RR Mailbag

Summer League Patreon Mailbag: The tax, a window in the East, becoming a heavyweight, and more

Some really good questions in here.

With the offseason upon us, I figured it was once aain time to offer those who support the site via Patreon the smallest of gestures, in the form of an #RRMailbag. Now, I realize this is a fairly silly gesture, given I have never once not answered a mailbag question from any reader yet, but the wonderful people who support us deserve something other than my very conditional love and appreciation. We really, really appreciate your support.

You can find all of the previous editions of the mailbag here, if, for whatever reason, you wanted to read old mailbags. In this case, some of the more recent ones might actually still be free agency relevant, so have at it.

Before we go ahead: A reminder that our Patreon page can be found at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. If you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do (and try to do even more). You can also follow me on Twitter and on Facebook for all of my writing/podcasting/radio stuff. You can also ask me questions at any time using #RRMailbag, and I’ll be sure to include them in the next mailbag, no matter how long between (using the hashtag helps make sure I won’t lose track of the question over time, so do that).

Alright, let us get on with it.

From Eyal: How are we going to make the Fred VanVleet contract work cap-wise? Are we leaning towards dipping into the tax? Will this mean we give up more picks to dump salary? Did we have any possibility of signing Randle? That contract looks golden.

The Raptors will be operating this offseason as a luxury tax team, which means they only have a few routes to add salary beyond the $125.7 million they had committed to just 11 players entering free agency. In VanVleet’s case, they’ll use “Early Bird rights” to do so. Early Bird rights allow a team to exceed the cap to re-sign one of their players for up to 105 percent of the average salary from the league year prior (an estimate). Using that number, the Raptors can offer VanVleet a starting salary of $8.8 million with an eight-percent raise in the second year of the deal ($18.47 million total).

The Raptors also have access to the taxpayer mid-level exception, a couple of trade exceptions, and the minimum exception, but as explained in the free agency primer, the Raptors won’t use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception or bi-annual exception, as those would trigger a hard cap. That probably wasn’t getting you close enough for Julius Randle, who got the full non-taxpayer mid-level (two years, $18 million) to land in a really good situation in New Orleans. To get him, the Raptors would have either had to unload a bunch of salary first (getting below the hard cap after his signing) or execute a complicated sign-and-trade where they also shed salary.

An exception like the Early Bird doesn’t get you out of the luxury tax implications, nor do any of the other exceptions the Raptors may use to add pieces. The Raptors are currently well into the tax, deep enough (the third-highest payroll in the NBA at this moment) that I doubt they’ll be able to avoid it this year. Which is fine. You can’t hope to stay competitive for a sixth year in a row without eventually dipping in there, and they have deep pockets. Technically, they could attach a pick to a big salary and start getting creative to avoid it – they shouldn’t do this unless it’s also a talent upgrade, after surrendering four picks in the last 18 months and two just to unload money last summer – but realistically any payroll-reduction moves will be designed to lessen the tax hit rather than avoid it entirely.

From Andrew: Why do think the Norm Powell trade didnt happen before July 1st? He’s the 11th guys and the Raps are 10 deep.

There probably just wasn’t a hot market for him that night. In fact, the entire market was frozen – the last four drafts averaged 12.3 players under contract moved per-draft, whereas this draft had zero (!) – as teams tried to figure out how names like Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James would shape the summer market. It also hurt that so few teams projected to have meaningful cap space, so even if a team really believed in a Powell bounce-back (and I think those teams exist), it was a tough ask to eat into their space to get him, even if the asset cost was zero. I’m still a little surprise a team with limited cap space but well below the tax didn’t take the chance while he was cheap for salary matching, absorbing a young two-way wing for free without using an exception, but it’s definitely a buyer’s market for teams with financial flexibility.

