Note: This is a guest post from Michael R. Menard.
With training camp fast approaching, there are more questions than answers surrounding this 2017-2018 iteration of the Toronto Raptors. Can they stay healthy? Will a training camp help them make better use of Serge Ibaka on both ends? Will the team’s youngest players fill the void left by the departures of Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph?
It’s one question in particular that seems to be worrying Raptors nation more than B-Rabbit before his final battle at the end of 8 Mile: “If Norman Powell breaks out and gets a huge offer next summer, will the Raptors let him walk?”
It’s easy to understand the concern. If Powell comes anywhere close to averaging the 15.6ppg, 3.7rpg, 1.8apg and .594 true shooting percentage he averaged as a starter last year, the offer sheet put in front of him by another team next summer could look much closer to the 4-year, $71 million dollar sheet that Tim Hardaway Jr. signed and less like the 4-year, $42 million dollar extension Josh Richardson recently inked. The Raptors are already staring down the luxury tax with Norman Powell on a bargain contract. So, something has to give, right?
Powell could sign an extension today remarkably similar to the Richardson contract but likely won’t. He and his agent, Thaddeus Foucher, are likely to bet on themselves and the offers they’ll receive next summer being better than that. Can you blame them? In the playoffs, Powell was spectacular for long stretches as a starter, flashing a combination of slashing, 3-point shooting, and defence that reminded at times of a younger Avery Bradley, and rescuing the Raptors from a potential upset for the second season in a row. The U.S. media noticed and Powell dominated the playoff news cycle for 48 hours internationally. He’s never been better known heading into an NBA training camp.
To their credit, the Raptors seem aware of this and have taken steps to ensure Powell feels valued. When Dwane Casey sat down with Kyle Lowry prior to free agency he didn’t only bring DeMar DeRozan with him. Powell was there, too. A reminder to Lowry that this group still has room to grow and a statement to Powell that he is now seen as one of the key assets who’ll drive that growth. Terrence Ross was moved out last year and now DeMarre Carroll is gone. Willing backup C.J. Miles has entered the picture, excited to help anyway he can; He started only 29 games for the Indiana Pacers and was productive in his reserve role. The training camp battle between both men remains intriguing, but it’s Powell’s starting role to lose and it’s alongside the starters where Powell has looked most dangerous.
In isolation, each of these developments might worry Raptors fans. Combined, they trigger flashbacks of Bismack Biyombo’s introductory press conference in Orlando. Is it time to start the clock on Powell? Some think so. They’re wrong. Masai Ujiri bought patience as a penny stock long ago and will ride it into retirement someday. Nobody in the NBA understands the rewards of patience better than Ujiri, and he can be patient with Powell in ways he couldn’t with Biyombo.
Most know that Powell is a restricted free agent. That means the Raptors will have the right to match any offer Norm signs even if it puts them into luxury tax territory. What many seem to have forgotten is that luxury tax isn’t calculated at the start of each year. It’s calculated at the end of them. The Raptors can therefore defer the eventual budgetary issue of Powell’s next contract as late as the trade deadline of 2018-2019 without penalty. In other words, the Raptors could theoretically begin the season after next with both Jonas Valanciunas and a re-signed Powell. Unlikely? Perhaps, given the leverage they’d forfeit as the drop-dead tax date drew nearer. Unprecedented? Not even close.
Valanciunas remains the most likely core asset that will be moved out in order to accommodate Powell’s next raise. With $48 million remaining on his contract and the much more affordable Jakob Poeltl gunning for his minutes, it’s only a matter of time until Valanciunas is back on the block. The game has evolved and the Raptors will be better served allocating their fourth-highest salary toward the perimeter while taking advantage of Poeltl’s bargain deal. The misconception is that this all has to happen as soon as possible. It doesn’t. The Miami Heat began last season in position to pay $11.3 million dollars in luxury tax and ended up paying none of it following 5 separate trades. The last two of which were completed with minutes to go before the deadline window closed.
The Raptors will have at least 18 months to find the right suitor for Valanciunas in a cost-saving measure, and he seems intent on making their job easier. Noticeably trimmer and more decisive at FIBA EuroBasket this summer, Valanciunas could be due for his best season with the Raptors yet. The better he is, the further away things move from the kinds of trade offers Ujiri turned down at this summer’s draft. Ujiri has no intention of giving him away for nothing, or packaging a key asset just to move him. For all his faults, and all of the movement toward small-ball lineups, Valanciunas remains a popular, intriguing and charismatic figure league-wide. It will only take one team to fall in love again and wonder how the new and improved Valanciunas might look like in their situation.
Ujiri’s patience could be rewarded again as a result. Meanwhile, Poeltl continues to grow and prepare to take the reins. There are still many questions to be answered about this iteration of the Raptors, but “Will the Toronto Raptors let Norman Powell walk?” doesn’t appear to be one of them.
Note: This is a guest post from Michael R. Menard.