Retool, not rebuild | No plans to trade vets | Uncle D was worse than Lavar Ball
The Toronto Raptors were the most popular basketball team in the world according to the latest stats derived from Instagram.
The NBA champions had 28.9 million interactions on the social media platform last month, according to Deportes & Fianzas, a website that publishes social media analysis related to sports management.
The Raptors’ championship rivals, the Golden State Warriors, were ranked in second and received 24.8 million interactions.
After the top two NBA teams, this high volume of attention significantly dropped to less than 5 million for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Heck, Raptors president Masai Ujiri all but came out and brought up Robertson during a brief media session with a few of us as the Summer League Raptors took on the New York Knicks late Tuesday night.
Ujiri was asked if he thought Leonard had been up front throughout a long free agency process that involved flights to and from Los Angeles to Toronto and a lot of waiting as Leonard worked behind the scenes to find a way to team up with another superstar, be it Kevin Durant, Paul George or perhaps somebody else (though sources say a deal with Oklahoma City for George or Russell Westbrook was never going to happen, for various reasons). Ujiri said “Kawhi was,” before smirking and pausing.
Which led to the follow-up about somebody potentially not being up front.
“Ha, either way I know what we’re dealing with here and I appreciate what the process was and I know free agency, I know how it works,” Ujiri said. “It’s not my first rodeo. You know things are going to go up and down. This was a different kind of free agency. It’s high stakes and we understood that.”
Those around the league believe Toronto did everything right, everything it could to convince Leonard that his long-term future should be as a Raptor. Sources say the team believed it was in it all the way until the start of the meeting with Leonard and his camp. At that point, sources say the thought was it was over.
And here recall the use of “high stakes” in Ujiri’s media appearance. Multiple sources here in the desert, where the entire NBA is assembled, said Uncle Dennis was asking for the moon, or something equivalent, from any pursuing franchise. Things Ujiri – and those above him – either couldn’t, or wouldn’t offer. Things beyond just straight greenbacks.
Tjarks: The Raptors are the first team since the 2011 Mavs who will not get a chance to defend their championship. Their goal without Kawhi should probably be to win one playoff series. That’s not a bad position to be in after losing the best player in the world, but the odds of ever getting another player as good as Kawhi again aren’t great.
Kram: I understand the contrarian impulse to claim that the Knicks’ free agency fallout wasn’t a disaster—the idea that the Knicks have a young core and flexibility with contracts and future chances to add a star who won’t miss a full season with a devastating leg injury. But I also see plenty of problems with this framing. First, their ostensibly talented young core wouldn’t look special if it were in any other city; maybe half the league has a better foundation of under-25 players. (Before RJ Barrett this year, their last two first-round picks were Kevin Knox, who rated as the worst player in the NBA last year by some advanced stats, and Frank Ntilikina, who’s being run out of town.) Second, the fact that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving chose not just any other team, but the Knicks’ closest neighbor, has to sting beyond purely logical basketball reasons. And third, because of the lackluster 2020 free agent class, they now have to placate fans for two more years before the potential of winning basketball returns to MSG, after the last two years of tanking, and after two decades of unintentional if effective tanking before that. A two-year wait might undersell the team’s time frame, given how unlikely a, say, Giannis Antetokounmpo signing seems. Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one; in this case, yes, the Knicks lost the offseason.
Masai on Kawhi negotiations. Was Kawhi up front: "I think he was. Kawhi was … (long pause)."
Was asked if anybody wasn't:
" Ha, either way … I know what we’re dealing with here and I appreciate what the process was and I know free agency, I know how it works … "
— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) July 10, 2019
2. Create a culture of humility: The Raptors played unselfishly. It was all about the team – no selfish play. In business, we must hire smart people who are not only eager to support their teammates, but also willing to learn from them. Employees must put their egos aside and acknowledge when a teammate is better equipped to succeed, then be willing to metaphorically “pass the ball to them.” Building an environment where working together instead of competing against each other is the key to getting everyone to work toward the greater goal.