From here out, the Raptors would probably need to take back salary to unload Powell. Only two teams currently have enough cap space to absorb him outright (a few more could get there), but those teams should prioritize that space by giving offer sheets to young restricted free agents with upside or by renting it out to teams who need to dump a contract, extracting picks or prospects for their trouble like the Nets a year ago. What the Raptors could do, in theory, is send Powell to a team for a player making, say, $5.3 million to Powell’s $9.4 million. That team, assuming they’re not a tax team, could take on that additional salary in a straight swap, and while the Raptors couldn’t, they could structure the deal separately on their end, absorbing Player X into the Cory Joseph trade exception. I’m not sure specifically what $5.3-$6.5- million players, to give a range, would fit that criteria from a team that wants to bet on Powell, but it would allow a team to take the Powell risk with some cost offset while also saving the Raptors a bundle after tax payments are considered.

Of course, the tax is calculated on the day of Game 82, so there’s also the path where the Raptors stay whole, try to recoup Powell’s value by playing him when the season opens, and re-evaluating closer to the trade deadline whether he’s the piece to go, another piece has to go, or they can swallow a gargantuan tax bill to make a finals run.

From Manny: My question for you is to do with the luxury tax. I understand the reasons for the Raptors wanting to remain below it, but I find that a lot of your prognostications relate to how the Raptors can achieve that, as opposed to how they can improve from a basketball standpoint. They were a 59 win team last year (yes, they flamed out against LBJ) and it’s got to be worth something to win the Eastern Conference. Are you not in agreement with Eric (from his July 2nd article) that this coming year is the ideal time to be paying a tax bill? MLSE does not penny pinch with TFC/Leafs, I doubt they would with the Raps.

From Chris: With LeBron out of the east, is TO running it back the right move?

Very fair question, and I sometimes feel dirty evaluating moves through the lens of the luxury tax because A) it tends to treat players strictly as assets, and B) it’s really only a team-centric view of things and isn’t always what fans want to read. The goal, though, isn’t to suggest this is what the team should be doing, but to inform as to why they’re doing the things they’re doing. Last year it was a heavy focus of some of my pieces because the Raptors were razor-close to the tax line, and I knew they wanted to avoid it (with good reason: not only did they not have to pay the tax, saving money for the other years of this competitive window, they’ll also receive up to $2.2 million in tax payments from tax teams last year, money they can funnel into this year’s budget).

This year, I won’t operate quite like that. I still think it’s important to note, and there’s probably one cost-cutting move coming at some point. But the Raptors will be a tax team, and they should be a tax team given how open the East is and now narrow their remaining window is with this core. I’m definitely in agreement with Eric, and with what Connor wrote here the other week, and in fact was in favor of the all-in approach even before LeBron ducked out, because there’s no escape hatch built into this core until 2o19, anyway. I’d understand them pausing at giving up future assets right now (especially picks, which offer cost control for multiple years and help you spend at the top of the roster), but I’d be surprised and disappointed if they operated from here strictly as a team that wants to duck the tax. This is maybe their last kick at the can in this iteration, and it would make no sense to ride it this far and run it back so many times without making one last real push.

From Peter: I would love to get your thoughts on whether the Raptors can make it to the finals this year and if so, what they need to do or what needs to happen with certain players/positions on the Raptors?

Absolutely, they can. They’re not the favorite by any means, and would probably come in second or third depending on how you feel about the 76ers taking the next step. Still, the East is wide open, Toronto has more playoff experience than any team in the conference they’ll go up against, they’re already built with their depth to win a lot of regular-season games, and the hope is that the offseason changes better equip them for the necessities of the playoffs rather than “just” being a regular-season team. I’d understand people being cautious about buying into the Raptors once the playoffs roll around, but strictly on paper there’s no way they’re not firmly in the conversation to make a finals run as the East is currently constructed.

Unfortunately, a lot of “what needs to happen” is changes to the minutiae come playoff time (smarter rotations, more defensive versatility, continued growth and dynamism in the offense, young players stepping up with experience in the moment). In terms of roster construction, they could certainly use another shooting and another multi-position defender at the three/four. I don’t think you’re getting both of those things in one player with the exceptions the Raptors have available to them, but Malcolm Miller or Alfonzo McKinnie or any of the number of wings in Summer League could break through in the other final roster spot, and some intriguing names figure to fall through to the taxpayer mid-level or veteran minimum ranges. I’d probably prioritize that defensive versatility over the shooting, as contradictory as that seems to a Nick Nurse offense, simply because the Raptors already have a few problematic defenders you don’t want to be playing together and I’m not sure another offense-first piece would see much menaingful rotation run.

