Can you just walk through why it might be a bad idea to do a soft tank next season to accumulate assets for the loaded 2021-22 drafts and to clear cap space for Giannis Antetokounmpo and more? – Daniel
The biggest reason is that I don’t think the Raptors can get bad enough fast enough. Even ignoring Antetokounmpo potentially signing the super-max, if you wanted to land a top lottery talent in 2021, you’d really have to strip things down with how bad the bottom of the East is. It wouldn’t be a problem to fall to No. 7 or 8, but to get into the juicy lottery percentages? You better out-suck a lot of teams. And short of trading Lowry, losing both free agent centres and letting VanVleet walk, I’m not sure you get bad enough for it to be worthwhile. I’m not sure a roster with VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Anunoby and whoever the Raptors add around it can bottom out enough.
More notably, the Raptors really value winning. It’s a means of culture-building, getting their players high-leverage experience and making them attractive to potential trade and free agent targets. If you were sure the extra space and picks could pay off in 2021, you certainly consider it. This is about maximizing windows. But you better be pretty sure.
Klutch plays hardball
It might or might not make sense for the Raptors to seriously engage with OG Anunoby’s new representation, Klutch Sports, on a contract extension. As with Antetokounmpo, the deadline to come to an agreement is Dec. 21. Whether or not the Raptors and the versatile forward can make a deal might have a whole lot to do with Antetokounmpo’s decision. You can read more here.
Even if a deal seems unlikely at this moment, the tenor of those conversations, which we almost surely will not hear about, could be as or more important as whether or not a deal gets done. You never know what a player is thinking when he changes agencies, and Anunoby is hard to read at the best of times. (Most likely, he thinks Klutch is “cool.”) If the switch is a sign that Anunoby wants to get every last dollar in free agency instead of valuing long-term security in a way that many non-stars looking for their first post-rookie deal, it could portend difficulty reaching a deal next summer. Look at how our John Hollinger values Anunoby. He is not your average low-usage defender.
In all likelihood, this will require some reading of tea leaves. The Raptors will know, however, and it would complicate their medium-term future, although they would be fortified by the right to match any offer that arrives next offseason.
We’ve already done most of the legwork evaluating the options that could be in the mix for the Raptors. All told, we did 60 Raptors draft profiles, with 56 of those players remaining in the draft. (Luka Garza, Chris Smith, A.J. Lawson and Marcus Carr were profiled before they withdrew.)
Of those 56 players, 46 appeared on at least one mock draft, with composite rankings ranging from 12 to 123. That’s a wide range, but keep in mind that we started all of this back in May and rankings have changed in the time since; the draft is always fluid, and that’s especially true in such a flat year.
That also means that there are 67 players who appeared on at least one board who we didn’t profile. That is stressful covering a team who have reached off-board and surprised us frequently. Time and energy are not infinite, and we have to prioritize somewhere. That meant a shallower look at players likely to be off the board by the time the Raptors pick and trying to be strategic with late second-round and undrafted options. It is almost a lock they’ll end up with someone we didn’t profile. It won’t be the end of the world — I think I have a decent feel for maybe 15 more of the names at the back end, and if they move up, it’s for a well-known player we’ll have plenty of content on at The Athletic.
All of that is to say, this is an anxiety inducing exercise, but we’re in good shape. I think.
Players are never older than the time they are rookies. Freshman are always perceived with higher status, whereas juniors and seniors are seen as defective. So much of the draft is about the perception of value, rather than actual abilities, which is one reason why so many picks look ridiculous in hindsight.
Ujiri cuts through the hype. Through six seasons with the Raptors, Ujiri has only ever drafted one teenager, which turned out to be his biggest miss in Caboclo. Ujiri believes in development, and nobody is a complete product in their college years. Powell and VanVleet were four-year seniors. Siakam was a junior. Anunoby played two seasons. All four players have shown consistent growth over their first few seasons in the league, which is hardly a surprise due to the access to elite coaching, nutrition, training and technology afforded to them at the NBA level.
The caveat is that Ujiri’s teams have traditionally made the playoffs and 50-win seasons are the norm, which comes with the downside of having to pick late in the draft. In those positions, Ujiri has clearly identified an inefficiency with older players sliding due to their age rather than their talent.
The one advantage that might come from this late draft is that NBA scouts and execs have had nothing but time to evaluate talent. The in-person component is missing, but this could be the most heavily researched and analyzed draft class in NBA history.
