Is this the Dawn of a New Era? Part 1

We the North has lasted almost a decade. What comes now?

This offseason might be one of the most important in Raptors franchise history. Or it might just be yet another crossroad they seem to find themselves in every two or three years. 

Back in 2018, the team was coming off an Eastern Conference best 59 wins, but were swept in the second round by LeBron and his Cavs for the second year in a row. It had become clear the team, as constructed, was not going to contend for a title, so Masai Ujiri broke up their core and shipped DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first round pick to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. It resulted in the first ever Raptors Championship.

In 2021, they were a year away from winning their first title and actually improved their winning percentage over their Championship season, despite losing Kawhi, but still lost in the second round. Their two big men, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, were free agents and Gasol, especially, had obviously lost a step and struggled to stay healthy. Letting them both leave for nothing signalled a new direction for the team. They promptly missed the playoffs for the first time in the Masai Ujiri era, but the team ended up with Scottie Barnes in the draft.

And now it’s 2023, the Raptors have missed the playoffs for the 2nd time in 3 years (after previously making the previous seven playoffs), and are at risk of losing three of their top six rotation players to unrestricted free agency.

It’s not that the Raptors don’t have talent. They do. And it can certainly be argued that they underperformed this past season, but not even the most optimistic Raptor fan would argue this group has what it takes to contend for a title. On top of the impending free agent situation, the Raptors suffer from a lack of direction. Their two best players, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, are 29 years old and are in the prime of their careers, and Poeltl will be 28 when the seasons starts. One of their top bench players, Chris Boucher, is 30 and Thaddeus Young will be 35 when next season starts. On the other end of the spectrum, Scottie Barnes, who might become the team’s best player in the next few years, is just 21, and most of the rest of the roster is 25 or under. 

The idea was to be able to develop the teams’ young players in a winning atmosphere, while depending on the veterans to win games. It seemed like a sound strategy and Golden State tried this with a bit more success, but having two different timelines just means they’re trying to serve two masters. And in both cases, it limited the success of the team while also limiting the playing time of the young players. So they didn’t achieve the success on the court or develop the players they way they wanted. It was a failure on both fronts.

The mid season trade that brought Poeltl to Toronto seemed to double down on this strategy, trying to squeeze out a few more wins without giving up any young players, even as is perplexed a lot of Raptor fans. In the days and weeks before the Poeltl trade, rumours were swirling about nearly every player on the Raptors roster not named Scottie Barnes and it appeared as though the Raptors might trade one or more of their prized veterans for young players and/or draft picks. This was due to the disappointing season the Raptors were having, up until that point, sitting several games below .500 and 10th in the East. While no one disputed the need for a player like Poeltl and the Raptors went 15-12 after the trade, it was difficult to imagine this team making any noise in the playoffs. What made the trade even more puzzling was that the Raptors included a 2024 top 6 protected first round pick in the Poeltl trade, seemingly forcing the them to take a win-now approach. 

To put their situation in a little perspective, on the day of the Poeltl trade, Portland had a slightly better record than the Raptors (1 game under .500) but were also in the 10th spot in the West. While the Raptors traded for Poeltl in hopes of turning their season around, Portland kept all their assets and stood pat, eventually shutting Damian Lillard down for the season. 

Both teams ended up missing the playoffs, but the Raptors ended up with the 13th pick, whereas Portland landed the 3rd pick.

It’s not difficult to see which team ended up in a better position going into the offseason. 

And now, ironically, there is a whole lot of discussion about the Raptors possibly trading one of their star veterans for Portland’s third pick.

The question is, should they consider pulling the trigger on a trade like this (there seem to be an inordinate amount of teams looking to trade draft picks or prospects for star veterans)?

The answer is complicated. 

After such a disappointing season, simply running it back was not an option, which is why the team’s best coach in franchise history was fired. But with the team missing the playoffs twice in three years, it’s obvious that a simple coaching change isn’t going to be enough to make the team a contender again. Darko Rajakovic will help, but he won’t fix the issues all on his own.

With the trade of Poeltl and the firing of Nick Nurse, it appears the vaunted 6’9 experiment might be coming to an end. The idea was intriguing, but it only worked sporadically. What killed them was their lack of outside shooting and inability to protect the rim, which is why they finally brought in a rim protector in Poeltl (who may not be Jaren Jackson, but was still top 15 in the league in block percentage). 

Another problem with the 6’9 experiment is that the NBA has changed in the last few years. When the Raptors won their title in 2019, Golden State made it to the Finals without a dominant big man, and for most teams the centre position was an after thought. In fact, with the focus more on three point shooting and spacing, there were pronouncements that the big man era is over in the NBA. 

Fast forward to today, and big men seem to be back in vogue, again. A 7 footer has won the MVP for the last five years (after a guard won it the previous 4 years), Nikola Jokic just dominated the playoffs like few before him and Victor Wembanyama threatens to turn the NBA into his own personal playground and give the Spurs another dynasty before he’s even stepped onto an NBA floor.

