It’s extremely hard to grade the Raptors’ 2020 offseason considering they went through great lengths to maintain a max cap slot in 2021, when an exciting group of free agents including Giannis Antetokounmpo will be available. Looking at it solely through that lens, the Raptors successfully achieved their goal of maintaining cap flexibility while putting together a pretty good team. They drafted Malachi Flynn and Jaylen Harris while signing solid rotation players in Aron Baynes, DeAndre’ Bembry, and Chris Boucher to reasonable deals with non-guaranteed second years that make them easier to trade during the season.
It’s easy to talk ourselves into these players and get excited for the upcoming season when the Raptors will still have the same beloved core that brought them a championship and won 73.6 percent of their regular season games last season, along with some fresh faces who could bring some much-needed scoring to the Raptors.
But if we look at the Raptors’ 2020 offseason objectively — while taking into account the context of the league and particularly the front-loaded Eastern Conference teams — the Raptors got worse this offseason while their competition got better. And that didn’t necessarily need to be the case.
While the Raptors were courting Fred VanVleet to a new 4-year $85M deal and trying (but ultimately failing) to re-sign Serge Ibaka (more on him later this week) and Marc Gasol, the rest of the East got better: Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Miami, and Milwakuee all improved this offseason, with Boston basically standing pat (they lost Gordan Hayward and signed Tristian Thompson, making them slightly worse in my eyes). The Raptors appear to be sixth in the Eastern Conference pecking order. That’s not to say they won’t surprise most of America on their way to winning upwards of 45 games (in a 72 game season) and getting homecourt advantage in the playoffs: The core of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam have already proved capable of doing that and my bet is on them to overachieve once again in the regular season.
Some people look at the 2020-21 season as a “transition” year of sorts for the Raptors, and with a young team and their eyes set on a max free agent next offseason, I understand that thinking. But the Raptors are really good already, taking the Boston Celtics to seven games despite Siakam struggling significantly throughout the bubble and the Raptors having only seven players who Nick Nurse could trust. The Raptors should be doing everything in their power to compete for a title while their competitive window remains open. As we just saw with the Houston Rockets and potentially the Golden State Warriors, you never know when that window will close.
I’m not projecting the Raptors to fall apart any time soon — I think this core is built for the long run. But as things stand, the Raptors’ front office missed an opportunity to build a deep, versatile team and put themselves in the best position possible to achieve playoff success. Things could change before the trade deadline — the Raptors have a few easily tradable contracts and an uneven roster loaded with guards — but as of now, I’m lower on the Raptors than I was at this time last offseason. Ibaka and Gasol were significant contributors who provided the Raptors with real versatility in the front court, while the new roster is less deep and much less versitile.
If you don’t think it’s possible to get better while prioritizing 2021 cap space, look at the Miami Heat. The Heat are in a very similar position to the Raptors in so much that they desire a max free agent next offseason and prioritize cap space, but they still managed to get better this offseason, re-signing Goran Dragic and Meyers Leonard and signing Avery Bradley and Maurice Harkless to deals with non-guaranteed second years. They created an even deeper team than the one that just took them to the NBA Finals, filled with guys who fit their culture, all without sacrificing 2021 cap space. The Raptors had a chance to do the same but failed.
As Eric Koreen writes in The Athletic, “For all of [Masai] Ujiri’s masterful work with the Raptors, he has yet to prove that he can turn Toronto into a consistently attractive market for free agents.”
That’s not necessarily Ujiri’s fault — especially with the Raptors starting their season in Tampa Bay. Those things are out of his control. But while Raptors’ fans went into the offseason thinking the worst-case scenario was the team running it back, the Raptors got worse. Now, the Raptors roster has significant holes in it, with only six guys who can definitively play minutes in the a playoff series. They are hoping one or two young players off the bench can step into that role sooner than later — whether it’s Boucher or Flynn or Bembry even — but that is a big ask with such unproven players.
The Raptors will be fun next season and they will still be very good. Their young core is due to take another step forward — especially OG Anunoby, who is likely to see big minutes at the 4 and 5 this season — and they could pull off a trade that makes all of my concerns sound stupid. But this is not a transition season — not if you ask a veteran like Kyle Lowry — this is another opportunity to compete for a title. After an uninspiring offseason, a lot of things will have to go right for them to be a real contender now.
The Raptors got worse this offseason, and no amount of Youtube highlight videos or Twitter fan-accounts will change that.