“We’re not looking at it as a negative by any means,” Raptors assistant GM and VP of player personnel Dan Tolzman said on a conference call in late October.
“The way that we do things to begin with, we don’t need to change much of our operation. We’re a front office that spends a lot of time digging in on guys throughout the entire season, not just during the pre-draft.
“We feel pretty comfortable with where we were at in March when everything got changed. I think it comes down to trusting in our gut feeling on some of these players. It’ll be interesting to see if not just (for) us but teams in general, how the draft goes and if teams are basing their picks on gut feeling and video. How this goes could really change how people approach the draft going forward.”
Beyond the draft lies that other area the Raptors have thrived in. The undrafted free-agent market is a rough that the organization has extracted more than its share of diamonds from, using the G League to turn post-draft signings into mainstays with the team. Fred VanVleet, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas and Oshea Brisett were undrafted signings. Chris Boucher was an Exhibit 10 signing that sharpened his game through time with Raptors 905, dominated the G League, winning MVP and defensive player of the year in 2019 and became a steady contributor last year.
We’re still not sure what the G League season might look like this year, but player development will be key with the Raptors picks and post-draft signings. These are selections made with an eye to the future and we can assume/hope that the sports world can get back to its regularly-scheduled programming after this season.
No matter how the G League season may look, there’s confidence in how the organization will be able to develop players.
“We feel really comfortable in whoever we target and bring in,” Tolzman said.
“Nothing is finalized,” said Webster. “I think as you can probably imagine the number of collective work hours spent on this every single day, you can probably imagine all the different paths. Obviously, we have to work with the NBA, we have to work with wherever we do training camp, where we would play at, so there’s just in some ways an infinite number of boxes to check in each location. So we’re doing that in a couple different ones and obviously we hope to have some resolution obviously on Toronto or the alternate location here as soon as possible … it’s getting close and I would anticipate an answer here in the near future.
“…There’s been stops and starts in different cities and I think that’s just the nature with trying to button everything up. You close one door and another one opens. You’re just trying to find the right place and not go on a wild goose chase of leading people here, then the next day it’s here, then the third day it’s here and that kind of thing.”
While Webster says the team wants to avoid the situation the Toronto Blue Jays found themselves in – where they returned to Toronto to train in the summer, expecting to get clearance to play their home games at Rogers Centre only to have to scramble to set up in Buffalo when Health Canada wouldn’t provide the required border clearances – there is the possibility that the Raptors could have training camp and the first half of the campaign in the U.S. and then come back to Toronto after the mid-season break.
“I think our plan is wherever we do decide on, we want to go down there and get settled and I don’t think we want to have a trip back to Toronto,” Webster said. “But there is going to be, as you all have seen, a natural break in the season, so there would be an opportunity to transition back.”
There are a lot of factors in play.
“We’re trying to do what’s best for the organization,” said Webster. “So you can kind of go down the line. You know, what is first and foremost? The players. What does the practice facility look like? What would be the accommodations around the medical facilities, the medical treatment? Obviously, you need to have an arena that fits NBA standards. There’s a ton of broadcast issues. There’s health and safety. There’s availability for arena dates. There’s a ton of stuff there. And then, you know, lifestyle matters. I think at some point we’re asking people here to uproot their lives and go to a place that, you know, they may potentially be away from their families for six to seven months. So I think we want to be respectful of that, and we want people to feel like we’re going somewhere where we feel safe and they feel like they can settle in.”
We’ve already heard that the team will want to assemble, practice, and play in one city — so this forces a deadline of 13 days from now to either get approval from the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, or start making a home elsewhere. Previous reporting suggests Tampa, Fla. has the inside track.
Removing this news from the context of present-day North America is impossible too. Case numbers are spiking in areas of Ontario where the Raptors would practice and play. Look south, and the situation is even worse — the NBA continues to go full steam ahead on a non-bubble season as the pandemic spreads like wildfire in a majority of its market cities. If this was a question of the Raptors’ safety? It almost seems like playing in Toronto is the best alternative.
Of course, though, there are the optics. Shutting down local businesses while inviting in American professional athletes will never play well with a certain audience, so the multiple levels of government will ultimately have that at play with any decision. There is a lot to consider, but at least we know the timeline in which those decisions have to be made.
