Of all the teams we might rank as “losers,” the Raptors stick out as No. 1, for three rather obvious reasons: 1) They didn’t want to lose Fred VanVleet, 2) they did, and 3) they have no great way of replacing him. While signing Dennis Schröder is a Band-Aid that can kinda sorta get them through the season (and was clearly the best available option with the money Toronto had), this in no way offsets losing an All-Star-ish-caliber player.
What hurts more is that Houston’s offer actually wasn’t that crazy; two years at the max plus a third with a team option. This probably should have been affordable for Toronto and probably should have been something the Raptors planned for going back to last season given the number of cap room teams that needed point guard help.
I’m wondering if one wrinkle really wrong-footed them: Gary Trent Jr. opting in to his deal for $19 million. By doing so, he made matching a max offer on VanVleet a tax question; doing so would have put the Raptors $10 million over before they used a cent of their midlevel exception (that number presumes the Raptors had waived Thaddeus Young and not signed Schröder to replace VanVleet); filling out the roster would have pushed that number even higher.
There were hidden costs once Trent opted in. Realistically, a max for VanVleet would have cost them their full MLE as an over-apron team (they could have done the Jalen McDaniels deal with the tax MLE instead of the biannual) and likely would have cost them again in draft capital to reduce the tax hit to a more reasonable number for a middling team. A Chris Boucher salary dump, or something similar, wouldn’t have been cheap.
A more interesting question is whether the Raptors can now shift their roster to something more workable than a bunch of below-average-shooting 6-foot-9 guys going one-on-one. The VanVleet deal may look a lot better in 20-20 hindsight if Toronto can parlay Pascal Siakam or O.G. Anunoby into a good guard who can shoot. It just remains to be seen who that player is and what kind of deal is doable; I’m not breaking any news here, but exasperation with the Raptors in trade talks remains a theme when talking to other front offices.
Even with all that, I’m still a bit amazed Toronto didn’t just swallow hard and agree to pay VanVleet, knowing he’d likely be tradeable later. I mean, this has been Masai Ujiri’s calling card going back to Denver. Can I even call it the Masui Ujiri Memorial Delayed Sign-and-Trade anymore? I’m so confused.
McDaniels, who was signed away from the Philadelphia 76ers on a two-year deal worth slightly more than $9 million (U.S.), appreciates the do-over with the Raptors. After a disjointed 2022-23 season split between Charlotte and Philadelphia — he was part of a convoluted four-team trade that boiled down to him for Matisse Thybulle — he sought a place where he was wanted in free agency.
“First of all, I appreciate them for even believing in me, that just gives me the confidence to go out there and be who I am,” said the six-foot-nine McDaniels, who was raised in the Seattle suburbs. “Coach (Darko Rajakovic) and Masai and Bobby are always giving me confidence. It just goes a long way when people actually believe in you. It’s not going to be perfect, you’re going to have bad games and stuff like that, but it’s a long journey. I’m here for it.”
For Poeltl, the veteran centre who re-signed with Toronto on a four-year deal worth about $80 million, the decision to come back to the Raptors came down to a chance at redemption. He was integral to the 2022-23 team that flamed out spectacularly in the NBA’s play-in tournament, losing at home to Chicago in a game that ultimately cost Nurse his coaching job.
“I had some unfinished business here,” Poeltl said. “We really didn’t end the season the we way wanted to.”
Poeltl was drafted ninth by Toronto in 2016 and traded along with DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green two years later, only to be reacquired by the Raptors last summer, He drew some interest as a free agent, most notably from the Spurs.
Ujiri isn’t spinning narratives when he says his hands were tied when the Houston Rockets jumped in with a three-year, $130-million deal to lure VanVleet away.
Now things change a little if that third year is a player option or a team option and that doesn’t appear to be completely firmed up just yet, but what doesn’t change is the fact that VanVleet is no longer a Raptor.
Jakob Poeltl, however, is a Raptor and will be for the next three and possibly four years. The fourth year of his $80-million deal is a player option.
Poeltl and newest Raptor Jalen McDaniels both spent some time in front of the Toronto media as the Raptors made Poeltl’s return official and officially introduced McDaniels, who arrives on a two-year $9.3-million deal from Philly. Still not official was the reported deal with point guard Dennis Schroder who is believed to have signed for two years and just over $25 million, though that is expected soon.
VanVleet and his team had not settled on a decision about re-signing or taking Houston’s money when Poeltl made his commitment.
And while he admitted a VanVleet decision did factor into his own, in the end, Poeltl went ahead and made the decision that was best for him and that meant staying in Toronto.
“It’s one of those things where I’m definitely happy for him,” Poeltl said of VanVleet cashing in. “And yeah, for selfish reasons and our team’s sake, it would have been good to have him here.
Fernandez has been an assistant coach in the NBA since 2016, first with Murray and the Denver Nuggets and more recently as Mike Brown’s right-hand man with the Sacramento Kings, who just finished with a 48-34 record, their best regular season since 2004-05.
More importantly for Barrett and Canada Basketball, Fernandez’s coaching upbringing is in international basketball. He started working with youth clubs in Spain at just 15 years old before becoming an assistant coach with the Spanish national program youth teams in 2013, and then an assistant coach with the Spanish senior men’s team between 2017 and 2019, when they won the FIBA World Cup. He was also an assistant coach with Team Nigeria at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
“He’s steeped in FIBA, right? As he grew up, he’s Spanish, he understands this game very, very well — the FIBA game,” Barrett added about what made Fernandez the right fit for Canada Basketball at this time. “He’s gonna understand the officiating, he’s going to understand the other teams, the systems they’ve learned, he’s going to understand those countries, those nations.
“He’s going to have probably some understanding of some of the coaches and how do you beat them, and definitely some recency with coaching with Nigeria. You know, tremendous recency in terms of his time in FIBA.”
However, Fernandez has his work cut out for him with the Canadian team. The announcement that he was hired came just 59 days ahead of the 2023 FIBA World Cup, where Canada has the publicly stated goal of finishing top-two from the Americas in order to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics without the need of a last-chance qualifying tournament. He also was hired just one month ahead of training camp, which will begin on July 31 or Aug. 1 in Toronto, per sources.
Assistant coaches Nathaniel Mitchell and Nurse’s longtime right-hand man Nate Bjorgren will remain on the bench to coach alongside Fernandez. Michael Meeks, a former player and longtime coach with Canada Basketball, will no longer be on the staff.
The most interesting aspect of the first few months of Fernandez’s tenure will be to learn just how rigid he is with commitment rules compared to Nurse. Will Fernandez also declare that if a player misses a window that their spot will be up for grabs? Or will he take a more laid back approach for players who miss a window, relying on talent over continuity?
Barrett said the commitment requirements have not changed, but when it comes to a guy like Andrew Wiggins, who told me last winter that he “would love to play” in the Paris 2024 Olympics but could not commit to a three-year window, there could be a big decision looming for Fernandez and Barrett.
Also, how will the players respond to Fernandez’s hiring? While all indications are the same core group of NBA players are still committed this summer despite the coaching change, they do have more of an excuse to drop out, if they are looking for one. On a more optimistic note, there could theoretically be impactful players like Chris Boucher and Lyles who are more excited about joining the Canadian team now that Nurse is out and Fernandez is in. Only time will tell.