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NBA Free Agency: How does any of this affect the Raptors?

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With no real Kawhi Leonard news to report yet, let’s look around the league at the other presumptive deals being announced and decide how it affects the Raptors.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors are in a weird spot as they head towards today’s 6pm start for this year’s NBA free agency bonanza. Unlike every other year of their existence, and unlike every other team currently in the league, they’re the NBA champions. Yes, Toronto won the title and as such can’t really lose free agency. But be that as it may, the Raptors are still involved in nearly every major free agency story today because of the presence of Kawhi Leonard.

Now, what does anyone know about Kawhi and his thought process? Exactly nothing. And if you’ve been tracking the news stories that have come out so far, all of them — every single last one of them — have come from aspiring members (or even non-members, in the case of Magic Johnson) of the other teams hoping to acquire Kawhi’s services. There have been zero leaks from Toronto. That’s how we get reports about LeBron’s recruiting, or the hand-wringing of Jerry West. It’s how we can smell the stench of a sweaty Steve Ballmer all the way north of the border, or why Rob Pelinka has to keep coming out in public to assure everyone there’s “nothing to see here” as his management group stumbles its way through the big stakes moves of the NBA.

Raptors team president Masai Ujiri laughs at all this. And for the remainder of this post, we will not address Kawhi. For all the updates, all the dancing around, all the breaking news, there’s nothing to actually to report there. Sorry.

Instead, let’s review what else has happened so far in the lead up to the 6pm tip-off and the presumptive deals about to go down. In the process, we’ll answer the important question in the following headline below. Ready? Let’s go!

How Do These Deals Affect the Raptors?

To kick things off, let’s go to Marc Stein of the New York Times, who has many contracts to report all at once.

Kyrie Irving to the Nets

Good for Kyrie for finding a place that makes sense for him. Brooklyn is a young exciting team with a bunch of fun up-and-coming players, a solid coach, and good management. They were the only playoff team in the East last season that felt ready to kick in an upset, and it is easy to root for their continued success — if only because they’ve been canny about how to go about rebuilding. Signing Irving represents that step from middle-of-the-pack playoff team to potential contender.

Assuming everyone else on the roster — Caris LaVert and Jarrett Allen chief among them — improves and Kyrie actually decides to, you know, lead them somewhere worthwhile. The Raptors don’t have to worry about this team, but they definitely got a little larger in the rearview mirror.

Kemba Walker to the Celtics

Now here’s an interesting angle. On paper, Irving is the more accomplished and efficient player, but Walker strikes everyone as the slightly more down to (round) earth point guard and leader. The Celtics essentially caved in last season because Irving decided to sink his teammates (rightly, or wrongly) and undermine his coach Brad Stevens (again, rightly or wrongly).

Theoretically, the Celtics are getting similar production from Walker with a more can-do attitude. Will Walker be excited to actually play meaningful games with decent teammates? You bet. Should the Raptors worry about the Celtics next season? Nah. Their frontcourt is about the crumble (thanks to the likely exit of Al Horford), and they still have too many wings who all think they should have the ball in their hands. Sorry, Boston. Keep dreaming.

Klay Thompson to the Warriors

Good for Klay and the Warriors. Unfortunately for Golden State, their dynasty has already been destroyed — thanks to the Toronto Raptors.

Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks

This matters not to the Raptors. Also, the bloom has come off the Kristaps rose multiple ways. I know what the Mavs think they have, and I get it. But he’s also a very, very tall man who has yet to show the durability needed to be the cornerstone of an NBA franchise. (Also, he may have raped someone.)

Nikola Vucevic to the Magic

Adorable!

Harrison Barnes to the Kings

The Kings feel like they’re ready to make some kind of leap. But I’m not sure Barnes is the guy to help get that actually done. If he finishes out this entire contract in Sacramento it will be because the Kings couldn’t figure out a way to trade him first. As with the aforementioned Mavericks’ signing, this will never affect Toronto.

OK, more deals! What do you have for us Tony Jones?

