The “just gravy” season is officially over at this point, with the Toronto Raptors now facing a crucial offseason in order to continue their quest of being a perennial NBA contender.
The rumoured original date of NBA free agency opening on October 18 came and went with no real clearer signs of when teams will be allowed to sign players. Three of their marquee players are set to become free agents, notably Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka.
But whenever the window does open, the Raptors have very real questions. Will they be able to replicate their success of the last half-decade? Or is this finally the season it all comes crashing down?
Here are five pieces of advice for Toronto’s front office:
1. Don’t handcuff yourself for 2021
The Raptors need to think big picture past what’s ultimately a rather mundane crop of free agents. Their own guy in VanVleet is in the league’s top five free agents on any list you’ll find.
The #1 player on all those lists, forward Anthony Davis, almost certainly re-ups with the LA Lakers in an attempt to defend the NBA championship alongside LeBron James.
Outside of that… there’s been talks about forward Montrezl Harrell joining the Raptors, including a recent workout with Toronto’s Stanley Johnson adding fuel to that fire.
The reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year could provide solid depth, as he produced 18.6 points per game as a member of the LA Clippers.
But more than anything, the Raptors have to keep superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo in mind, as his contract with the Milwaukee Bucks ends following next season. It’s reportedly an ‘open secret‘ Toronto is among the frontrunners to ink his name in the 2021 offseason.
If there’s any possibility of luring in the back-to-back MVP, you need to do everything you can. This doesn’t mean throwing your season away, but it does mean you put yourself in a position to be able to make whatever moves necessary to clear that cap space if the time comes.
2. Don’t do anything stupid with Siakam
Probably pretty obvious, but there’s not much to say here once you’ve taken a step back. Forward Pascal Siakam had a rough series against the Boston Celtics. He admitted so himself that he struggled mightily in his biggest test as a #1 option on an NBA offence.
But he’s also an all-NBA calibre player that had a bad couple of weeks and is already signed to a four-year extension. He’s performed better than anyone could’ve expected when he was picked in the latter half of the first round of the 2016 draft. Just keep letting him do what he’s doing. He’ll be fine.
3. Re-sign VanVleet long term
We haven’t seen what the Raptors look like if they lose one of their star guards in Kyle Lowry or VanVleet. Lowry has one year left on his deal, while VanVleet has been rumoured to be playing for every team from New York to Sacramento.
The most recent salary figures that Toronto is rumoured to afford come in at a four-year deal worth $80 million total.
It seems that the discourse is clear: If you sign VanVleet now, Lowry will be forced leave in a year.
But consider this: the guarantee of Lowry and Van Vleet for another year immediately keeps Toronto in title contention and that can’t be understated.
Signing VanVleet for four years also helps the team in the short term, and provides them with stability if Lowry either moves on or starts to hit the decline that he’s managed to put off so far.
4. Explore trade options with Powell
Outside of Lowry, no Raptor has been through more time with this franchise than backup guard Norman Powell has. He’s around their fifth or sixth most important player, and although he might have served his role perfectly (for the most part) in Toronto, it can also be time for the Raptors to explore moving him out of town for a young prospect or draft picks in order to create salary flexibility.
Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas, Terence Davis, and Patrick McCaw are all staking their claims as Raptors role players in the early stages of their NBA careers, and Powell might simply be the easiest piece to move in order to allow others to flourish.
5. Transition Ibaka back into the starting lineup
At 31 years old, Ibaka must know he’s heading into the latter half of his NBA career. He won’t be signing longer than a year or two at his point.
Just 19 forwards age 31 and up played 40 or more games last year across the league.
The good news is if the Raptors can reach a deal with the pending free agent, his role won’t really change all that much even if he’s thrust back into the starting lineup on a regular basis.
In 2017-18, Ibaka started all 76 games he played and was on the floor 27.5 minutes a night. In 2019-20, Ibaka started 27 of 55 games he played and was on the floor… 27.0 minutes a night. The Raptors coaching staff seems to have worked out the perfect mix for Toronto’s favourite basketball playing chef.