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Talking about the new CBA, Draft, and Raptors’ Free Agency with Spotrac’s Keith Smith

With the free agency just hours away, we got Spotrac’s Keith Smith to talk about the upcoming free agency, how the new CBA affects the draft, free agency, and roster building.

Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri... Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The start of the NBA Free Agency is just right around the corner, and the rumours surrounding several Raptor players are starting to pick up again. Armed with a new coaching staff, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri seems hell-bent on running it back. However, Fred VanVleet’s contract situation and tempting offers for OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam could potentially throw a curve ball to that plan.

I’m a “casual” when it comes to the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. Thankfully, we got Spotrac’s Keith Smith before the new CBA came out to discuss the new CBA, the Draft, and the Raptors’ roster and free agency decisions.

Keith Smith is well-versed regarding the CBA, and he’s currently a featured writer at Spotrac, a site that I often frequent to look up team and player contract information. He’s also got a podcast/Youtube show with LakersNation’s Trevor Lane called NBA Front Office, where they touch upon NBA moves from the front office and cap space perspective.

I stumbled upon their pod prior to the trade deadline as I was looking for knowledgeable people to talk about what could possibly go on the mind of various front office’s decisions and dilemmas when it comes to trading, signing, standing pat while also explaining the impact on the salary cap in practical terms. So, rather than me trying to read the tea leaves, I asked Keith to answer some of my Raptors’ (Free Agency/Roster Decisions) questions heading into the NBA Free Agency.

Raptors Free Agency

JD: Toronto is around $40m below the tax and around $45-46m below the first apron. The front office seems adamant about running it back with a new coach. The Raptors aren’t really known as a tax player, with most of their historical trade-deadline moves being about getting under the tax, so how realistic is it for the Raptors to retain Fred VanVleet and Jakob Poeltl?

Keith: Yeah, it’s doing that and staying under the tax is probably pretty close to impossible. Fred VanVleet’s probably gonna get something in the 30 million range, if not more. Jakob Poeltl will probably gonna get something in the 20 million range, if not more. So you’re already talking, you know, 50 million or around there. So that would definitely push the Raptors into luxury — now they have every ability to re-sign both of those guys, they have full bird rights on them. So they could do that if they wanted to (depending on) whether or not they want to go that deep into the tax to retain them both. Yeah, we’re gonna find out here in a few days.

JD: So it’s just that it comes down to the ownership’s willingness to pay the tax, right?

Keith: Yep, that’s exactly it. Yep. Yep. Or do they have the green light to go into the tax and probably pretty deep into the tax as well?

JD: Yahoo’s Jake Fischer said that Houston might be willing to offer VanVleet a 2-year contract of 40 million per year. Does that make sense for the Rockets to do something like that?

Keith: I think we have seen some of the things like that now. Houston, I personally don’t think so. I think that’s not a great idea for them. Because Houston’s in a spot where they are, how do I phrase this? They’ve got so many kids that I don’t know that Fred VanVleet lifts them enough. But if they feel like he’s the right veteran guard to bring in and kind of help them along, then sure, you know, by all means, you know, go that route. My personal opinion is I don’t think they should be chasing free agents like that right now. I think they’re getting too impatient too quickly. But we’ll see. You know, it seems like they’re pretty hell-bent on we’re gonna sign a couple free agents here.

JD: yeah, I feel bad for my Filipino guy, Jalen Green. He needs a better environment.

JD: If the Raptors manage to keep VanVleet and Poeltl, what kind of MLE can they access?

Keith: If they kept both of those guys, they would likely be well into the tax, and they’d probably be in the taxpayer MLE at that point, and that would be about 5 million MLE, depending on how much they signed those guys. So when they re-signed both of those guys, we’re talking somewhere in the 5 million MLE, but if they lose one or both of them, probably the 12 million non-taxpayer MLE.

JD: Does extending Pascal Siakam (from the asset management perspective) make sense?

Keith: Yeah, if you’re gonna continue to just kind of keep this group together as much as possible and just run it back, then, yeah, absolutely. Because what you don’t want to do is have Siakam hit, you know, free agency unrestricted next year and just be able to walk for nothing. So if you’re not going to trade him, then yeah, absolutely, it makes sense to try to get him extended and move again, to kind of keep things moving with this group.

JD: Should the Raptors cash out on OG Anunoby?