4. Hire talent that thinks big: Want to win big? Then you must think big. Before you can win the championship, you must win in your conference. Coach Nurse influenced his team to think “big picture.” Even though he celebrated wins along the way, he always emphasized the bigger goal and kept it in the team’s sights. This was reinforced by bringing on proven performers with the right mindset, including Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol and Danny Green. After winning Game Four of the NBA Finals, even with a 3-1 lead, the team kept saying, “We haven’t done anything yet.” The win was great, but it was just one step closer to the big goal.
Pascal Siakam’s emergence last year was sudden, and there’s a chance he was a one-hit wonder. But it’s a small chance; given his rise to prominence came on the back of his ability to get to the basket, it’s reasonable to think he’ll be able to produce at a similar level next season, even if Kawhi isn’t there to act as the center of attention for opposing defenses. Marc Gasol is still an elite defender and an invaluable floor general on that end, while Kyle Lowry has “Raptor for Life” written on his forehead.
That’s a feel-good option, one that allows fans to appreciate the guys who all helped bring them a championship. Unfortunately, it won’t end the same way. Unless another forgotten player explodes like Siakam, their current roster has a hard ceiling of the fifth seed and a second-round exit in an Eastern Conference as open as its ever been. Ujiri ensured Toronto would no longer run the treadmill of mediocrity for one year, and moving forward without any more moves would simply ensure their place on that treadmill. It’s a path without a clear way to contend in the near or far future, too good to land an elite player in the draft but not good enough to make any noise come playoff time.
The other option, the one Ujiri reportedly isn’t interested in pursuing at this time, is selling everyone other than Siakam and embracing a plummet to the bottom of the standings only months after ruling at the top. Trading Lowry would hurt Toronto in every sense of the word, but he’s making $33 million this season. Same goes for Gasol and Serge Ibaka, who will make $25 millino and $23 million next year, respectively. That’s a trio of veterans making a combined $81 million who can lead your team to 45 wins and a respectable playoff performance. Not really the payout you’re looking for with that kind of money.
All three are expiring contracts, so it won’t be terribly difficult to find trade partners. Gasol is a known defensive commodity, Ibaka still has his uses, and Lowry was the second-best player on their championship team. It’s not the path Toronto wanted to take, but it’s the smartest one, and the only feasible path back to championship contention, even if it will take a while. The quickest way to the top in the NBA is through a dramatic slide to the bottom. It’s time the Raptors got started.
“The mentality is the same thing, we’re trying to build,” Powell told Postmedia.
“We’re going after another championship, work on our team, that’s the goal. We’re going to lock in and play for one another and we’re really excited about the opportunities in front of us for me, myself and everybody else on the team. We’re going to work.” With Green gone, Powell, the longest-tenured Raptor besides Lowry, has a big opportunity in front of him. He is in line for a significant minutes uptick and will be fighting for the starting shooting guard role, though Fred VanVleet could also be utilized in a two point guard system (though that seems unlikely given the team’s current lack of depth at the position).
STILL TEAM KLAW
Powell was as close to Leonard as any of the Raptors and their mothers are extremely tight, so it’s not surprising that Powell’s opinion of Leonard hasn’t changed even though he left the Raptors.
“I mean, same way I felt when he was on the Spurs. That’s still my guy, don’t matter what team he plays on, whether it’s with us or someone else,” Powell told Postmedia. “The brotherhood doesn’t stop. I talked to him after the decision, joked with him about it and I told him I’d hit him up when I get back to San Diego, we’ll work out a little bit. Still nothing changes. That’s my guy, that’s my big brother.”
Would Ujiri trade Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Ibaka for picks and/or prospects going into their contract years? Well, is Ujiri going to pay any of them as unrestricted free agents next summer given the timeline for the Raptors truly contending again? Probably not. And if you’re not going to re-sign them, and if the sign-and-trade market isn’t likely to be robust, you might as well trade them between now and February 2020 for what you can get.