And Kawhi. They should get Kawhi.

From Chris in Montreal: If GSW loses both Steph and Boogie to ankle issues who do you think wins the championship and how many NBA fans, executives and players are praying for injuries (to GSW) to make this season interesting?

I would never hope for injuries in any circumstance. I would guess there are a few people around the league who don’t feel the same way. (An aside: I actually think the Warriors would still be the heavy favorites without DeMarcus Cousins, and maybe even still the favorites if Steph Curry were hurt; they still have three All-Stars and an MVP and a Finals MVP and a bunch of other cool stuff.)

If the Warriors were to suddenly be vulnerable to upset, I think Houston probably still stands the best chance even after losing Trevor Ariza, assuming they manage to retain Clint Capela and add a wing or two (and Lucas Nogueira, obviously). Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto in some order are probably the three next-best teams (I’m not a believer in the current Lakers being more than a second-round team this year, barring a trade), and you’d have to give the edge to Boston given their youth, talent, returning players, and flexibility to make meaningful additions from here. Yes, I threw up in my mouth admitting that.

From Ian: The league is really, truly in this sort of paused upheaval right now, with a ton of short-term deals, and a lot of movement seemingly waiting on Kawhi and others. Obviously the internet is constantly churning out rumours, but do you know if there’s anything actually concrete happening on the Raptors trade front? Are these hypothetical DeRozan deals I see tweeted out based on anything being leaked, or is it just frustrated Raps fans ready for a shakeup?

The Raptors are, as usual, operating pretty quietly. Real Gs move in silence like lasagna, as it were. The general takeaway with the Raptors and rumors/leaks the last few years has been roughly as follows. Prior to a move, if something is coming out it’s almost definitely coming from an agent or an opposing team, and it’s always necessary to think of who benefits from that specific packet of info getting out to find the source. If something does come from the Raptors themselves, it’s likewise necessary to think ‘why now,’ given how infrequently it occurs. After the fact, the Raptors are a little more forthcoming with information, and you’ll often see beat guys fill in a lot of the color of a story or process or move in the days that follow (I think that’s fairly normal, as the risks of that information getting out are minimized once something is completed).

Having said that, the rumblings that everything is on the table for the Raptors this summer are accurate. And this isn’t sourced, necessarily, because they’ve been pretty open about it publicly, too. Nobody is untouchable, nor should they be. That doesn’t mean that moving one of the stars is likely or that Serge Ibaka is outbound or anything like that, it simply means they’re exploring all options and aren’t going to leave a stone unturned after banging their heads against the wall the last few postseasons.

The specific DeRozan frameworks you see out there are just people spinning their wheels, though – Raptors Twitter has run with a few ideas, some of which gain popularity, and then you’ll hear national reporters theorize about potential what-if packages, which can sometimes get aggregated into reporting where it’s just analysis. That’s just part of the madness of this time of year. I don’t think you’d ever hear about a real framework the Raptors were close on until after a deal, though. Maybe someone guesses close or guesses right in their own speculation, but the Raptors under Masai Ujiri have never shown an inclination to leak details at that level.

Some variation from Peter, Ian, and Adam: Which Raptor do you think we can expect to see the most real growth from over the next 2-3 years? / How would you rank the team’s under-26 players? Do you see JV as a long-term piece for us or anyone else? I feel he slowly keeps improving, though I doubt the quickness ever comes to him on D.

I actually wrote about this from a strictly statistical perspective at The Athletic on Thursday, so I’ll answer more subjectively here.

Were I to rank the Raptors players 26-and-under in terms of upside over the next two-to-three years, I would do so as such: OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Norman Powell, Alfonzo McKinnie, Malachi Richardson. Were he not an RFA, Malcolm Miller would slot in around Poeltl, who I know some will think is low there but who I see having a very high floor but maybe not tremendous upside in the immediate future (relative to the other names). Anunoby is unquestionably the best of the prospects, Siakam was a 3-point shot from being the Raptors’ third-best player for half of last season, VanVleet might already be a starting-caliber point guard.

