It’s no secret the Toronto Raptors, still led by team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster, valued flexibility heading into the 2020-21 off-season. This summer had the chance to be the free-agent market of the last decade with stars like Giannis, Kawhi, and Anthony Davis potentially being available.
Of course, as it turned out all the shiniest toys either re-upped before hitting the market, or are expected to. Even still, the fact the Raptors have only four players they will absolutely being paying next season, barring a trade, is low-key bonkers.
The Raps have decisions to make on no less than twelve players this off-season. Some of them are no-brainers (Chris Boucher, Aron Baynes), others are going to require more thinking (Paul Watson?), while some are out of Toronto’s hands — no matter how painful that might be (Kyle Lowry).
Let’s jump in and take a look at the “dirty dozen” ranked by how likely you’ll find their current jersey on Kijiji in the next three months.
Thanks for the Memories, We’re Not Making New Ones
Aron Baynes (Non-Guaranteed for 2021-22)
Stats (per 36 minutes): 11.9 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.6 “stocks” per game*, .441/.262./.707
[*steals plus blocks]
You have to feel for Baynes. He didn’t ask the Raptors fanbase to talk themselves into him being a sort of Gasol-lite who would do just enough organizing the defense, stretching the floor, and rebounding to keep Toronto from missing a major beat after losing the Spaniard’s under-appreciated genius.
Instead, Baynes never found his game. He put up what were basically career-worst shooting percentages, and saw his assist and block rates crumple from their recent career highs.
Baynes played much better when he moved to the bench (a True Shooting percentage of .570 vs .462 as a starter) and is still an NBA-calibre rotation centre. However, his $7,350,000 option means Baynes won’t be getting his bounce-back chance here.
Still, I wouldn’t be shocked if, next season, he was giving someone 12-15 good minutes a night as a backup and the league’s most enjoyable Twitter account enjoyed a similar resurgence.
Rodney Hood (Team Option for 2021-2022)
Stats (per 36 minutes): 11.0 PPG, 5.0 RPB, 1.0 APG, 1.2 STPG, .356/.310/.938
Rodney Hood may very well return to being an intriguing NBA player, but he’s turning 29 and has endured two injury-plagued campaigns. The guy Hood has been in his career — a 16/4/2.5 guy on below-average efficiency — has a place in the league, but at this stage, he’s going to be someone’s 14th or 15th man/reclamation project, and I don’t think that’s going to be in Toronto.
Like Baynes though, don’t be shocked if Hood has a third act somewhere else in the league where he could still serve as a useful second-unit wing.
Maybe If Nothing Better Comes Along
Stanley Johnson (Unrestricted Free Agent)
Stats (per 36 minutes): 9.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.2 APG, 2.5 SPG, .382/.328/.800
There’s a famous story of coach Nick Nurse telling an “unidentified” Raptor that the only way he was going to stick in the league was by paring his game way back. The common assumption is that that player was Stanley Johnson, a lottery pick who has been prone to delusions of grandeur in his earlier seasons.
Well, if anything, Johnson may have followed Nurse’s instructions a little too well, as by counting stats — even per-36 — this past season was easily the least productive of his career (with the possible exception of his second season in the league).
On the other hand, Johnson set a career-high for True-Shooting % (albeit still decently below average), three-point shooting, and seemed to have gained Nurse’s trust as a multi-positional defender who could intelligently compete on every possession.
The question for Johnson is simple and complex at the same time. In short, it’s tough to keep a low-usage player around who can’t shoot — even if he can defend. Was this season’s step forward regarding accuracy a new high, or is there something more there to squeeze out?
Chances are this is the end of the road for Johnson in Toronto. Still, the willingness to defend, and the organization’s comfort with him may give Johnson a shot to come back on a low-dollar deal to “run the bench,” and continue his yearly quest to win a: “most out of nowhere box-score of the year” award.
De’Andre Bembry (Non-Guaranteed Contract)
Stats (per 36 minutes): 10.9 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.7 SPG, .513/.264/.682
Question 1: What happens when a player takes a massive step forward offensively and you can’t even tell? That’s what Bembry did as he blew away his previous best True-Shooting mark, and yet was still basically a non-factor on offense for the Raptors.
Like Johnson, Bembry offers a grab-bag full of skills that come tied in the bow of: “can’t really shoot.” One has to assume that at best the Raps are only going to want to carry one of these players. Like Johnson, Bembry is a solid defensive player, who can do a bunch of stuff OK but can also be ignored on the offensive end. As such, we have another question to answer.
