Once again, the Lowry piece is a major swing factor. My gut is that Nick Nurse would prefer to stick with his four known commodities as starters if they were all back, which introduces his biggest decision: Start a centre for better two-way balance and flow between units, or start Cunningham, the best player available, and figure out the fit and rotation wrinkles as you go.
I’d lean toward the latter, and I think Nick Nurse would as well. Cunningham then slots in as the de facto small forward, with VanVleet and Lowry in the backcourt and Siakam and Anunoby in the frontcourt. Playing smaller like that is probably not anyone’s preference for 82 games, but it’s almost surely the fivesome that would see the Raptors at their two-way best, and there’s a ton of versatility at both ends of the floor there.
With so many playmakers on the court, Cunningham could be brought along at whatever pace his progress dictates. If he needs a ramp-up period, there are three other ballhandlers out there, and Cunningham profiles as someone who can do damage without full-time handling duties, anyway. If he’s thriving, then the point guards are helpful spacers, and he has four interesting pick-and-roll partners. Don’t forget, too, that Cunningham shot 40 percent on a pretty difficult diet of 3s this year. Shooting, passing and dynamic play-making do not carry diminishing returns for an offence.
That would leave the bench as some combination of Flynn, Trent, Boucher, Khem Birch and whichever 10th and 11th men emerge week-to-week from the pile of minimum contract guys, or someone they bring in with the mid-level. That’s a pretty good starting point for a second unit, and with so many playmakers in the starting group, Nurse’s options are plentiful for staggering rotations so that Flynn doesn’t have too much of a creation load in any lineup. You could even have Cunningham be the transitional unit piece so he can be getting reps alongside established starters and running less experienced groups himself.
The shocker here is adding a really, really good No. 1 pick makes you better and gives you a lot of options. And that is why a 7.5-percent chance at the top pick is worth a disproportionate amount of mental energy and scenario planning.
But the biggest question this summer isn’t Ujiri’s future, it’s the future of the Raptors as whole. The granular decisions are on key free agents Kyle Lowry, Gary Trent Jr., and Khem Birch, and who the Raptors will select with their coveted lottery pick, but what’s the bigger picture? What is the short and long-term direction of the team as it looks to navigate towards another championship? It was first to retain Kawhi Leonard who left, then the plan pivoted towards attracting Giannis Antetokounmpo who stayed, and now the Raptors are wrapping up a lost campaign where they finished 18 games under .500. There is confidence that retaining their current pieces, a return home and a clean bill of health will get the Raptors back into the playoff picture, but to borrow from Ujiri’s own phrasing, playoffs for what?
The East is gaining strength. Brooklyn’s superstar assembly should be favoured for the championship this season and beyond. Milwaukee locked in their core with Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday. Philadelphia remains hugely formidable especially since Joel Embiid mastered the midrange, and now Atlanta is rising to the challenge led by Trae Young and a deep core that is entirely under 30. So even if the Raptors maintain, they will still be firmly in the second tier of the East, and that too will be competitive since Miami and Boston both feature two All-Stars level players in a down year. Things change quickly in basketball since this team game tilts so much on individual players, but who is that game-changer, how do the Raptors acquire him, and can they do so without compromising the rest of the roster?
It doesn’t sound sexy but the most likely outcome is for the Raptors to build through the middle, meaning to remain competitive without bottoming out entirely for lottery picks, to collect talent as it becomes available (such as in the case of swapping out Norman Powell for Trent Jr.) and most importantly, to develop and improve the players on their current roster. Examples of building through the the middle include Milwaukee, Utah, Phoenix, and Denver, where none of them outright tanked for extended seasons, nor did they clean the books for superstar free agents to sign, and instead used shrewd drafting and advantageous trading to piece together their rosters. Better yet, the best recent example is the Raptors’ championship team in 2019, which was assembled without any tanking or any blockbuster signings. Sure, it took a once-in-a-generation opportunity to buy low on Leonard, but the Raptors put in the work of developing, acquiring, and being courageous to pounce on the opportunity ahead of the rest of the league. The banner speaks for itself.
The key is to remain flexible, and the Raptors have all of their options open. There are no bad contracts on the Raptors’ books, and even though this difficult season revealed more limitations for Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet than it did for their potential, both players would still be coveted pieces should the Raptors ever wish to move them. OG Anunoby made a leap in his game and even without any more changes, he would be a bargain on his current deal. Trent Jr. is restricted free agent, but so long as the Raptors keep him in the neighbourhood of $12 to $15 million, he is also a nice player with upside having averaged 15 points on 38 percent shooting from three as a 22-year-old. Add in Malachi Flynn’s emergence in the second half of the season, a lottery pick next month, and holding all of their own selections moving forward, the Raptors have young talent with the ability to be competitive, to be developed, or to be moved if the right trade comes along.
All I know for sure is that the thing Raptors fans should be feeling today is gratitude for having been able to watch him up close in a breathtaking two-month run to the 2019 championship because he is, without doubt, a generational talent.
What he did in the final two games of the Clippers’ win over Dallas will, I’m afraid, get short shrift in stories about how Los Angeles didn’t blow another series and how the Mavs haven’t won a playoff series since Dwane Casey was sitting next to Rick Carlisle and Dirk was hitting one-legged fadeaways a decade ago.
Leonard’s series – more than 30 points a game, 45 in Game 6 and another 28 to go along with 10 rebounds and nine assists in the Game 7 clincher – was one for the ages.
And, like we all knew he would, he boiled it all down to the most simple fact:
“It’s all about the moment.”
I think the thing that we should most appreciate about Leonard, and we talked a lot about it when he was here, is how lethal yet understated his dominance can be.
His shot seems automatic (he shot better than 60 per cent from the field in the series), his dunks seemingly come out of nowhere but are ferocious, and his defence is, well, cloying might be a word.
Of course, he doesn’t seem to be all that interested in highlight reels or accolades and that may be why I don’t think he gets the credit he’s due. He’s not a great or willing participant in the media game – although I don’t think he once blew us off here – and his public reputation doesn’t seem to matter to him in the least.
But if you know, you know. And the fact we got to see him up close over 80 or so games a couple of years ago, and saw just how utterly dominant he could be in moments of unspeakable intensity and importance, will be among the greatest memories I have whenever this gig ends.
And it should be that way with fans here, too. Marvel at him, be glad he was on your team for one magical year that might not be repeated for decades, cherish that run.
Yeah, he left. Who knows what might have happened had he stayed, but to fixate on that for even a second, that “what if?” takes away from what was.
And what was, was something else and I hope he gets another chance to do it again this year. I don’t think he will – the Clippers have many flaws, chief among them is the fact they are the Clippers and bad things happen to them – but I could watch that dude play forever.