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Envisioning Raptors’ future after flurry of free agent signings

Time, and Masai Ujiri, waits for no man. Following the dramatic exits of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green during the wee hours of Friday night, the Raptors’ contingency plan was unveiled as four signings were quickly announced by Monday morning. With the moratorium period over and nearly every notable free agent signed, the dust of a hellacious sandstorm that was this year’s free agency period seems to have finally settled.

So, given that the Raptors’ off-season moves may now *knocks on wood* quieten for a moment or two, it seems prudent to assess what the heck just went happened the past 48 hours and what the Raptors will look like moving forward.

New faces

The departure of Green and Leonard created an irreplaceable hole on Toronto’s wing depth. Therefore, the obvious focus for the Raptors was to bring in a host of perimeter players to fill the void. Each of the four players signed over the weekend, plus the earlier inclusion of sharpshooter Matt Thomas, fit within the 2-3-4 positional range. These free agents are young, cheap options signed to short-term deals that offer intriguing upside but also definite limitations. It is a smart move by the Raptors, Ujiri and Webster have spread their limited amount of chips across numerous low risk bets rather than going all-in on an individual.

The most lucrative signing of the bunch, if such a word can be used in this scenario, is Stanley Johnson. The eighth overall pick in the 2015 draft is 6’7″ with a 7-foot wingspan and has been a consistently strong and versatile defender, a trait the Raptors value highly. However, Johnson showed little to no offensive development for the Detroit Pistons and his days were numbered once a new front office came into the fold.  After being traded to the Pelicans, Johnson was unable to improve upon on his sub 30 per cent three-point shooting and was a casualty of yet another front office overhaul. Now he will be reunited with former Arizona Wildcat teammate Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. While Johnson is a poor three-point shooter, Hollis-Jefferson just plain doesn’t shoot them. Still, the former Brooklyn Net was a swiss army knife offensively and shares his collegiate teammate’s ability to defend multiple positions.

The returning Patrick McCaw fits a similar a profile to those two signings, although he would likely slide down to predominantly matchup on guards defensively. Toronto’s other two inclusions, Thomas and Terence Davis, bring the requisite shooting that those other wings do not. Thomas is very much a shooting specialist, nailing 47 per cent of his triples over his two year stint in Europe. He whirls off of screens and has split second shooting release. Davis isn’t a knock down shooter, however he steadily improved on his outside shot over his four years at Ole Miss and capped his senior year by shooting 37 per cent from deep. He also happens to be an eye-popping athlete, an area that severely limits Thomas’ ability to hang defensively. As the youngest free agent of the pool and with no professional tape on him yet, Davis could be the most exciting prospect of the lot to monitor.

Working with the current depth chart

Now that we have quickly run through all of the new inclusions, let’s look at the tentative depth chart as it currently stands. The Raptors have filled 16 of their 20 off-season spots so far, not including Dewan Hernandez who remains unsigned after being selected 59th overall in this year’s draft. Obviously fitting players into singular positions is flawed and forecasting the rotation is a fool’s errand, however visualizing the roster is easier to digest where the team stands amidst the chaotic week that was.

* indicates non-guaranteed contract or not on full NBA deal

So many questions arise when looking at this new team. The only certainty I have is that Nick Nurse is about to get funky! Who knows, maybe the team will roll out the box-and-one defence to open this season? Although the Raptors do have four more off-season roster spots open, there is only currently one full NBA spot available. The other spaces will likely be given to training camp invitees with no guarantee of making the team, or an understanding that the player will spend the season in the G League.

One of the more interesting subplots leading to this upcoming season will be who occupies that second guard spot next to Kyle Lowry (assuming he is still on the team, which we will get to later). VanVleet’s magical playoff run could earn a full-time starting position, plus it would curry favour ahead of his upcoming free agency. Toronto has been seemingly grooming VanVleet to suceed Lowry as the team’s point guard, however his greatest strengths shine off-ball. Powell will likely get a veteran’s nod ahead of the incoming free agents to begin the season but by no means is he a surefire bet to have this role locked up.