Question 2: Do you prefer the guy who can’t really shoot anywhere, but whose free-throw shooting suggests he could maybe develop a league-average three-point stroke? Or, do you like the guy who is almost assuredly a non-shooter, but can actually finish at the rim at a decent clip?
The answer to that may determine which, if either, of the two will be given a chance to play depth minutes at Scotiabank Arena next season. (Quiet, I’m being optimistic!)
We Think There’s Something There (Maybe???)
Paul Watson (Non-Guaranteed Deal)
Stats (per 36 minutes): 13.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 STPG, .463/.469/.625
Poor Paul Watson, he really Garret Sparks-ed himself didn’t he? Injuries finally opened up a chance for him to run with a gig at which many thought he could provide value, but then after a nice flash or two (scoring 30 against Orlando), he got hurt and missed the opportunity to prove that the flashes were real. (Remember, he followed up the Orlando explosion by scoring precisely… zero points the next night).
I think the Raps will keep Watson around — at $1.7 million even if he ends up in the 15th man role, the Raptors haven’t over-paid. The real risk here is Toronto signing or acquiring other players they like better than the oft-injured wing, and deciding to move on from Watson.
Jalen Harris (Two-Way Contract)
Stats (per 36 minutes): 20.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.7 SPG, .500/.472/.778
Nobody did more for their chances of staying with the Raptors in the last two to three weeks of the season than Harris. Handed an opportunity with a thinning roster, Harris landed double-figures in minutes in five of his final six games and showed out well in pretty much all of them.
The best-case scenario for Harris right now seems to be a microwave quality scorer off the bench who is smart enough and competes hard enough on defense to stay on the floor. Of course, Harris is probably years away from recognizing that potential and the Raptors have let promising young players walk before (see: Brissett, Oshae and Johnson, Alize), but barring a flurry of off-season signings that squeeze him off the roster, it seems like Harris will get another opportunity to show the Raptors brain-trust that he’s the rare second-rounder worth keeping. The question remains if he’ll be back on another two-way contract deal or be brought onto the full roster though.
Freddie Gillespie (Non-Guaranteed Contract)
Stats (per 36 minutes): 10.2 PPG, 8.9 APG, 0.8 APG, 3.0 SPG .524/---/.697
Look, I have no idea if Freddie Gillespie is a better singer than an NBA player, but I do know the Raps have little to lose by keeping him around.
He’s probably still a candidate to spend some time in the G League as the Raps continue to develop him (extending his shooting range would be tops on the list — not even to three, but to eighteen feet). And if he’s the backup centre I think it’s a sign Toronto might have gotten too cute again in the off-season. But as the third big on the Raptors, one who maaaaybe could ascend to backup status if he keeps improving, Gillespie brings things — defensive mobility, active hands, a lob threat — to like.
Gillespie also finishes ahead of Harris here due to positional needs — there’s a much clearer path in the Raps frontcourt for Gillespie to grab minutes than there is for Harris in the back-court.
Yuta Watanabe (Non-Guaranteed Contract)
Stats (per 36 minutes): 10.9 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.0 APG, 2.2 STP, .439/.400/.828
For a good chunk of the year, I felt bad for Yuta. Here was a guy who was a legitimately good defender, and could kind of hit an open three, who was being undermined by his complete inability to do anything with the ball in the hands. Like, for the first half of the year, Watanabe with the rock in his claws on the break meant that the ‘Benny Hill’ music was being queued up.
Then the last two months happened, and suddenly Watanabe was showing just enough off the ball juice that his clearly solid basketball I.Q. could play. (It also didn’t hurt that he hit 43 percent of his threes those last two months.)
As a guy you want to play serious minutes every night, he’s a hard pass. As a guy who could defend like hell, make enough shots to keep the defense honest, and is the type of willing passer and cutter who can help keep the offensive machine moving in the half-court? That might be worth 12-15 minutes a night.
The Raptors could still very well improve on Watanabe in the second unit, but if nothing else, he’s proven he’s more than qualified to be an emergency option.
Well, What Do You Want to Do?
Kyle Lowry (Unrestricted Free-Agent)
Stats (per 36 minutes): 17.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 7.6 APG, 1.3 STP, .436/.396/.875, nine million charges drawn*
[*all numbers approximate]
KLOE rode less often this past season, but injury and “rest” shenanigans aside, the greatest ever Toronto Raptor only burnished his legacy with what was, sneakily, one of Lowry’s best seasons of his career — he posted his third-highest effective field-goal percentage ever, for example.
The eye-test suggests that Lowry may have lost a small step on the defensive end, but the risk that he’s about to engage in a major drop-off as he enters his age-36 season seems as small as it could be for a six-foot point-guard about to enter… his age-36 season.
