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Trade Deadline Preview: Planning ahead with the Raptors

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Let’s do a little salary cap preparation as the Raptors head into trade deadline season with a number of different potential directions.

NBA: Finals-Media Day Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve taken a long break from looking too closely at potential Raptors trades or even really the performance of the team, because Toronto has been so riddled with injury it was hard to learn much from the depleted roster or plan ahead in terms of what to do to change it. But the team is finally looking like they are getting healthy, and if Fred VanVleet returns somewhat soon we may get a couple of weeks of the team playing at full strength to really determine what direction to go with any trades at the deadline.

Whatever direction that proves to be — whether Masai Ujiri and the Raptors look to add a role player, sell off some excess role players of their own, or consolidate pieces in a bigger trade for a top talent — in any of those cases, it is best to understand the Raptors’ salary cap situation this season, next season, and even the season after that.

So let’s take a look.

The 2019-20 Season

FIrst off, how does the current roster look?

Player | 2019-20 Salary
Kyle Lowry: $34.8M
Marc Gasol: $25.6M
Serge Ibaka: $23.3M
Norman Powell: $10.1M
Fred VanVleet: $9.3M
Patrick McCaw: $4.0M
Stanley Johnson: $3.6M
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson: $2.5M
Pascal Siakam: $2.4M
OG Anunoby: $2.3M
Chris Boucher: $1.6M
Malcolm Miller: $1.6M
Terence Davis: $0.9M
Matt Thomas: $0.9M
Dewan Hernandez: $0.9M

The team also has Oshae Brissett and had Shamorie Ponds on two-way contracts (he has been replaced with Paul Watson), but they don’t factor into salary cap calculations. Justin Hamilton (remember him?) does though, and still counts as $1 million against the cap. That thankfully ends after this season, but for now still has to be accounted for. There is also a $150k guarantee to the waived Cam Payne, and $50k to Isaiah Taylor.

All told that comes to a total team salary of $125.2 million. The salary cap is set at $109 million, so the Raptors are well above the cap and need not concern itself with operating with cap space. They will need to use exceptions to make any trades or signings.

The other consideration is the tax, which the team will certainly not want to go into this season. The calculation is slightly different for tax purposes, so the team salary sits at $126.7 million, below the tax line of $132.6 million. That’s just under $6 million in available space under the tax if they wanted to add salary without crossing that threshold.

Technically they could go into the tax, say if a trade for a superstar somehow became an option. In that case their true limit is the hard cap, which is activated for them since they used the non-taxpayer’s Mid-Level Exception this past summer. That cap is set at $138.9 million this season, leaving them $12.2 million as the absolute maximum they could add in salary.

All players are eligible to be traded, though Pascal Siakam has a poison pill contract and would be very difficult to use in a trade where salary matching is required (as he counts as a different salary for the two teams in the trade), but come on, Toronto is not considering such a trade anyway.

As noted above, any trades will need to occur with the traded player exception, which is a rule that allows teams over the cap to trade their players for other contracts up to a certain amount more than their outgoing salary. The allowed incoming salary in a trade is:

  • 175% (plus $100k) of outgoing salary (if outgoing salary is less than $6.5M)
  • Outgoing salary plus $5M (if outgoing salary is between $6.5M and $19.6M
  • 125% (plus $100k) of outgoing salary (if outgoing salary is greater than $19.6M)

If a team finishes a trade over the tax line, they always have to obey the last line of the rule (the 125% return) no matter the size of the trade, so keep that in mind, anyone who dreams of adding significant salary at the deadline.

A final note for the Raptors, in addition to being able to send out salary for matching purposes as listed above, they also have three small traded player exceptions they can use to absorb a small contract without needing to match that salary with an outgoing player. Trade exceptions (TPEs) can only be used individually, they can’t be combined to absorb a larger salary, nor combined with an outgoing salary to help match a bigger incoming salary. The team’s TPEs are listed below.

