If the Raptors actually want to take another step (questionable), they need to be making a big move this summer that give this franchise a chance to move beyond being just a good regular season team.
It shouldn’t take a lot to elevate a 59 win roster to the next level. A starting caliber forward/wing to pair with promising rookie combo forward OG Anunoby might be it and there are a couple of teams with a case of buyer’s remorse that have players who could fit the bill if president Masai Ujiri and his incredibly cheap corporate owners can be convinced to take on their bloated salaries.
After a run of five seasons averaging 52.6 wins and taking first place in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history last year, the constantly “building” Raptors have yet to even get a sniff at an NBA Finals appearance. It’s likely this had a big influence on Ujiri’s decision to fire long time head coach Dwane Casey, but after promoting from within to fill the void, it’s just as likely the organization was too cheap to give their organization’s most successful head coach the extension and raise his regular season record indicated he’d earned.
It’s the Raptors current (Bell and Rogers) and previous (Teachers Pension Plan) ownership’s propensity to maximize profits over winning that has handcuffed this franchise from spending at the level necessary to be competitive at an elite level. Unfortunately, regular season sellouts and a handful of playoff games probably does make the most money.
To compete with rosters like Cleveland and Golden State, a team has to spend deep into the Luxury Tax and, hopefully, this time, ownership will actually let Ujiri take on the additional salary necessary to give new head coach Nick Nurse a chance to get out of his own Conference.
It won’t be easy. As things sit, the Raptors will be a Tax team even before re-signing restricted free agent Fred VanVleet and last summer Ujiri gave away all of the team’s 2018 draft picks just to be able to dump enough salary to get below the Tax Threshold. The fear in Toronto is he’ll do it again, dumping Norman Powell in Brooklyn with another first round draft pick as compensation and then do nothing to significantly improve the roster.
But in order to to take the big step necessary to compete in an improving Eastern Conference Ujiri will need to spend more. If this team starts dumping salary again, they’ll be taking a step backwards.
Forget free agents. All the Raptors will have is the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception. Ujiri needs to work his magic in the trade market and he’ll need to take risks to get better.
Fortunately there are a couple of team’s suffering from buyer’s remorse.
The Washington Wizards owe Otto Porter $81.7 million over the next three seasons, are at risk of being a Tax team and their run of on court success took a big step backwards last year.
The Minnesota Timberwolves signed Andrew Wiggins to a max five year million extension that’s about to kick in and can see the Luxury Taxes in their future.
These two teams are motivated to make a deal.
Otto Porter, $26 million in 2018-19
Porter is a 25-year-old 6’8 small forward whose three-point shooting has made significant progress over his five NBA seasons averaging an impressive 44.1 percent last year. He’s considered a good defender and was third in scoring on the Wizards at 14.7 points per game during the regular season.
However, as the highest paid player on his team, he’s taking up way more cap space than a franchise that is no better than first round playoff fodder can afford to tie up and that’s before considering his disappearing act in the playoffs when the minimum salary veteran Mike Scott put up more points in 10 less minutes per game during the team’s first round playoff series loss to Toronto.
The Wizards John Wall’s massive three-year $122 million extension starts in 2019-20 and the combined salaries of Wall, Porter and Bradley Beal will top $92 million that year. Something has to give before then.
Andrew Wiggins, $25.3 million in 2018-19
When the Timberwolves signed the 6’8 small forward Wiggins to a max five year $146 million extension last summer, did everyone just forget head coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t exactly known for being a young players coach? The team loaded up with veterans, broke a 13 year playoff drought, and Wiggins minutes, shots and production pretty much reverted to his rookie season numbers as a 19-year-old.
It seems pretty obvious, Thibs would be happier with a veteran than trying to get this former Rookie of the Year to live up to his potential under his tough love leadership style and they really need to dump his salary before Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns are eligible for their own massive new contracts a year from now.
Wiggins still averaged 17.7 points last season and 15.8 points in his five playoff games, but his three-point shooting hasn’t improved as expected and no one seems all that happy with his effort on defense. However, this still just 23-year-old Canadian has off the charts athleticism and potential and maybe he just needs a change of scenery to become the player he’s been envisioned as.
Like Porter, Wiggins will be the top paid player on his team in October, but considered no better than a third option. Wiggins contract is really just in the way.
Toronto has their own disappointing highly paid third option in Serge Ibaka, but he’s owed a lot less money than Porter or Wiggins.
Ibaka can play as a Stretch Four or Five and he’s a mobile defender for a big man, but at 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and shooting 36 percent from three, the $45 million he’s owed over the next two years is a lot of money. However, it’s only slightly more than half of what’s owed to Porter and it’s a $100 million less than what’s owed to Wiggins.
Both Minnesota and Washington can argue they need a three-point shooting big man that can block shots, but any deal here would really be all about the money. It’s money the Raptors have if Ujiri can pry it out of the clenched fists in corporate. Ujiri could find a young player to toss into a deal if it was necessary, Delon Wright being an obvious choice, but the salary savings alone should be enough.
Pairing up Porter with Anunoby would give the Raptors a young mobile forward pairing who could shoot the three-ball effectively and switch defensively onto just about any opponent. Last year Anunoby showed he has the size and speed to play power forward in today’s somewhat positionless game.
Wiggins is coming off a down year, but his potential is so high he’s worth the risk. Even as he develops his three-point shot, he’d be a strong third option offensively and hopefully a different coaching approach can get him to apply his skills on the defensive end consistently.
The Raptors would only be able to do one of these deals and the hit to payroll could make the Raptors Luxury Tax bill start to resemble Cleveland’s, but unless LeBron James is coming, one of these two players is probably the biggest impact move the Raptors can make this summer and its well past the time the Raptors started spending some of their huge profits.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.