The NBA’s 2020 free agency period is finally over — and the 2021 free agency period is now gonna look a lot different. As first reported by The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Giannis Antetokounmpo is signing a 5-year “supermax” contract that will keep him in Milwaukee through 2026.
Breaking: Giannis Antetokounmpo says he is signing a contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks. The two-time MVP will sign a five-year, $228.2 million supermax extension with the franchise, the largest deal in NBA history, sources tell @TheAthleticNBA @Stadium.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) December 15, 2020
The Toronto Raptors, of course, had stacked their free agency deck to have the flexibility sign Giannis next summer, and fans across Canada were hoping that, for once, the Raptors might have a true shot at luring a superstar free agent to come play north of the border.
Alas, the dream is dead.
Or is it!? While we mourn what might have been, let’s look at potential plans B, C D and consider what might still be.
Financial Flexibility is Good!
The Raptors will have space available to sign a max player next summer, but that’s not all they have. They have multiple players on reasonable short-term, or non-guaranteed, or expiring deals this season, all of which can be used as trade assets — either in their own trades or as partners in multi-team trades. Those signed this past offseason, like Fred VanVleet or Aron Baynes, can be traded as of February 6 (for non-Bird rights players like Baynes) or March 3 (for VanVleet).
They also have all of their future first round picks.
That means they can pivot to a number of different options, such as making a trade now or at the deadline, signing a different free agent next offseason, or allocating that money to their own current players.
What Are the Raptors’ Trade Options?
There is at least one unhappy superstar the Raptors could potentially trade for right now, and that’s James Harden, who wants out of Houston. If the Philadelphia 76ers aren’t willing to part with Ben Simmons, then the Raptors can surely make a better offer than any other contender, whether it includes Kyle Lowry (an expiring contract sure to appeal to Houston’s broke-ass owner) or Pascal Siakam (a star under contract just entering his prime) and some combination of picks and cap ballast.
The team could also skew young by trading Lowry elsewhere, to a contending team in need of a lead guard, in exchange for young talent and future picks — though I’m not sure such a team exists, as the Lakers, Clippers, Sixers and Bucks don’t really have the assets. Again, maybe there’s a third team involved. Either way, that’s the type of deal that could be made anytime between now and the trade deadline.
The team could also wait to see if another star player becomes unhappy this season, and make a deal at the deadline that could include VanVleet.
What About 2021 Free Agency?
If the Raptors decide to keep the team together this season and find a Plan B next summer, there are several potential targets; the most obvious one is Kawhi Leonard, who has a player option. Whether or not he executes that option presumably depends on how the Clippers do this year, although, after orchestrating such a big deal to get “home” to California in the first place, it seems unlikely he’d be eager to leave.
(Speaking of Raptors-turned-Clippers with player options, Serge Ibaka has one too. Cue the “getting the band back together” montage!?)
Other targets include Victor Oladipo, Blake Griffin, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Rudy Gobert. Honestly, Gobert might be the most interesting; he might cost a little less than the max, and thinking of him as a defensive backstop with a core of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby is pretty enticing.
Can the Raptors Just Re-Sign Their Own Guys?
Giannis signing now means that OG Anunoby’s contract extension becomes an even more interesting question mark. He can sign an extension between now and Monday December 21st; if not, he’s a restricted free agent next summer.
The reason this matters is Anunoby’s cap hold. If he doesn’t sign that extension, it sits at about $11 million next summer, whereas if he signs now, it becomes whatever he signs for, be it $15 million or $18 million or whatever.
This doesn’t mean OG won’t get paid. The Raptors want to keep him and will pay him regardless — it’s just the timing that matters, from their point of view. Signing him now reduces their flexibility next summer.
As for the rest of their guys, they can guarantee the contracts of players like Baynes, Alex Len and Chris Boucher next summer if they want, or re-sign Norman Powell if he opts out, or re-sign Kyle Lowry using his Bird rights.
Wait, What Does This Mean for Kyle Lowry!?
Kyle is an unrestricted free agent next summer regardless; they can’t sign him to an extension now. But they’ll control his Bird rights and could sign him to another deal in the offseason, if they choose not to sign a max player.
Note that the Raptors can’t sign a max contract player and then sign Lowry to a contract using his Bird rights; his cap hold is $43 million, meaning they’d have to renounce him to have that max cap space available.
If it seems no max player is coming, the Raptors could sign Lowry to a nice deal and then sign another, non-max player. Or, they could simply give Lowry the “we take care of own” deal, like the Lakers did with Kobe Bryant, and offer Lowry a golden parachute that lets him retire a well-paid Raptor.
I don’t see that one happening.
There’s One Other Free Agent Looming: Masai Ujiri
Raptors team president Masai Ujiri is now entering the last year of his current contract, and hasn’t signed an extension. In his time here, he’s transformed the once-lame Raptors into a perennial winner, brought an All-Star game to Toronto and won an NBA title. There’s really only one thing he hasn’t done...
Sign a marquee free agent.
With Giannis unavailable, and Leonard now the only potential MVP-level free agent next summer, it seems unlikely that it’s going to happen in 2021. The question is whether or not it means it’s more likely Masai re-signs (to try again) or bolts (to go somewhere else where attracting talent is perhaps easier, or simply another gig altogether).
If we believe the Michael Grange piece from a few weeks back, Ujiri thrives on challenges, and on having the support around him to overcome those challenges. I have to believe that, if MLSE is still committed to building a winner and giving him the resources he needs to do it, he’ll stick around and keep working towards keeping the Raptors near the top of the NBA — and working to check that free agent signing off his list.
Will the Raptors Ever Sign a Big-time Free Agent?
Honestly, I don’t think Ujiri ever will get to check that off. It hasn't happened in 25 years, and it probably never will. But that isn't the end of the world.
It’s also not a knock on Toronto. Outside of the few cold big markets (New York and maybe Chicago), the only teams that attract free agents are the warm-weather and tax-friendly big cities who have owners with deep pockets. There are 20-25 NBA teams that are not that, that will always struggle to lure free agents. That just means they have to build through the draft and through smart trades and smart non-headline free agent signings, and re-sign their guys when their contacts are up.
Well, guess what? The Raptors, under Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster, have done just that. They’ve been fucking awesome at doing that. (Um, we’ll just ignore DeMarre Carroll. Everyone gets a mulligan!) It’s what the Bucks are doing too. The Spurs did it for an entire generation.
It brought the Raptors one title already.
Who’s to say it can’t happen again?