That would betray a victory tour, and might not be worth the trouble consider most open cap space around the league has disappeared a week and a half into July. Ujiri can and should be very selective on what contracts he’d take back in deals for the expiring veterans. And Lowry in particular is so emotionally attached to Toronto and the Raptors’ championship that trading him a few months into the championship afterglow would seem especially cold, even though he has the most value of the bunch.
Regardless, by this time next summer, Ujiri will have his blank canvas.
Only Norman Powell ($10.8 million) and now Patrick McCaw ($4 million after agreeing to a deal on Tuesday) have guaranteed 2020-21 salary on the book. Add in the fourth year option on OG Anunoby ($3.8 million), Stanley Johnson’s cheap player option ($3.8 million) and cap holds for young 2020 free agents Siakam ($7 million) and Fred VanVleet ($14 million). If the Raptors then renounced cap holds on Lowry, Ibaka, and Gasol, they’d have about $65 million in salary cap space next summer after accounting for open roster charges. They could, in theory, acquire two max or max-adjacent players, then re-sign VanVleet and Siakam.
And, boom, the Raptors are back.
Powell: "The opportunity that's in front of me and everybody else that's on the team who's been here working for minutes at that spot, it opens up. I'm locked in and focused on that. I'm excited. I think we still have a very solid team and we're still going to be contenders."
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) July 10, 2019
Consider, for a moment, the path Leonard ultimately trod to find his way to his Southern California homeland as a 28-year-old NBA free agent. First, he forced his way out of San Antonio, where relations with team management soured around a leg injury that limited him to nine games a season ago. That move meant forgoing a super-max contract he could have only signed with the Spurs that would have been worth somewhere in the range of $220 million (all figures U.S.) — the bulk of which he would have kept for himself in no-state-tax Texas.
Next, after he was deftly acquired by Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri a summer ago, and after he re-established his competitive dominance by bringing Canada its first NBA championship while winning his second Finals MVP, Leonard conspired with fellow star Paul George to take their talents to the Clippers. That move, along with transforming the Raptors from contenders to pretenders, meant forgoing a five-year maximum deal worth $190 million — a deal only the Raptors could offer Leonard under a salary-cap rule meant to incentivize stars to stay with their incumbent clubs.
On Wednesday, it was worth considering a stark financial reality. Leonard’s new deal in Los Angeles is worth a relatively modest $103 million — this while working in a jurisdiction with one of the U.S.’s highest tax rates. In the journey from San Antonio to Los Angeles, in other words, Leonard’s guaranteed salary stream went from $220 million to less than half of that. Somewhere along the road, Leonard hemorrhaged more than $100 million in bankable earnings. Or did he?
Toronto lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, who both played key roles in their successful title run last season. Leonard opted to move to the Los Angeles Clippers, while Green decided to join the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite the recent turn of events, however, Powell said that the Raptors are up to the challenge.
Powell, who will be entering his fifth season in the league, added that the departure of Leonard and Green would give him more chance to prove his worth. The 26-year-old forward emphasized that he is focused on helping his team win, saying that he expects them to remain a contender next campaign.
“The opportunity that’s in front of me and everybody else that’s on the team who’s been here working for minutes at that spot, it opens up,” Powell said, per Josh Lewenberg of The Sports Network. “I’m locked in and focused on that. I’m excited. I think we still have a very solid team and we’re still going to be contenders.”
A star shooting guard who helped fuel the Toronto Raptors’ historic championship run this season says he and his friends had their car broken into during a recent trip to Vancouver after leaving their bags on the seat of a car parked on the city’s Downtown Eastside.
Danny Green told the story during an episode of his podcast, Inside The Green Room, after visiting the west coast city earlier this month.
The athlete was touring Canada to lead sold-out skills camps for young players after the Raptors won the NBA championship in June.
“Everything was great on the camp tour, but there was one thing that didn’t go great. We started off rocky in Vancouver,” said Green, 32, who signed with the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.
The player said he stayed in a hotel during his trip but his friends booked an Airbnb on East Hastings Street. His friends didn’t like the look of it, with one saying it was “old, raggedy, it feels haunted.”
