This year’s playoff re-match between the Miami Heat and the Milwaukee Bucks provides many spicy storylines for NBA fans to chew on, but for Toronto Raptor supporters the biggest story centres on someone who won’t even play — Victor Oladipo who is out with a torn tendon in his right quad.
Raptor fans may remember that Miami, instead of paying full freight for Kyle Lowry, pivoted to get Oladipo from the Houston Rockets for what most people felt was like the last few Skittles left in the package… in the car… in 30-degree heat.
(In retrospect, the deal may be known as the “Kelly Olynyk freedom train” as, now being arguably the focal point of Houston’s offense, the Canadian big man has quietly exploded — putting up a bananas 22-10-5 line on .545/.392/.844 shooting — but that doesn’t change the fact that the only asset the Rockets are guaranteed to have after the year is the right to swap first round picks in 2022.)
Still, there was a reason Oladipo came cheap — he’s been pretty mediocre, with gusts towards awful. In the past three seasons, he’s played just 85 games while posting True Shooting percentages well below average. Oladipo is still a decent defensive player, but the injuries have seemingly robbed him of the athleticism that made him a true difference-maker at that end. This year, in just 33 games he was basically a replacement-level player.
So, why should Raptor fans care?
Well, as we discussed above, the Heat were very interested in acquiring Lowry. One of the reasons the Heat apparently punted on the Lowry deal was because they felt they could sign him outright in the off-season.
The Oladipo acquisition had a chance to complicate that. If Oladipo had balled out in Miami, and started to look more like his peak self, the Heat would have been faced with an interesting choice: resign the 29-year-old former All-Star, or chase Lowry?
According to Sportrac, the Heat are going to be one of eleven teams with at least $20-million in “practical” cap space (basically what they could free up by not guaranteeing any deals that need guaranteeing, and declining club options). At $28 million the Heat should have enough to land Lowry, but $28 million to sign Oladipo AND Lowry would have been pretty much impossible.
As a Raptor fan, the obvious, albeit distasteful play, would have been to cheer for the Heat, and especially for Oladipo, to have another surprisingly long playoff run — convincing Heat management that gambling on the older Lowry was the wrong bet when Oladipo could be retained.
Knocking the Heat out of the free agency race would have been huge. While I mentioned 11 teams, that number is actually inflated. First, there is no guarantee that $20 million is enough to sign Lowry (personally I think we’re seeing a two-year/$50 milliion dollar deal getting it done). Second, several of the teams: Detroit, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Memphis and the Spurs are at the wrong part of their life cycle. The Hornets have the money, might value winning now more than they should, but are also flush in the back-court.
That left teams like the Knicks — maybe feeling they are closer to true contention, and having a definite hole at the lead guard position, Dallas — likely all-in, and never afraid of splashy moves, and the Bulls — desperate to be better, and another team that could use a lead ball-handler like Lowry.
Of that group, the Knicks seem like the biggest threat — it’s a huge profile market, a team on the come-up, and the fit looks seamless. Although, could a North Philly kid really play for a New York team? That seems psychologically unlikely.
Dallas is an intriguing possibility — but I’d argue the Mavs biggest need is on the wings and in the frontcourt. There is also the matter of Luka Doncic being one of the most ball-dominant players in the league. Sure, Lowry can play off-ball, but then his skills seem to be somewhat wasted in Dallas — unless the whole logic for the Mavs is to push Doncic off-ball more (the utility of that would be its own column).
The Bulls have a lot of moving pieces to deal with this off-season, and it’s not obvious that even with Lowry, they’re anything more than a bottom of the ladder playoff team. That doesn’t even look like a lateral move — despite Toronto’s rough season.
Miami though offers no state tax, a team culture that is just as impressive as Toronto’s, if not more so, and a chance for Kyle to play alongside one of his better friends in the league in Jimmy Butler. It’s a very tempting situation — especially if Kyle is ready for a new challenge.
Of course, it’s no slam dunk that Kyle chooses to leave Toronto. For every tea leaf that says he will (he sold his house!), there is one that says he won’t (he didn’t push to play a “final” game in a Raptors uniform!). Still, the fact that Oladipo won’t even have a chance to make the deal look like the steal it was assumed to be is a bummer for Raptors fans.
(At least now we can cheer for Milwaukee to bludgeon the Heat with a clean conscience.)