Traded Player | TPE Value
Malachi Richardson: $1.6M
Delon Wright: $2.5M
Greg Monroe: $1.5M

The Raptors also have just under $1 million of the MLE left to sign a free agent if they so choose between now and the end of the season. The MLE can’t be used in trades but worth noting in case the Raptors make a trade where they send out more bodies than they bring in, that they have that slice of the MLE and not just minimum exception salaries to offer (this would be most useful if they were signing a rookie player, for example if they wanted to sign Oshae Brissett to an NBA deal rather than a two-way deal, and wanted to offer three years).

That pretty much covers the current season bases. But before you go out pulling the trigger on any big trades, best to take a look a year or two ahead and make sure we don’t muck anything up for ourselves.

The 2020-21 Season

This would be a year many view as a bridge season. The bountiful 2021 free agency class is still another year away, and with the Raptors already giving extensions to Siakam and Lowry they seem perfectly content not to have significant cap room in summer 2020 to make big changes to the team.

But Toronto does have a lot of big contracts coming off the books, and the decisions they make on re-signing their free agents this summer will impact the build of the team from that point on. So we should take a look at what decisions need to be made this summer before we start making trades this winter.

Player | 2020-21 Salary
Kyle Lowry: $31.0M
Pascal SIakam: $29.0M
Norman Powell: $10.9M
Patrick McCaw: $4.0M
OG Anunoby: $3.9M
Stanley Johnson: $3.8M (Player Option)
Terence Davis: $1.5M
Matt Thomas: $1.5M
Dewan Hernandez: $1.5M

That’s nine players locked into deals. Johnson has a player option, so may opt out, but hard to bet on that. Davis, Thomas, and Hernandez all have at least some unguaranteed salary, but all three are longer term development bets at very low cost so it would be hard to imagine the team cutting any of them for the sake of a few hundred thousand in cap room.

The team does currently have its first round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Currently they slot in at the 22nd pick (ninth in the standings). The cap hit for a signed 22nd pick would be $2.5M.

Including that pick, that’s 10 spots filled and $89.6 million in salary ($90.0 against the tax) in a summer that projects a $116M cap and $141M tax line. Not so long ago, $26 million in cap room used to be a lot, now it is not even enough for a max offer on a restricted free agent. And the Raptors have their free agents to worry about, so that $51 million in room below the tax will be more relevant to them.

That’s right, the Raptors have some significant key free agents this coming summer, and they’ll need to make some tough decisions on them. This is true for this coming summer alone, but even more true when we look ahead to summer 2021 (which we will do shortly). Those free agents are:

Fred VanVleet
Marc Gasol
Serge Ibaka
Chris Boucher
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

Malcolm Miller is also a free agent but he’s currently out of the rotation so hard to call him a key one. Though the team would be smart to hold onto him as he’ll likely come cheap and can provide quality depth. Still, leaving that aside, there are bigger fish to fry here.

Remember, above we noted that the team has about $51 million to fill out four spots (14 is the minimum roster size). Right away, looking at the names above, it should be obvious that the $51M won’t be enough for everybody. Hollis-Jefferson took a bet-on-yourself deal to try to get a better deal after showcasing as a role player for the Raptors, and he’s having a successful season in that regard. He can expect at least a small raise from his $2.5 million salary. Boucher will certainly be hoping to get a decent offer — he is a restricted free agent, so his market may be somewhat suppressed, but with so few stars on the market this summer I’d expect him to garner some interest as a promising (if not young) player.

The bigger issue of course is the triumvirate of VanVleet, Gasol, and Ibaka. The team will almost certainly prioritize getting VanVleet re-signed to a long term deal. Even with a promising prospect in Davis on board, the team is invested in VanVleet as their point guard for the near future (once Lowry’s contract runs out, anyway). How much he gets paid will depend heavily on how teams view him — he should have been paid far more than he got on his last deal, so it is hard to predict his market, But a ballpark of $20 million per year is probably a good starting point, with potential to swing a few million in either direction.

Serge Ibaka is tricky. His impact on the team is far worse than a casual glance would suggest, and his individual production rarely helps his lineups win their minutes. And at his age (he is mid-peak) and that individual production, you can expect him to have a market for a multi-year deal, likely above the MLE. As we’ll see in a moment, that’s something the Raptors would probably like to avoid. They’d love to get him back on a one year deal, but it is very difficult to match the value of deals that last three or four years in a single year.