So, is Lowry staying or going? The tea leaves say a million things. Why would Lowry sell his house if he was going to stay? (Because of profit.) Why would the Raps not trade him and then let him rest for the majority of the season to keep him fresh for next year? (Because they’re a classy organization and had no desire to possibly injure someone before their last big payday.) Where else could Lowry even go? (The Heat, for one, but you know what, don’t answer that one just yet.)
I still lean towards Lowry staying simply because there aren’t that many big money landing places that would be willing to pay Lowry what he’s worth. If the trade market told us anything it’s that the league may still under-value what he brings. Now, does Victor Oladipo’s total no-show in Miami make me nervous? Yes. If Chris Paul somehow finds a better deal somewhere else, would Lowry fit well in what the Suns are trying to do? Sure. I just feel that, in the end, the money and the fit may work out best back in Toronto.
Of course, Kyle might be ready for a new adventure, and if he is, I say time to start building the statue*.
(*I’m cheating here, of course, because Lowry’s Raptors jerseys will never go on Kijiji. I do think he’s more likely to leave than Trent.)
Gary Trent Jr. (Restricted Free Agent)
Stats (per 36 minutes): 18.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.6 STPG, .395/.355/.806
Would the Raptors like to keep Gary Trent Jr.? Of course. The question is: at what number? Trent showed flashes that he could be close to a like-for-like replacement for Norman Powell when he was popping off for 31 against OKC or 44 against Cleveland (or beating the Wizards), but he also finished with an icky .479 effective field-goal percentage as a Raptor.
So, what’s he worth? He’s 22 and has shown he can hit league average efficiency on moderate usage, Powell got his four year/$42-million deal at 23 with a less robust, but still intriguing, statistical profile. The smart money says the Raps having matching and full Bird rights means they’ll keep him — but is Trent at, say, $15-million per season a player that helps Toronto in the long-term?
I’d say the Raps will do that — if it comes to it – because Trent at $15 million could be the perfect type of player and contract to use as bait to try to hook the next disgruntled superstar. However, if the bidding somehow pushes higher, you do have to wonder if Toronto decides to cut bait.
You Have a Choice, but Who’s Kidding Who?
Khem Birch (Unrestriced Free-Agent)
Stats (per 36 minutes): 14.2 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 2.2 APG, 2.4 STPG, .556/.290/.636
The feel-good story that actually ended up being good. When Birch came to town, I was optimistic, but prepared myself to be underwhelmed. After all, Birch isn’t huge, doesn’t shoot, and had been holding down backup minutes for one of the worst teams in the NBA for the past few years.
Birch allayed my concerns by coming in and shooting at a career-high level (even if nailing 29 percent of his threes represents a fairly modest ‘high’ and his free-throw percentages are a giant flashing warning light that even that might over-state his true talent level there), showcasing more playmaking juice that he’d shown in Orlando, and giving the Raptors a big who could drop back and defend the rim, or chase water-bugs around the perimeter with a modicum of success.
Birch, won’t solve Toronto’s rebounding problems — he’s pulling down less than 10 per 36 minutes as a Raptor — and he doesn’t give Toronto a realistic weapon against the true behemoths of the league, but with the Montreal native saying he would like to stay in Canada, and a glut of centre options on the market, the smart money says Birch and the Raps should be able to come to terms quickly on a reasonable deal.
Still, given Birch and Baynes put up very similar numbers on a per-36 basis, it should be clear, that even with Birch’s athletic upside versus the burly Aussie, Toronto fans should temper expectations that re-signing the UNLV product will do anything more than solve the team’s backup centre needs.
Chris Boucher (Team Option)
Stats (per 36 minutes): 20.3 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 1.6 APG, 3.7 STP, .514/.383/.788
All right, he wasn’t quite the destroyer of worlds he seemed to be in the first month of the season when the Sixth Man buzz blew up, and yes, he’s proven he can’t really hold his own at the five defensively — either individually, or as an organizer of the team in front of him — but Chris Boucher balled out this year.
Boucher works hard, this year went a long way in proving that his trebuchet of a release actually works, and he showed glimpses of being able to expand his game beyond being a lob threat or a pick-and-pop guy (see, all the injuries did pay off). At $7 million he’ll be, if not a stone-cold bargain, then at least a definite under-pay.
Assuming the Raptors can clean up the mess at the five-spot, the biggest question for Boucher may be: how many minutes can he see on a team that already has Pascal Siakam at the four? But that’s next year’s problem. For now, Slimm Duck is likely to be a Raptor again.