The Raptors haven’t had significant cap space, or the ability to chase a big-name free agent, since they signed DeMarre Carroll to an ill-fated four-year $60 million deal in 2015. Once Leonard left for the Clippers in free agency a couple summers ago, Ujiri set his sights on 2021, when most of the team’s big contracts were set to expire. That this timeline aligned with Antetokounmpo’s possible free agency wasn’t a coincidence, but they haven’t put all their eggs in the Giannis basket.
Regardless of whether the Greek Freak is available, there’s value in having cap space. Next summer’s free-agent class should still be loaded and could include Leonard, Paul George, Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo, Paul, Blake Griffin and former Raptor DeMar DeRozan. With cap flexibility they could also absorb a big contract in a trade. Or, if they don’t like anything on the trade or free-agent markets, they could opt to re-sign Kyle Lowry – who will also be unrestricted – and the rest of their own guys. It gives them the option to pivot in one of several different directions.
The goal when free agency opens this coming Friday at 6 p.m. – and when players are officially allowed to sign new contracts Sunday afternoon – likely remains the same.
Toronto’s top priority will be to retain Fred VanVleet – arguably the best player on the market – but do so at a cost that will allow the team to maintain its coveted cap flexibility for next summer. If a team, likely the Knicks or Pistons, make a big offer – and Antetokounmpo is indeed off the board for next year – perhaps the Raptors are more inclined to spend a bit more to match or compete with it. However, this will still be a balancing act.
League sources still consider the Raptors the frontrunners in the VanVleet sweepstakes. They’ve built a strong relationship and mutual respect over the past four years, and they understand each other’s short and long-term ambitions, which is important going into any negotiation.
But it’s clear VanVleet – a savvy businessman, who has earned the right to seek the significant pay raise he’s worth – won’t take a substantial hometown discount to stay in Toronto, and the Raptors know that. It will come down to whether they’re able to find a number – and term – that makes senses for both parties. The good news for Raptors fans is that both player and team seem highly motivated to find that number and move forward together.
“Nothing is finalized,” Webster said Tuesday. “I think as you can probably imagine the number of collective work hours spent on this every single day, you can probably imagine all the different paths. Obviously we have to work with the NBA, we have to work with wherever we do training camp, where we would play at, so there’s just in some ways an infinite number of boxes to check in each location. So we’re doing that in a couple different ones and obviously we hope to have some resolution obviously in Toronto or the alternate location here as soon as possible.”
This isn’t just multi-tasking the Raptors are doing right now, it’s multi-tasking X ten.
Meanwhile reports surfaced yesterday that the league is telling teams they must be in their home market no later than Nov. 30 to begin coronavirus testing.
Again 29 other teams know where that is going to be, Toronto does not.
“We are working on … a kind of parallel path here which is we want to stay in Toronto but as we all know time is of the essence and we are also working on a path to play elsewhere,” Webster said. “We want to be in Toronto. We want to play here, but we are also realistic about the timing and respectful of the protocols Public Health has to go through so it’s a little bit of both. It doesn’t necessarily affect our operations. I think we all know we’ll run a basketball team and the 72 games will get played but just where that is probably more of a … drain on personal decisions and families which always looms large in this industry.”
If you’re Horst and you haven’t been consulting Antetokounmpo at every step, you’re not only negligent, you deserve to be fired. Which is to say: Unless Horst has woefully misread the feelings of the back-to-back league MVP, the Greek Freak never looked like more of a lock to re-sign in Milwaukee than he did on Tuesday.
Which brings us back to the Raptors, and precisely where Masai Ujiri might go from here if Antetokounmpo, indeed, is on the precipice of eschewing free agency for a long-term commitment.
Toronto, of course, wasn’t the only franchise eyeing the Greek Freak with hopeful admiration. But Toronto always seemed like a better-than-average fit. The notion that Ujiri, the NBA’s only Nigerian-raised team president, would woo Antetokounmpo, the son of Nigerian immigrants to Greece, always made some sense. Ujiri, along with running the Raptors, also runs Basketball Without Borders, an initiative built to help African kids prosper through the sport. He’s always spoken with a certain paternalistic ownership about the wealth of talent produced by the continent.
“Excuse me, but Giannis is not Greek. Giannis is Nigerian,” Ujiri said at his post-championship press conference in 2019, this while waxing proud about his belief in Africa’s vast human resources.
Given all that, for the purposes of this particular pipe dream it seemed irrelevant that Toronto has never been a coveted destination for NBA free agents. The idea that Giannis might make himself an exception wasn’t hurt by the notion that Ujiri has a long history of friendship with the Antetokounmpo family.