The same contract consideration applies to Marc Gasol — except he likely has less of a market for a long term deal. A bunch of two year deals is not hard to envision out there for him, which might mean the Raptors have a chance to get him to re-sign for a single season. Unfortunately, any such deal requires a large single season salary to outbid any two year offers out there, so that $51 million is shrinking fast even if it is just him and VanVleet — they could easily account for $40-45 million of that by themselves. Now it is also possible Gasol has no market and the one-year offer needed to keep him is far lower, but it’s hard to imagine there not being a single team willing to throw him a two-year deal at the MLE, at least.

One thing to consider at the trade deadline this winter is that although VanVleet is not extension eligible, and they’ll have to wait for the summer to sort out his contract, the two veteran centres are both eligible for extensions. Which means the team could explore the two players’ willingness to add a year to their deals (in the same way Lowry did) before deciding if they need to trade one or both players.

Okay, enough teasing, let’s move on to summer 2021.

The 2021-22 Season

This is the big event the entire roster has seemed pointed toward since the moment Kawhi Leonard left for the Clippers. This is why the team will likely push for one year deals this coming summer, to keep the books open for the following one.

Giannis hits unrestricted free agency. There are also a few pretty solid plan Bs coming along with him (including Victor Oladipo, for example). The Raptors (admittedly, like half the league) are currently look to have the cap room to strike. But the benefit the Raptors have is they have a very solid core locked in along with that cap room. At least, they are likely planning to. That’s where the work needs to be done this summer.

Player | 2021-22 Salary
Pascal Siakam: $31.3M
Norman Powell: $11.6M (Player Option)
Matt Thomas: $1.8M
Dewan Hernandez: $1.8M

Then there’s this year’s draft pick, whose salary will increase to $2.6M. And next year’s draft pick, who assuming they are 22nd overall as well, would make $2.8M.

The Raptors also have two RFAs they will certainly want to keep the rights to. OG Anunoby’s cap hold is $11.6M and Terence Davis’ cap hold is about $2M. Add all those together and you have $60.2M in committed salary, with a projected cap of $123M. That’s $61.8M in cap room. If you only plan to fit two players into that cap room, that means two empty roster spot cap holds as well, leaving $59.8M to use on those two players.

Ideally, obviously, one of those players is Giannis Antetokounmpo, or another star free agent that summer, so we’ll set aside a 7-9 year max free agent slot ($36.9M). That leaves $22.9M to offer that extra player.

The extra player right now projects to be Fred VanVleet. So it is good to see that the team can afford to offer him that much without needing to shed a salary like Powell’s for example. Ideally the team will get his offer down a bit from there, or at least structure his deal so that the cheapest season happens in the summer of 2021 (this could save them a couple million in cap hit for that summer). But it is good to know the limit.

Of course, the team also needs to be careful — none of this is really known, per se. The cap numbers are projected, and could fall, leaving them with less cap room. Siakam’s salary could be higher, if he earns a top two team All-NBA nod this year. Maybe VanVleet gets a godfather offer from the Pistons or Knicks or something and the Raptors let him walk or match and end up paying him too much for their plans to stay in place.

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Some takeaways to consider with the Raptors when building trades for this deadline.

Be careful about taking on 2021-22 salary unless it’s a player you’d rather have over VanVleet.

Be careful taking on 2020-21 salary unless you are willing to potentially lose both Gasol and Ibaka next year.

Hesitate to trade first round picks — those two picks could be key depth pieces (or, knowing Masai, superstars somehow) at a relatively low cost on a roster that is shaping up to be very top heavy in salary.

When considering whether to trade one or both of Gasol and Ibaka, keep in mind there is very little chance both are here beyond this spring. So the tradeoff with a trade of one or the other is likely to be their value just for this playoff run versus whatever they bring back in the deal.

I’ll try to be active in the comments if anyone wants to propose trades that they think fit the direction of the team, and I can check to see if they work under the cap.