. It wouldn’t hurt for the team to try to get a return in trade for Nogueira or VanVleet if they don’t think they’ll be able to afford to bring them back next year, maybe snag a late draft pick or two.
But my ideal scenario is probably no trades at the deadline. The team waits for the March waivers when veterans get cut from losing teams and hunt for a minimum salary player, whose pro-rated salary at that point on a rest-of-season deal would let them stay below the tax line. Maybe a Vince Carter type, or a Tyreke Evans. But that all depends on if Lowry seems likely to meet any of his incentives — if he does, that room under the tax shrinks even more.
The reality of this Raptors team is it was constructed to stand pat for this season, and make any improvements (or even salary shedding moves) in the upcoming spring and summer.
But my “dreams” are no fun — what are your dream scenarios? Let me know below and I can give you feedback about whether it will work for the Raptors’ complex tax and hard cap situations.