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In Masai We Trust

Masai Ujiri, the President of Basketball Operations for the Toronto Raptors, is one of the best executives in the NBA. That could be said about him before the 2018-19 season as his time with the Raptors coincided with the franchise making five straight playoff appearances, the best stretch in franchise history, coming after five consecutive appearances in the lottery before he joined the club. But now, after bringing Kawhi Leonard and the first championship in NBA history to Toronto, Ujiri’s status is unquestionable.

What Ujiri did with relatively few assets in relatively little time is almost unprecedented; not just in the NBA, but across sports. In five and a half years since taking over the team, Ujiri, alongside General Manager Bobby Webster and the rest of Toronto’s front office, essentially turned Andrea Bargnani, Rudy Gay, Patrick Patterson, Terrance Ross, Jonas Valanciunus and DeMar DeRozan into Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet (Kyle Lowry is the one player remaining from the roster Ujiri inherited in 2013).

Most championship teams leverage their future in order to compete for a title; that is the blueprint the Los Angeles Lakers hope to achieve with the Anthony Davis trade. But Ujiri achieved the rare feat of winning a title while still being set up nicely for the future, keeping all of the Raptors’ future first-round draft picks along with young talents like Siakam, Anunoby, Powell, and VanVleet. 

In other words, Ujiri has put the Raptors in a good position to succeed whether or not Kawhi re-signs with Toronto this summer. They have a host of veteran talent — many of whom (including Lowry, Ibaka, and Gasol) are on expiring contracts— as well as future draft picks and the type of young talent any franchise would be fortunate to build around. Most importantly, the Raptors have Ujiri, a basketball genius who has proved himself capable of building a championship roster through evaluating young talent in the draft, developing that talent, putting the right people in the best situations to succeed, and making smart trades that some executives wouldn’t have the guts to pull off. 

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The start of free agency is less than one week away (Sunday, June 30 at 6 p.m.) and nobody knows where Leonard is going to play next year. Whether or not he re-signs with the Raptors will dramatically alter how the team approaches this offseason. That uncertainty could frustrate a lot of fan bases, especially considering players don’t often leave the team they just won a championship with, but Toronto has Ujiri, so no matter which way things break for the team this summer, the Raptors are going to be fine. 

Let’s look at the three most likely scenarios the Toronto Raptors could face this offseason. 

Run it back with Leonard

If Leonard decides to re-sign with the Raptors, whether it’s for one year or more, Ujiri will likely elect to run it back next season with a similar roster to the one that just hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy, luxury taxes be damned.

Despite Ujiri likely being open to reshuffling the roster regardless of the optics, Toronto would have a hard time making moves due to their cap inflexibility. After Marc Gasol opted into his player option yesterday, the Raptors have roughly $112 million ($3 million over the cap) committed in 2019-20, and Leonard’s $32.7 million first year cap hit would bring that number to $144 million ($35 million over the cap), not even factoring in a new deal for Danny Green. Hense, the Raptors would project to be over the tax ‘apron’ (projected to be $138.2 million next season, according to Blake Murphy of The Athletic), meaning they would be limited to the Taxpayer Mid-Level exception (roughly $17.9 million over three years), which they could offer Green or a different free agent shooter, plus veteran minimum contracts to fill out the rest of the roster.

Toronto Raptors cap sheet, courtesy of Blake Murphy of The Athletic

Although there are different, more drastic options for the Raptors that include circumventing the cap to sign another free agent or trading for another scorer, it seems likely that Ujiri would elect to run it back to at least start the season before making any drastic moves. Ujiri can expect the team chemistry to improve even further considering the team’s core has only played together for one season and Gasol was only added at the trade deadline. He can also expect better seasons from Powell and Anunoby, a guy who battled personal issues, injuries, and an emergency appendectomy throughout last season but showed real upside when he did play. 

Plus, with the Boston Celtics likely to lose Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, the Philadelphia 76ers unable to keep all three of JJ Reddick, Jimmy Butler, and Tobias Harris, the Milwaukee Bucks potentially unable to re-sign Malcolm Brogdon, and the Golden State Warriors battling injuries and potentially losing Kevin Durant, the league is more open than ever and the teams that gave the Raptors problems last year could be weaker going forward, giving the Raptors a clearer path to repeat. 