The big winner of this one is, obviously, the Jazz, since Bojan Bogdanovic has shown himself to be something of a gamer, a stout scorer and defender when the need arises. Kudos to the Jazz, for first trading for Mike Conley, a solid upgrade at the point guard spot, and then for improving on the wing (there’s no way Jae Crowder was going to get it done for them) by trying to go for Bogdanovic. What this means for the Raptors is obvious: the Pacers, once on the cusp of something special, are now wondering about the health of their star Victor Oladipo, the growth of Myles Turner, and who else will even fill out their roster. (Note: Darren Collison just retired; not a huge loss perhaps, but a loss nonetheless.) Another one bites the dust in the East.

Now let’s get a run of Woj news here to really bring the day home. First!

This is perhaps my favourite storyline going right now. The Lakers picked D’Angelo Russell second overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, and they basically did everything they could do destroy his career before trading him the Nets. Then they picked Lonzo Ball with the second overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and traded him away to the Pelicans (for Anthony Davis, so, yeah, good deal). Now Russell, having come off a strong Most Improved Player-type season, is a free agent and eyeing... a return to the Lakers?

Me personally, I remain a little underwhelmed by Russell. Our compatriot Jacob Mack has made mention of this many times but I’ll repeat: Russell is a guard who actively seeks to avoid contact, striving instead for floaters or off-balance jumpers when the physical pressure gets turned up. There are games when he can get really hot doing this, but it is not as reliable as you’d like if he’s going to be your starting point guard. Now, if Russell does go to the Lakers, he’d obviously be, like, the fourth option on offense, which would fit him just right. What does it mean to the Raptors? Well, if Toronto meets them in the Finals, we already know Kyle Lowry has Russell’s number.

Second:

I feel extremely bad for Dwane Casey.

An interesting and noteworthy third:

Off all the team’s readymade to take another run at the championship, it’s hard to discount Denver’s claim as the favourite. The only other team in that bracket, of squads ready right now to usurp the Warriors, is the Portland Trail Blazers. Obviously the Lakers and Jazz could be said to be in that discussion, but we’ll have to see what final form they take come opening night.

In the meantime, the Nuggets will have their starting lineup intact, will have another year of experience and development under the belt of Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray, and will have Paul Millsap, the original underrated do-it-all veteran power forward, ready to go. What this means for the Raptors is unclear for now — but it’s possible to envision the Nuggets in the Finals, which means something for Toronto.

And finally:

Let’s end this bad boy on the biggest — and most unsettled — name out there. (Yes, even bigger than Kawhi, to a certain extent.) Obviously the pursuit of Kevin Durant is more complicated now since he’ll likely sit out the entire 2019-20 season with a ruptured Achilles, and it remains to be seen what kind of condition he’ll be in upon his return. Of the teams mentioned there, I’ll rank them this way from most likely to sign him to least: Nets, Warriors, Knicks, Clippers.

The Nets feel like they have a pitch in place now, with Irving apparently set to join the squad. They have the better management and situation for Durant overall. And, in truth, won’t even need him to compete for a playoff spot and/or run into the later rounds. In this scenario, Durant can rehab, cheer for a solid team, and prepare for his grand return where he puts Brooklyn really really on the map.

That said, the Warriors still have a few cards to play here, and it’s not impossible to see Durant return. I actually think this is more likely than him signing with the terrible Knicks and wasting a few years of his career doing nothing for nobody — and having to see James Dolan all the time. And finally the Clippers, the original swag-less team, have no shot to get Durant. They will likely talk themselves into some second- or third-tier free agent after they strike out on him and Kawhi, and that’s that.

So, to sum up: Durant on the Nets is a huge concern for the Raptors. Durant on the Warriors is a fun thought experiment. Durant on the Knicks is a cute novelty. Durant on the Clippers is a joke.

*******

This is just a smattering of the potential deals happening at 6pm today. We’ll have an open live thread going once we get closer to the official start time. Let’s see how the rest of the evening shapes out.