Keith: It seems like the Raptors are content to, more or less, run it back. And if you do that, you might as well keep OG Anunoby and try to be as good as you can be with this team. I think the better idea for Toronto would have been, hey, let’s not tear it all the way down. But let’s, you know, kind of hit a reset on this. We’ll have Scottie Barnes, the draft pick, and we’ll see what we can get for guys like Siakam and Anunoby, and even at this point, now that he’s opted in, Gary Trent, Jr. What could we do there?

I don’t know that I’d go in and use big money to retain VanVleet and Poeltl because we’ve seen this group together. The upside is relatively limited there. You’re probably talking to 45 — maybe if everything goes great, a 50-win team. So you’re just kind of stuck in the middle. Personally, I’d be looking to trade Anunoby if the reports are out there, that teams are offering multiple first-round picks and those kinds of things for him. I’d probably look into it because there’s just as good a chance that he’s gonna leave town all on his own, and then you get nothing back in return.

JD: Unrestricted free agents leaving Toronto seems like the story of our lives these past few years.

JD: With the new CBA making all teams use their salary cap in the summer and all these new things in place to make things more competitive, how should teams like Toronto re-calibrate their roster construction process? Should they lean more on their internal development, or should they start taking on less appealing contracts of mid-tier players to start collecting assets?

Keith: Toronto, for example, they’re not in a position to take on less appealing contracts, and I don’t know they would necessarily be in that business. Unless I’m completely starting over, then maybe you could do that, you know, by trading Siakam and Anunoby, but you should already get plenty for those guys alone.

JD: That’s where I’m getting at. Should treadmill teams like Toronto push the “blow it up” button sooner than later? Like what Washington just did?

Keith: Washington, to an extent, didn’t get any great assets. That’s kind of the challenge; their contracts were so bad that no one would pay for them, and they didn’t. And then, for the contracts they took on, it was really Jordan Poole’s contract. They didn’t get a whole lot for bringing him in; they were gonna move Chris Paul along. But you know, yeah, if you go back to like what Oklahoma City did, which was, they ate contracts of like Al Horford and Kemba Walker that’s your more traditional, you know, alright, “we’ll take on contracts nobody wants, but you’re gonna pay us with a first-round pick.” Teams seem slightly less willing to do that now than they used to be. I think teams are starting to say, “Man, we probably want to hang in, hang on to these picks,” instead of just being so desperate to dump the salary.

We’ll see how that comes into play here over the next couple of years with this. We’re going learn a lot about this. There are things that I think we don’t know how they’re going to play out right now. Right, we’re gonna have to see these teams coming together. I do think teams should be a little bit quicker to say, alright, this group doesn’t work. And then lean into “Alright, we’re going to start over” quicker than that, but you can’t halfway start over. Right? If you’re going to start over, you have to do a Washington did, which is, “Alright, we’re going to send everybody out. And even if we don’t get great returns, it is what it is. What we did create is long-term salary flexibility.” That’s something you need to be willing to do.


JD: The 2023 draft was rich with prospects that could break into several team rotations or require a little polish to quickly get there. The Raptors could have traded for a late first to mid-2nd-round pick when players like Maxwell Lewis were still available. With a cap-conscious team like the Raptors, did the looming free agency affect their lack of activity at the draft?

Keith: Yeah, I don’t think so. Because 2nd-rounders come with such a minimal cap, you know, they carry such a minimal cap charge, that I’d be very surprised that if that drove it, I would guess it was probably more that they just couldn’t find a trade they liked to try to get back into that range to draft another player. That’s probably more likely what happened. I don’t think the cap would have driven anything like that.

JD: Could it be that they don’t want to use more of their “playable” money heading into the free agency?

Keith: I mean, that could be; it would be complete speculation. But there’s nothing cap-wise that should have kept them (Raptors) from doing anything like that.

JD: I could be wrong, but it felt like no second-round picks got traded for cash considerations. Was there a new rule about it?

Keith: There wasn’t. It just was not that kind of draft. Teams didn’t really straight-up sell picks; there were some trades made that involved some cash changing hands, but there were very few just straight-selling picks. That’s been getting less and less over the years. And I think teams are realizing, hey, there’s some value to keeping your second round or so. Yeah, that’s not as much of a thing as they used to be.

