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Salary Cap Update: The Raptors shake up their frontcourt for 2020-21

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The Raptors lost stalwarts Gasol and Ibaka, but welcomed back Boucher while adding Baynes and Bembry — all while playing exactly to the strategy we’ve been expecting.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

So another day of free agency, another Raptors centre who was not interested in their one-year offer and decided to chase a ring elsewhere. Still, we can look forward to Serge Ibaka vs. Marc Gasol in the Los Angeles duel for the Western Conference, which should be fun.

Meanwhile, the Raptors immediately solidified their centre rotation for the year — seemingly within minutes after Gasol was gone — by agreeing to deals with Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher. They followed that up later in the evening adding an intriguing young “second draft” player (one who a team lets go during or after their rookie scale deal) in DeAndre’ Bembry.

Let’s review where that puts the Raptors now.

The Deals

We know rough totals on the deals from reports.

Baynes is a two-year deal worth $14.3 million, and the second year is a team option. Now, early reports sometimes confuse team options with unguaranteed salary, as both serve the same purpose, but there are some small differences that could be important. It would be nice if that team option turns out to be a non-guarantee in year two with a guarantee date later in free agency. In that scenario, the Raptors would be able to see if they need the cap room that would come from waiving Baynes so as to sign a max free agent.

Boucher is on a similar deal: two years and $13.5 million. This time it was straight up reported as non-guaranteed in year two. But again, keep in mind, we will have to see about that guarantee date to know how long the Raptors can wait to waive him if need be.

The upside of both those deals is that they can be removed from the team if need be to sign a max free agent. As has been Toronto’s plan for awhile now: neither deal impacts the cap situation in 2021, assuming both are removed.

We talked about the backup plan for 2021 if the Raptors miss on a max free agent, and that’s where those second years could come in. If both have delayed decision dates, the Raptors could find out they are missing on the free agents, then decide to just keep both players either for the long term or as trade chips moving forward.

At the same time, Bembry appears to be a two-year deal too, at the minimum salary per Blake Murphy of the Athletic. The second year is unguaranteed, no surprose there. Still, it’s worth noting that the Raptors will have a bunch of minimums to choose from as far as who to keep and still have that max slot available.

What We Don’t Know

There’s another detail we don’t know about these deals. That’s their structure. Contracts can be flat, with the salary the same every year, or they can have raises or decreases in them.

For Baynes, he’s another team’s free agent, so the Raptors are limited to a five percent raise or decrease between the two seasons. So his salary this season could be anywhere between $7.0 million and $7.3 million, given that $14.3 million total.

Similar for Boucher, though the Raptors have his Early Bird rights, meaning he can be given eight percent raises or drops. So his salary this year could be anywhere between $6.5 million and $7.0 million.

For Bembry, his salary is a minimum contract, so the salary is $1.7 million this year and $1.8 million next season. The second year is unguaranteed, but it’s also cheap enough that it could fit beside that max free agent if need be. Also, with it being only a two-year deal and for the minimum salary, Bembry is signed with the minimum salary exception and does not eat into the Mid-Level Exception (MLE).

In either assumption about salary increases and decreases, the Raptors have plenty of room below the tax line. Even assuming the largest number for each player, they’ve got over $5 million in room below the tax and very little ability to add that salary even if they tried, as the MLE is almost used up and all they have besides that is minimum salaries to give. So no tax concerns at this point.

That said, from here on in we’ll assume both players have maximum raises in their contracts — so $7.0 million for Baynes and $6.5 million for Boucher this year.

That Leftover MLE

The MLE is an exception that allows teams to sign one or more players to deals four years or shorter in length, with a starting salary of about 8.5 percent of the cap in any given year. That happens to be $9.26 million this year. Baynes making only $7 million means the Raptors have about $2.28 million left over.

Now, Toronto could intend to chase a single free agent with that amount. That would outbid anybody who is looking to sign players for the minimum salary, but with the Raptors only offering one year anyway, it might not be a huge advantage. They just landed Bembry in that role anyway.

The other obvious use for it is to give contracts to their second round draftee Jalen Harris and any undrafted free agent they wanted to sign. Minimum salaries scale by experience, and a rookie minimum salary is about $900,000. That means there is room left over for two of those.

The benefit of using the MLE instead of just giving a player a contract through the minimum salary exception (which allows any team to sign a player to a minimum contract without needing cap space to do so) is term of control over the player. The minimum salary exception is limited to contracts of one or two years.