Should add, Raptors officials say they aren't worried about Ibaka coming off the bench for a non-contender. They've spoken with him and believe he'll buy in as he did last year. If it becomes an issue, they'll address it then.
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) July 10, 2019
The Raptors have no plans to trade vets Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka (all on expiring deals) ahead of the season, I’m told. As he’s done previously, Masai is expected to give his team an opportunity to sink or swim before choosing a path and deciding on its future.
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) July 10, 2019
The Toronto Raptors will host their training camp for the 2019-20 NBA season at Université Laval in Quebec City.
It will mark the first time the Raptors have held their camp in Quebec, and it will be the team’s first visit to the provincial capital. The Raptors have played several pre-season games in Montreal in past pre-seasons.
“As Canada’s team, we felt it was important to go out and visit somewhere we’ve never been before,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said in a statement. “We’re really looking forward to taking advantage of the excellent facilities at Laval, which we know is one of Canada’s great sporting schools, and to soaking in the incredible old-world atmosphere of Quebec.”
The 2018-19 NBA champions will hold closed practices from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2.
Charles Fortier, president of the Rouge et Or men’s and women’s basketball teams at Université Laval, said he expects massive interest from the public — especially for the one open practice on Oct. 3 at the Desjardins Amphitheatre in the university’s sports complex, PEPS.
“To dream about it is one thing, but to have them in Quebec City at the PEPS facility is huge for basketball, not only in Quebec City but in Quebec and Canada,” Fortier said.
“At the start of the season, they don’t want to be bothered too much, so it’ll be closed doors. But the open training session will clearly attract a huge number of people to PEPS.”
Was Leonard upfront with Ujiri and the Raptors throughout the process?
“I think he was,” Ujiri responded, before pausing. “Kawhi was.”
Was anybody not?
“I know what we’re dealing with here and I appreciate what the process was,” he responded. “I know free agency, I know how it works. It’s not my first rodeo. You know things are going to go up and down. This was a different kind of free agency. It was high stakes and we understood that.”
The natural assumption is that Ujiri was making reference to Uncle Dennis.
Robertson has a reputation for being hard to deal with and would have been hands on throughout the process. According to sources, Leonard and his camp – namely Uncle Dennis – asked for a lot from the Raptors in that meeting, things players don’t generally ask for in standard contract negotiations.
In some cases, they were asking for things that Ujiri – one of the most well-compensated executives in the league – wouldn’t have even had at his disposal. Their requests were “unreasonable”, a source said, which made the Raptors wonder whether Leonard was seriously considering them at all.
Leonard also asked the Raptors for Paul George, although a deal with Oklahoma City was never as close as some have reported and – despite those reports – Russell Westbrook was not included in the preliminary, and very brief, talks between the teams. In fact, those talks never even reached the team’s highest-ranking execs.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 10, 2019
A month ago, nearly three million people packed the core of downtown Toronto, their Raptors jerseys flooding the streets in an ocean of red. The team’s bus rolled its way to Nathan Phillips Square with the newly crowned champions singing, dancing, chugging wine from the bottle, and that was pretty much it. Before the pre-ordered Raptors championship apparel had even arrived on doorsteps, however, the conversation had long since changed. Will Kawhi stay? Will the Lakers build another dynasty-worthy team? Can the Knicks even field a team at all?
I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of disrespect to a defending championship team in professional basketball before.
By now, we know that Kawhi ain’t staying. The superstar power forward, possibly the best two-way player in the game right now, signed a contract with the LA Clippers, historically one of the most hapless franchises in the league until fairly recently. With that settled, and the frenzy of high-profile free agent signings benefiting the Raptors not at all, now seems like a convenient time to quietly sneak off the bandwagon that everyone boarded just prior to the NBA finals.
Except, well, it really isn’t. Thanks to the business savvy and social connections of Raptors president Masai Ujiri, as well as the most welcoming fan base in the league, this is probably the best time in franchise history for new fans.