Next year, there will be a rule that the most expensive teams, the teams that are above that second tax apron, won’t be able to just send cash out in a trade, or they won’t be able to actually send any cash out in trades. So that becomes a whole thing; they won’t be able to just straight up buy picks like that. If they want one, they’ll have to make an actual trade to get one.


JD: Usually, the training camp roster’s capped at 20 players. With the addition of the third two-way contract, does that change, or does it remain at 20?

Keith: Since they added the third two-way, they increased the offseason roster squad to 21.

JD: Why does it look like that, based on the new CBA, the NBA penalizes instead of incentivizing teams that do a good job at developing and paying their own talent. Teams are also being forced to use up their salary cap. Why does it feel like the NBA is pushing most teams to be in the middle?

Keith: This is where it gets interesting with this new CBA: The NBA didn’t do anything that tells teams, “Hey, if you draft and develop, well, you can’t resign those guys.” You still can do that. You could re-sign everybody on your roster for as long as you wanted and as long as they were willing (to pay). What they basically said is you can’t be like the Golden State Warriors, have an extremely expensive team, and then go add a Donte DiVincenzo on top of that group, as they did a year ago.

What they’re basically going to limit teams is you won’t be able to do that. If you want to make trades, it’s going to be a little harder for you to make some of those trades. But if you draft and develop well, you can continue to re-sign those guys for as many years as you want and just keep things moving in that direction. So basically, it’s, you know, it’s, you can pick now some teams are gonna say, well, the better way is to let some of those guys go as the Warriors kind of did with Jordan Poole and say are we’re gonna let them go. And then we’re gonna re-balance our books a little bit. So it’s all going to be, you know, up to your preferred style of roster building. If you believe the right way is to build through the draft and development of your own talent. You can continue to do that. There are no restrictions against that. It’s just going to be harder than adding outside talent to the team.

JD: With the next TV deal coming up, what are we expecting here? Will it be a big salary cap spike again, or will there be a cap smoothing that will happen?

Keith: Yeah, no more spikes. They’ve put in this CBA the cap will rise by no more than 10% in a given season. And then what happens is, let’s say it should’ve risen 15%, it’ll rise 10% In one year, whatever’s left over will spill into the next year and raise it until they get caught back up. So there’s not going to be a giant cap spike anymore. They’ve smoothed that out. And all that money will flow evenly year to year.

JD: With the John Collins trade and with teams unable to find any buyers for players like Anfernee Simons and DeAndre Ayton, up to players opting in because they couldn’t find potential free-agency buyers — It feels like teams don’t want to overpay mid-tier players. Does it make sense to pay these types of players more than the 20-25 million, which is probably the sweet spot for such players? Do I make sense here? Is the CBA unintentionally pushing the salary gap between the superstars and role players wider?

Keith: It’s all dependent on the player, right? How I was looking at contract values is if you sign a player to a, you know, their, you know, an All-Star level-ish guy, then you’re fine paying them up to the max, right? Because that’s kind of the going rate. If it’s a guy who’s not an all-star level guy, then you’re probably going into a point where you’re gonna want to keep that contract a little bit more in range, the challenge is the salary cap is going up, and it’s going to continue to go up. So 20 million is like the old 12 million. 25 million will be like the old 15 million. So that’s going to be very, very different than what it was, you know, a couple years ago, and it’s going to take some adjusting to and take a little bit a little while to catch up to with that.

With Simons — the Blazers could probably trade him pretty easily, but they’re trying to trade him as part of a package to get a major upgrade. They’re not just gonna give them away. I don’t know that the salary gap is any different between superstars and role players. I think it’s exactly what it always was. It’s going to be the game will continue to be played around, you know, finding those bargain deals for those non-Max guys and trying to get get them in on team-friendly contracts. But then you run into a challenge kind of what the Raptors are in, if the guy blossoms and becomes, you know, a better player than what his contract is, like OG Anunoby, you end up in his position where you can’t extend him because the extension rules don’t allow you to pay him enough, then you get kind of stuck on that as well. So those team-friendly contracts sound great until it’s time for the next one, then, you know, generally, those players end up being on unrestricted free agency, and that’s when you run the risk of losing them.


Many thanks to Spotrac’s Keith Smith for answering our Raptors-related free agency and roster-related decisions. You can follow him on Twitter at @KeithSmithNBA, read his work on Spotrac’s website, and watch/listen to his pod/Youtube show, the NBA Front Office.