Valanciunas is still young-ish for a center at 26, and even though it feels like he’s been the same player forever, he showed marked improvement across the board last year. I think he has plenty of good NBA years ahead of him, though I’m not sure he’ll factor in to Toronto’s plans beyond his 2019-20 option year (right now it certainly looks like he’ll pick that up). Obviously, his defensive upside is capped a little bit by agility, and it will be interesting how he fits the more aggressive approach Nick Nurse says is coming, but he’s still a very, very useful player, and one who is still trending upward. He was a legitimate salary dump candidate this time last year, and he’s played his way to where I don’t think the Raptors would trade him without a meaningful basketball return.

From Eyal: Why are we having so much trouble finding quality assistant coaches?

I’m not sure it’s so much a problem finding them but the nature of trying to add multiple high-level assistants at once. In the case of Chris Finch, that’s Nick Nurse’s guy, but the Pelicans declined to let him go. There’s not much the Raptors can do about that, short of surrendering a pick (ugh). Sarunas Jasikevicius would have been awesome, too, and Nurse was really in favor of adding him to the bench, per a source, but Zalgiris gave Jasikevicius a substantial raise to stick around and get another year of experience as a head coach (EuroLeague/Lithuania isn’t quite the NBA, but even Nurse has spoken to how valuable that experience is as an eventual assistant). Again, not much you can do there. And Adrian Griffin is a really good hire I’m surprised they were even able to get. He comes with a decade of experience and a terrific reputation at the team and player level, and he got way more than the sum of the parts out of Oklahoma City’s defense the last few years (all due respect to the god Andre Roberson).

That there are still two openings on the front of the bench is perhaps a little worrisome, I will concede, and I’ll have my eyes out at Summer League for any new faces around. As I suggested in an open thread this week, it wouldn’t be surprising to me if Nurse’s time with Jakob Poeltl and Jonas Valanciunas during FIBA qualifiers was also a mini-coaching search, with Sergio Scariolo and Andrea Trinchieri as potential names. Nate Bjorkgren and Matt Brase are two other names to watch as that search unfolds, and Patrick Mutombo could be ready for a promotion to the third assistant’s chair, which would shift one of the two remaining vacancies to the back row of the bench (perhaps for another internal promotion).

All of this is to say, the lack of assistants in place isn’t ideal but isn’t the end of the world so early in the offseason.

From Miles: My question is if you have any book recommendations for someone who wants to learn more about the strategy of the game or the advanced stats involved in basketball. Something like the equivalent of Moneyball or The Book (by Tom Tango) for baseball fans.

There probably isn’t as definitive a book as Tango or Moneyball, but there are some really good options out there for helping expand your understanding of the game or push the way you think of it. Betaball by Erik Malinowski is great and probably the closest thing to a Moneyball-adjace basketball book. (Breaks of the Game is the gold standard in story-of-a-season writing but isn’t analytical, by the way; a must-read.) In terms of something close to Tango, Chasing Perfection by Andy Glockner is a good one I read recently, Basketball on Paper by Dean Oliver is probably the OG of that niche, and any of Stephen Shea’s books on Amazon are worth a purchase if you want to really nerd out (he is awesome).

I’ll also just note that reading a lot about baseball and football analytics, sports betting, and how data is used in the non-sports world all helped when I was writing almost primarily about analytics (across all sports) in 2012-2013 and attending Sloan and things like that. Thinking Fast & Slow, for example, is a must-read if you’re into this type of analysis and thinking.

From Eric in Osaka: How do I get Matt Jackson arms?

Just gotta get a regular pumpski in wherever you can, good brother. Personally, I need to cut down a bit on reading novels – or switch to light ones – but nothing a little extra #HotelPump can’t fix while I’m on the road. Excited to get back for another #BrotheredOutSelfie.

As a reminder, if you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, we’ve started a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. Any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do, and try to do even more.

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