It’s more than just dominant centres, though. Cleveland has two defensive 7 footers in its starting lineup (and last year had three 7 foot starters before they traded Lauri Markkanen for Donovan Mitchell, a 6’2 shooting guard – which we’ll get back to later). Memphis (for half of the season before Steven Adams got injured) started Adams and Jaren Jackson. Milwaukee started Brook Lopez and Giannis. Even the Magic and Pistons have towering front courts. The NBA seems to be getting bigger again (at least in the front court), and having a roster of 6’9 guys isn’t going to cut it, anymore. That’s why Masai finally brought in Poeltl. Even he realized that. 

Now, there’s certainly an argument to be made to keep the roster intact and see if a full season with Poeltl and internal improvement, especially from players like Barnes and Precious Achiuwa, as well as a new coach, will be enough to turn this team into contenders. Masai is famous for his patience, and there are many Raptor fans that don’t want to see their favourite players go. Masai is also famous for his lack of sentimentality, however, and the Raptors stood pat last summer. Do they really want to try that again?

Making things even more complicated is the status of VanVleet, Poeltl and Gary Trent Jr. 

Poeltl is believed to be a lock to return on a fairly team friendly contract, possibly at an even lower salary that he’s making ( there aren’t many teams with cap space and those that have it aren’t looking for a player like Poeltl). Trent Jr was apparently considering picking up his player option (he saw statistical declines across the board this past season), but now there are rumours Orlando will make him a big offer should he become a free agent, so he might end up declining the option.  

VanVleet has apparently already declined his player option and will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. While he’s been unfairly criticized by many Raptor fans (more on that in a moment), he’ll be one of the best free agents available this summer, will have a number of suitors (including, apparently, Houston, Orlando, the Lakers, and Philadelphia- with Nick Nurse) and will be looking for a raise. None of this is good news for the Raptors. 

If the Raptors are able to re-sign all three free agents (or Trent Jr picks up his option), it puts them well into luxury tax territory which is a dangerous place for a lottery team to be, especially when the new CBA is implemented. Being a luxury tax team isn’t just about paying more. It also limits what moves a team is able to make, which is why usually only contenders are tax paying teams. So bringing back all three limits what the team can do to improve (they’d lose the ability to use the MLE) and hurt them in the long term. Their luxury tax situation would become worse next summer when OG Anunoby has a player option and will almost definitely be getting a much bigger pay raise.

So if Trent Jr picks up his option, the Raptors may decide paying VanVleet is not worth the luxury tax implications. 

On the other hand, losing VanVleet would be devastating to the team as currently constructed. While he had an off year, compared to his All Star season the previous year, the team was much worse when he wasn’t on the floor, and the Raptors have no one who can replace him (Barnes might eventually be able to, but he’s not ready to be the full-time point guard). He also is one of the few players on the team to hold others accountable and brings similar leadership qualities that Kyle Lowry did when he was a Raptor. 

If Trent Jr becomes a free agent and is offered a bigger salary elsewhere, then the Raptors could end up losing one or both. And they may have to decide which one they want to, or can afford to, keep.

There is one option that involves bringing back all the free agents and using the assets the Raptors have (that now includes the 13th pick) and trying to trade for a star. The Raptors flirted with this back when Kevin Durant was available, but their unwillingness to part with Barnes prevented a deal. If the Raptors can trade for a star, without gutting the team, it might give the Raptors the talent to be a force in the East, so then their luxury tax situation wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

The problem with this is that there may not be any stars available, and if players like Trae Young or Jalen Brown become available (two of the few star players who’ve been rumoured to have a chance of being traded) their teams won’t be looking for draft picks in return. The Raptors may also not have enough depth to be able to trade for a star player and still contend, even if they could trade for one.

The Raptors could simply try and run it back again, but they haven’t had a whole lot of success with that strategy, and if they lose VanVleet and/or Trent Jr (either intentionally or unintentionally) their chance of making the playoffs in the competitive Eastern Conference is even worse. And complicating matters more is that the Raptors won’t know what will happen with their free agents until after the draft, and after the chance to trade for another lottery pick. So they need to decide by June 22nd (the NBA Draft) what they’re going to do.

There seems to be a belief among NBA front offices and pundits that both VanVleet and Trent Jr won’t return, so it’s looking more and more likely the Raptors will start the season without their 2nd and 3rd leading scorers.

Either way, with the lack of success the team has had on the court and the problems associated with a lottery team going into the luxury tax, it really only gives the Raptors one logical avenue. And that’s to build around Scottie Barnes, use either Siakam and/or Anunoby to attempt to trade for a high lottery pick (or multiple ones), while bringing back Poeltl which would still keep them under the luxury tax but also give them a legit centre, something they’ve lacked since Marc Gasol left town. This strategy seems even more sound considering the Raptors, if they go this route, would be one of the only teams willing to trade away a star player in exchange for prospects and/or draft capital. There also seem to be a higher number of teams than usual rumoured to be willing to trade away their high lottery pick.

While the Raptors won’t have their 2024 first round pick if it falls below 6, next year’s draft is projected to be quite weak (perhaps why Masai included it in the Poeltl trade) and if the Raptors end up with two or three lottery picks on June 22nd, then there may not be as much pressure to add another lottery pick next year.

So trading Siakam or Anunoby may end up being the most sensible thing for the franchise to do. Which one the Raptors should trade and what type of players they should be looking for in return will be in part two.