Although I’d expect another big man to enter the fray at some point, be it before training camp or mid-season, there is a noticeable lack of depth in the frontcourt. The very real potential that one of Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka gets traded shortens the Raptors even further. This may mean that Nurse rolls out more small-ball lineups with Siakam at centre, a unit that was salivated over last season but never materialized. As fun as this sounds, Siakam cannot be playing more than around six minutes as the nominal big and there needs to be more rebounding beef brought in. Hernandez has shown great strength on the boards during Summer League, but the rest of his game needs some catching up to earn real NBA minutes. Chris Boucher has solely played centre for the Raptors 905 and oozes talent, however I am beginning to project his role (for now) as more of power forward if he hopes to earn meaningful minutes given his slight frame. The one other lineup that may be rolled out could be super-duper-sized starting unit consisting of Gasol, Ibaka, Siakam, Anunoby, and Lowry.

The biggest question that is beginning to be asked is where the scoring will come from with this team. Lowry and Gasol are no longer the number one options that they were five years ago. The rest of the Raptors returning playoff core, outside of Siakam, averaged less than 10 points per game during the postseason. The newly added free agents and OG Anunoby haven’t shown enough to inspire confidence that they can create their own shot. Therefore, if the Raptors want to score at a higher rate than a middling 90’s team relying on post-up offence, Siakam is going to have to take another gargantuan step forward offensively. The reigning Most Improved Player showcased skills that nobody fathomed as possible last year and continued to prove his adaptability across a testing playoff run. Now as the number one option, Siakam isn’t going to be offered as many one-on-one matchups and defences will now dig on him hard in the post if he shares the floor with some of the aforementioned non-shooters. It will be up to Spicy P to continue to rapid evolution of his game, and Nick Nurse to implement creative actions that will best suit his new atypical franchise player.

Assessing the trade market and salary cap

Now that the Raptors’ title aspirations for next season are likely shut, the futures of Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka are immediately brought to question. In order to assess the feasibility of a trade happening for any of those players, we need to quickly look at the Raptors’ capsheet. Without getting too deep into the weeds here, let’s look at how they project moving forward:

When looking at this, a few presumptions can be made. Firstly, it is highly unlikely that Siakam plays the season making $1 million less than Johnson, Blake Murphy of The Athletic broke down the options of a Siakam extension earlier this month. Secondly, the Raptors aren’t in the business of having long-term money on their books considering that they only have Powell, Anunoby, and Thomas contracted through 2020-21. However, their capsheet really begins to clean up as soon as 2020-21 meaning that they can bring a max-level player as soon as next year. The only issue here is that the 2021-22 free agent class boasts far more talent, including a certain Greek-Nigerian…

Lowry, Ibaka, and Gasol are all on hefty deals that probably outweigh their actual on-court value. But considering that they each only have one year on their deal, they all remain intriguing pieces for a team that wants to take an even bigger step towards championship contention without long-term ramifications. This recent playoff run showed that the trio can all be a significant piece of a championship team and the Raptors aren’t simply going to give them away for nothing. However, given that much of the league’s cap room is tied up at this point, very few teams (and none with championship aspirations) can easily absorb of those three contracts.

Therefore, the biggest factor that will determine if the Raptors are willing and able to trade their expiring veterans will be if the organization wants to save their money for 2020-21 or the following, more appetizing, free agent class in 2021-22. Teams that may be interested in Lowry aren’t able to take on his $35 million salary without sending back contracts that would trickle into the 2020-21 season. If the Raptors are willing to bring in some ‘meh’ contracts that ride into 2020-21, they then have leverage to demand tangible assets, be it future draft picks or young players. However, as it stands, potential trades that net Toronto positive value for any of their trio seems unlikely without accepting future money.

There are a few potential destinations that Lowry, Gasol, or Ibaka can fit into (something which I will write about tomorrow), but at this point I’d hazard a guess and say that only one of the bigs gets shipped this year. A lot can can certainly change in the proceeding weeks and months, however it is difficult to envision Lowry departing, for sentimental reasons and because it may be hard to recoup his value in a trade.

The Raptors identity is currently in flux. The heart and soul of their franchise is still on the team, for now at least. Despite the lingering uncertainty, there will no doubt be exciting aspects to track. Siakam’s adjustment into the number one scoring role will be a fun progression, as will VanVleet’s increased workload during a contract year. The new faces come with flaws, but given the Raptors’ track record there is optimism that one or two players could emerge into something greater than we initially presumed. Nick Nurse has the freedom to mold the clay that is this team as he sees fit, I have faith that he will sculpt something unique.

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