Champions just two seasons ago, the Toronto Raptors now find themselves at a crossroads. Do they run it back with the same group of guys as last year and add a free agent or two? Instead, do they blow things up and start over?
The ever-reliable Kyle Lowry and fast-rising star Pascal Siakam led last year’s group. The Raptors were a strong fourth quarter away from making it to the Eastern Conference Final. It’s not impossible to think they would upend the Miami Heat — a team they beat twice in three tries last season. Whether they had enough to beat the Los Angeles Lakers is anyone’s guess, but the fact is last season’s Raptors were a pretty good team. Sans Kawhi Leonard or any player of that caliber, that same team just didn’t seem like a genuine contender.
Therein lies the problem. This offseason’s crop of free agents is stacked. Excellent players such as Demar DeRozan and Brandon Ingram don’t necessarily have Leonard’s superstar caliber. For that matter, very few rare are. The Lakers’ Anthony Davis comes closest, but he is almost sure to re-up with the Purple and Gold and continue his dynamic partnership with LeBron James.
In a way, the Raptors’ eventual decision in this abbreviated offseason will depend largely on their own free agents: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet. All were vital cogs in the team’s championship in 2018−2019, as well as last year’s surprisingly successful run.
Gasol is leaning on leaving the league entirely so he can finish his career in his home country of Spain. That leaves Ibaka and VanVleet as the team’s most essential pieces in this offseason. How team President Masai Ujiri approaches their free agency will likely dictate which direction the Raptors will take.
The 6-10 Ibaka is one of Sports Illustrated’s 50 best free agents this offseason in part because of his durability and consistency, and in part due to his stretch abilities, like perimeter shooting and off-the-bounce playmaking. Like Ibaka, VanVleet ranks high on free agency boards, and is regarded by Bwin as one of the NBA’s most creative playmakers, not to mention one of its better defenders. VanVleet is also reliable and durable. He plays more minutes than any of this year’s crop of free agents, including even Davis. No wonder VanVleet is angling for some big money, as is Ibaka, who at 31 is likely seeking that last big contract.
Given Ujuri’s track record, it’s not inconceivable for the Raptors to re-sign both VanVleet and Ibaka with team-friendly deals. Deals that don’t overeat the cap. TSN reports this salary cap is $109.14 million league-wide, with a tax line of $132.63 million. Even then, overpaying either one (or both) will likely tie the Raptors financially for next year’s offseason free-agent field. This field includes notable free agents Leonard, James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Paul George — precisely the kind of players the Raptors need to make another title run.
All things considered, it might be best to run things back. This assumes they can sign Ibaka and VanVleet (plus another free agent) to team-friendly deals. In this way, the team will have cap space for next offseason’s loaded free-agent class. Then, they still have a roster that can entice a superstar to come to Toronto. However, resigning Ibaka and VanVleet can’t be the loss of cap space flexibility. Additionally, it can’t make them seen as stuck in that “good but not good enough to win a championship’ group. If it does, then the North might have to look at blowing things up and going in a different direction.