A player who becomes a free agent anytime in their first three seasons (including after finishing that third season) is a restricted free agent. So a rookie signing a 1-, 2-, or 3-year deal becomes a restricted free agent at the end of it. But the team’s ability to match offers depends on what rights they have on the player.

A player who signs a one-year deal, comes off of it with only non-Bird Rights. It means the team can give him a small raise (20 percent above his prior salary or above the minimum, whichever is larger) and a contract up to four years in length. If a competing team came with an offer sheet bigger than that 20 percent raise, the home team would have no way to match that offer unless they had cap room or an exception like the MLE big enough to fit it.

If a player signs a two-year deal, that’s better, but also comes with complications. These players are what is called a Gilbert Arenas free agent — they will have Early Bird Rights as a restricted free agent. Early Bird Rights allow the home team to offer up to a 75 percent raise or five percent above the league average salary, which ever is greater — and again for up to four years. But to use this the team can’t offer a one-year deal; it has to be between two and four years. They are also able to match any offer made to their free agent. There are other complications here but we’ll just leave it at that.

If a player signs a three-year deal, they hit restricted free agency at the same time as earning full Bird Rights. So the team can offer anything up to the maximum salary, they can negotiate an extension before the player hits free agency, and they can match any offer made to the player (without the potential mess that comes with Gibert Arenas provision offers noted above). There is the added benefit of the player being on a minimum salary for three years before getting that raise, which helps with building a team. That’s definitely the ideal.

The benefit of using the MLE instead of the minimum salary exception is that it unlocks that option to give the player three years on his contract. It’s a much nicer situation to be in from a cap perspective. Being able to get, say, both a second round pick and an undrafted free agent locked into that sort of deal would be something a team would be interested in.

What Next?

The Raptors now have a roster of 15 players, if you assume Malachi Flynn and Harris are signed. That leaves no spot for that undrafted free agent we mentioned above. If Harris signs a two-way instead, that frees up a roster spot.

Toronto also has one player on a two-way deal in Paul Watson Jr., and may want to give him a minimum deal. In his case, they would use the minimum exception as he already has a year under his belt with the Raptors from his two-way season last year, and Toronto would have Bird Rights upon completion of that deal. The same goes for Oshae Brissett, who is a restricted free agent right now and who the Raps may want to sign to an NBA deal.

Unfortunately, the roster limit is 15 players on NBA contracts. The good news is, the Raptors don’t have to get down to that number until the start of the season a month from now. So they could sign more guys than needed and decide later who to keep and who to cut, including some guys already on the roster. There is certainly an argument to be made that another young piece on a minimum deal with term is of more value than an expiring Stanley Johnson or Patrick McCaw, for example.

Besides the rest of the MLE, the Raptors also have as many minimum salary exception deals as they like to throw around, so expect a few minimum salary tryout signings, possibly with options to convert to two-way contracts, to be added in the next week. They can only have two players on two-way deals, but those deals are more valuable this year as those players can play 50 games with the NBA team, rather than being limited to 45 days (which often get eaten up on non-game-days). Depending on whether they upgrade Watson Jr. and what sort of deal Harris signs, they could have one or two spots to fill there.

Those minimum salary deals could also go to veterans who they think plug a hole defensively. They technically also still have Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s non-Bird Rights, so could offer him a contract for a bit above the minimum if they wanted to fill out their depth at the forward spots. But it looks like Bembry might have already taken that role.

What About Trades?

Well, anything is possible with Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster. That said, with how obviously they bent over backwards to (a) stay well clear of the tax, and (b) keep that maximum salary slot open next summer, the range of possible trades for Toronto goes down — assuming those constraints extend into the future.

There’s still a possibility Norman Powell could be moved just to be sure he doesn’t pick up his option, as that would cause issues for Toronto’s cap room in 2021. Right now that seems unlikely, with some big contracts being thrown around over the weekend and even more extravagant spending due in 2021. A healthy Powell would likely command more than his current rate of $10-11 million per year.

Personally I expect the Raptors front office to like their current Plan B setup enough that selling off pieces like Powell, or even Kyle Lowry, for draft assets is just not in the plans. And I doubt they are worried enough about this current team to sell off their own draft assets to upgrade their depth in the front court, for example.

With that in mind for now, it sounds like most, if not all, of the major decisions have been made for the 2020-21 version of the Raptors.

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Nevertheless, what do you think the Raptors should do to fill out the rest of the roster? If you have any proposals more complex than a simple minimum salary signing, sound off below and I can check to see what impact it might have on this year and next year’s salary cap.