“Masai helped me and my family during the years I’ve been in the league,” Giannis said on the eve of the 2019 Eastern final. “He’s an unbelievable guy, a great GM, built a great team. And after the series is over, if he wants to go and golf or do something, we can definitely do that.”
Raptors general manager Bobby Webster minced no words on the future of VanVleet, who is reportedly drawing interest from a handful of teams after coming off a career-year in his fourth season. VanVleet has publicly stated that he is looking to “cash out” after winning the championship in 2019 and blossoming into a starter this past season, and Toronto is ready to oblige.
“We have said it publicly, privately, every which way. He’s our top priority, he’s our biggest priority for the offseason is bringing him back. We’ve had a great run for four years, we fully expect that to continue, and everything has been positive,” Webster said about VanVleet in a press conference held on Tuesday.
TOR • SG • 23
PPG APG SPG
17.6. 6.6. 1.9
Can I interest you in a 26-year-old guard who can make plays, stretch the floor and force turnovers? VanVleet is quietly one of the best defensive guards in the league, making up for his lack of height with a rare combination of intelligence, strength and anticipation. He’s also a valued leader in the locker room, and he has shown he’s completely fearless taking big shots on the biggest stage. His suitors have to wonder how close they’d have to get to the max to price the Raptors out.
The Raptors would love to re-sign VanVleet to a long-term deal, without question. He is eligible to sign up to a five-year maximum deal worth $158.3 million with them. Other teams can give him four years, $117.3 million. He probably won’t get the maximum amount that would start him with a $27.3 million salary. He is more likely to get offers closer to $20 million annually, and that’ll probably be on the lowest end.
The conflict with VanVleet’s free agency is Raptors’ plans for 2021 free agency. They will pursue Bucks MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and are considered a frontrunner for him within league circles. Toronto already has a difficult path to maximum cap space in 2021 compared to other teams pursuing Antetokounmpo like Miami and Dallas. Right now we only have a range of what the 2021-22 salary cap could be, which is between $112.4 million to $120.1 million. This makes projecting for next summer very difficult.
Let’s say the salary cap only increases to $112.4 million and the Raptors re-sign VanVleet to a deal that pays him $25 million annually. They would enter free agency with only VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell (assuming he opts in), and both their 2020 and 2021 first-round picks guaranteed on the roster. They also have OG Anunoby who will be a restricted free agent they want to re-sign after using their cap space. In that scenario, the Raptors would have to either let Anunoby go or trade Powell to get closer to maximum cap space and they’ll still be several million short of it. Negotiations with VanVleet will be very fascinating to keep an eye on as the Raptors try to figure out a 2021-22 salary figure with 2021 free agency in mind.
[P]rominent members of the Nets organization would like to see the club sign free agent Serge Ibaka. Ibaka is close with Kevin Durant, and he’d be an incredible addition for a club with title aspirations. But can Brooklyn afford Ibaka? It seems highly unlikely that he’ll sign for the tax-payer exception ($5.7 million per year). Ibaka made $23 million dollars last season.
Some teams preparing for Ibaka’s free agency believe he’d at least consider the non-tax payer midlevel exception for four years. That exception starts at $9.2 million and has maximum raises of five percent. Those teams monitoring Ibaka’s free agency believe he’d have interest in a deal in the neighborhood of three years and $12-15 million per year from teams with cap space.
The Nets can’t offer the latter because they won’t be able to get under the salary cap…
All of which makes his eventual contract workout all the more logical. As you’ll recall, both he and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were signed by the Raptors in the wake of Kawhi Leonard’s departure. And while neither of them could ever fill those shoes, both were still young — albeit flawed — players with something to prove. Ironically, Hollis-Jefferson was nabbed on a one-year deal and then spent much of 2020 playing his way into a better contract situation for the coming season. Johnson, sadly, went the other way, so much so that his $3.8 million option year was clearly the best deal he was going to get from any other team in the NBA.
So, Johnson remains with the Raptors — for now. Will that lump of salary become contract ballast for some future deal? It’s possible. Or maybe the Raptors will manage to shape Johnson just enough to form a usable player. Say what you will about his on-court ability, he seems like a good guy all-around and a dedicated worker. That’s not nothing. But it also leads me to conclude that what seems most likely right now is also the most boring and unremarkable outcome: Johnson spends the year in Toronto, underachieves, and then disappears from the team. Those are the breaks sometimes.
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