The current Raptors era both holds the line and still fights for championships

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Cover Photo: Unknown Source/DM to update

The Toronto Raptors are now exactly halfway done, smack dab in the middle, of a strange holding pattern. It’s hard to get a hold of, but let’s try. Zoom out. Further. Back the distance of the satellites, the clouds, the bird’s eye view. Look at the Raptors. For five years, they subsisted in the same solid state. The Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan teams improved slowly, statically, though they could never get over the human hump that was LeBron James. That wasn’t a death knell. Those teams were wonderful and, to that point, the best the franchise had ever fielded. And then Toronto traded in those long years of stability and success for one small chance at more with Kawhi Leonard and an even smaller chance at sustaining it. Well, the Raptors got their success, but Leonard didn’t stay.

So Toronto entered a two-year period of holding, of pausing, of improving and refortifying, while readying for much, much more.

In a lengthy season-ending media availability long on social importance and short on basketball information, one of Ujiri’s only definitive points, when it came to basketball, was that not this but next year’s offseason will be critical. It’s been clear for a long time in terms of how the Raptors have organized the books — with only $35M, give or take, on the books for sure going into the 2021-22 season — but Ujiri has never been so open in speaking with media. But he was explicit this time that the 2021-22 offseason is why Toronto is hoarding money. Thus the 2021-22 season is what Toronto is planning for.

Where does that leave the team now?

Well for one, the center spot is one giant empty question mark. The Raptors have a full cadre of bigs as upcoming free agents. Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are both unrestricted free agents, veterans, who are perhaps facing their last opportunities to receive plump long-term contracts. Toronto would be amenable to juicy one-year deals with either; collect $10, $15, even $20 this upcoming year, eat 30 minutes a game, and play unyielding defense for a full year as Toronto marches again to the playoffs. Fight for another championship and then hit free agency again. Seems like a good deal for both sides, and Toronto would be happy to offer it, to either center, but there are risks from the perspective of either Ibaka or Gasol. Both have experienced some level of drop-off over the previous year or two, much steeper for Gasol on the offensive end, of course. But it’s possible that a down year in 2020-21 would doom either’s shot at a huge payday in the following offseason.

Beyond Ibaka and Gasol, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is an unrestricted free agent, and the Raptors don’t have bird rights to sign him. It’s extremely unlikely they bring him back. Chris Boucher is a restricted free agent, and the Raptors could conceivably bring him back to fill a similar but larger role this upcoming year to his last. But he flashed enough defensive impact and offensive potential to possibly earn a big contract. Say a team that needs some athleticism and a rotation big — perhaps, for example, the Atlanta Hawks — offers him $8M or so. The Raptors could easily match, and even if they need space in the following offseason, they could trade him, but if he doesn’t get many minutes, would his contract net a return or require attaching a pick to unload? Toronto could opt to sign a cheaper, shorter deal with a free agent instead.

Toronto’s guard and wing rotations are solid next year, but it’s quite possible that the lion’s share of Toronto’s big rotation is filled by newcomers to the team. A rookie, perhaps a free agent like Harry Giles; there are questions to be answered. Perhaps the Raptors use center minutes as opportunity to develop players already on the roster, like Dewan Hernandez, or OG Anunoby. But no matter the center, as long as Toronto has Kyle Lowry, the team will be competitive and, like this past year, have an outside chance at a championship.

And then, of course, the 2021-22 offseason. Giannis Antetokounmpo will be an unrestricted free agent. So too will be Kawhi Leonard. And LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Paul George, and a host of other stars. Masai Ujiri has been planning a free agency coup for a long time. Even if he’s not around to hoist the treasure — Ujiri is also a free agent after the upcoming season — Ujiri has a hand-picked group of successors who are ready to step into larger leadership roles. But in 2021-22, the Raptors could field a team full of stars, and that future, the chance at it, is why the Raptors are in a two-year holding pattern now. That doesn’t make such a future guaranteed, but merely an option, a question asked, not answered.

Whew. That’s a lot of questions. Satellites do, after all, spin around the Earth at a revolting pace. I haven’t even mentioned Lowry’s tenure ending after the 2020-21 season, just like Ujiri’s. There are too many questions to ask, and we won’t know the answers for at least a year.

But about that year.

One year forward, one year back. It’s symmetrical. Clean. Toronto has one more year in this half-holding pattern, half-championship contention, before the next stage in the franchise’s evolution. It’s not a short time, not after Toronto’s one year era with Leonard, but it’s certainly not as long as Lowry’s full tenure, which is a fair bellwether. And after this one more year, it’s possible that Mr. Franchise Kyle Lowry himself will no longer be with the team. It’s likely that Ibaka, Gasol, and others will be gone. There are more changes coming than could be conceived this far distant. The future is wavy and scribbled, and the upcoming year is almost simple in comparison.

Run it back. That’s the plan. Toronto did that for a number of years in a row during the DeRozan-Lowry years. It was never the wrong thing to do, but the plan was never as multifaceted as Toronto’s current outlook. The Raptors will run it back, perhaps one last time, in 2020-21. With Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Anunoby, and Nick Nurse all signed for the upcoming year, it’s a certainty that the team will be competitive. Take that for what it is. Because when you zoom out, certainties are hard to come by. Toronto is halfway done its current, two-year era. Toronto won its championship on the echo of four bounces, and they only lost to the Celtics after the gust of an airball with seconds remaining in the series. Margins are slim. If the second half of this era is anything like the first, the Raptors could again be bounces away from ultimate success. When you zoom out to the clouds, that’s not such a bad sight.

 

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