Reshuffle without Leonard

If Leonard elects not to re-sign with the Raptors, Ujiri and Co. will be faced with a very difficult decision: attempt to build a roster that can compete for a title next season or rebuild with an eye towards the future.  

The issue with trying to compete next year is that there are very few players on Earth who can replace what Leonard brings to the table, and even if there were any available, the Raptors project to have about $112-million of salary on their books without Leonard or Green, putting them over the $109-million salary cap, according to Sportsnet’s Michael Grange. Plus, if Leonard leaves, the Raptors will likely attempt to stay under the luxury tax in 2019-20 after having the league’s third-highest payroll and largest luxury tax bill ever last season, meaning they would have roughly $19.9 million to spend, according to Blake Murphy of The AthleticThe cap situation heavily limits their options (they are unable to go over the salary cap to sign free agents other than Leonard, who they have rights for), but with Lowry, Ibaka, and Gasol all on the final year of their contracts, it might make some sense to give it one more shot with that aging core considering the openness of the league and way the non-Leonard Raptors stepped up in the final two playoff series’. 

Since the Raptors project to be below the luxury tax and the tax ‘apron’ without Leonard, they would have the ability to sign players for the Full Mid-Level exception ($37-million over four years) and the bi-annual exception ($7.2-million over two years). If they want to open up even more room — enough to sign a max free agent, for example — the Raptors could trade Powell or one of their expiring contracts like Ibaka or Gasol (who compliment each other well but cost a lot for two centers). The Raptors would ideally look for a scorer in free agency — a guy like Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, or even Malcolm Brogdon —  but most free agents will look past the Raptors championship-winning supporting case and bright future and elect to either stay with their current team or go to a bigger, more glitzy market alongside other free agents (it will be very interesting to see if this championship changes the way most free agents look at the Raptors in the short term and how long it takes for Toronto to be considered a big basketball market and free agent destination). 

The Raptors could also package a deal with young players and future picks to trade for a scorer like Bradley Beal who could theoretically be plugged into Leonard’s role as the primary scorer. That seems unlikely, though, given that Ujiri likely wouldn’t want to leverage the team’s bright future for someone who would have trouble recreating Leonard’s magic. Another intriguing scenario involves Leonard agreeing to a sign-and-trade where he signs with Toronto and is traded to the destination of his choice in return for young players and draft picks. A sign and trade could enable the Raptors to be competitive next year while also giving them more assets for the future, but it remains an unlikely scenario. 

Rebuild 

Although I just outlined all the ways Ujiri could try to build a competitive team next season if Leonard departs, I believe a rebuild is the most likely scenario if he does leave. Despite the league being more wide-open than ever, there might not be another player in the world that can do what Leonard just did for the Raptors and, without him, the team likely wouldn’t have enough talent to defend their title.

The beautiful thing about the way Ujiri built this team is that he has lined it up so that all three of Lowry, Ibaka, and Gasol — the aging core of the team at respective ages of 33, 29, and 34— will be on expiring contracts next season, contracts that can be traded in return for assets that can help the team in the future. I wouldn’t put it past Ujiri to get a good return for each of those three players because, despite each being past their prime and carrying a significant salary, each contract expires after next season and, as Jordan Brenner of the Athletic puts it, “contenders could justify adding one of those players—now with a championship pedigree—to load up for a title run.” 

Toronto’s goal, in that scenario, would be to enter a full rebuild by loading up on young players and draft picks that Ujiri can use to (re)build the team he has wanted to since taking the job in Toronto. Plus, the cap sheet is set up so that the Raptors project to have a very flexible cap structure in 2020 and beyond — maybe even enough to sign a max free agent like Giannis Antetekounpo in 2021when the Raptors young core will be entering their primes. 

With Siakam, Anunoby, Powell, VanVleet, Chris Boucher, and Malcolm Miller, as well as all of their future first round picks and the assets they acquire by trading expiring contracts, Ujiri and the Raptors would be set up well for the future. Considering Ujiri’s talent evaluation pedigree —  he drafted Siakam 27th, Anunoby 23rd, Powell 46th, found VanVleet, and even tried to move up to select Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the 2018 draft the team could once again be competitive sooner rather than later. It’s not the ideal scenario for Raptors fans — keeping Kawhi Leonard in Toronto forever and ever is — but it’s not the end of the world either.

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