As Canada celebrates it’s 150th year as a Country on July 1st, free agency opens and the Toronto Raptors face a referendum as an NBA franchise where players want to be and where a very wealthy ownership group is willing to spend … or not. The big party in the North may dominate the local news coverage for a time, but there will be no hiding from the results of the referendum on the Raptors.
The Raptors, finally, for the first time in franchise history, are a very good team, maybe not a genuine NBA Finals contender yet, but a real Eastern Conference Finals contender that with a little or a lot of luck (bad luck luck on the Cleveland Cavaliers part) could have snuck into the NBA Finals in each of the past two years.
All that is in jeopardy on July 1st as the Raptors have four key rotation players entering unrestricted free agency which means the players will decide where they want to play next season and all president Masai Ujiri can do is offer them a contract and try to talk them into coming back.
Three-time All-Star Kyle Lowry, three-time NBA All-Defensive first team big man Serge Ibaka, and veteran ‘3-and-D’ combo forwards P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson will decide if they want to play in Toronto next season.
ESPN currently puts the odds of the Raptors winning an NBA Title at 80:1, behind the Bucks and Timberwolves, tied with the Heat, Pelicans and (are they crazy) 76ers. It’s obvious how ESPN believes the referendum on the Raptors will turn out.
However, ESPN is better known in Canada for seeming to forget Toronto even has an NBA franchise. Attempts in recent years by the Raptors to keep their own free agents have gone pretty well.
Lowry was traded to the Raptors in the summer of 2012 and had to fight his way into the starting line-up. A cranky player with a huge chip on his shoulder who always seemed to be in conflict with head coach Dwane Casey, Ujiri got Lowry to re-up in free agency during the summer of 2014 on a team friendly contract.
All that’s happened with Lowry since then is he’s become an All-Star on a playoff team that’s been to the Eastern Conference Finals and is desired and respected around the league. DeMar DeRozan has become his best friend and their families are tight, so ESPN, explain exactly why he’s not re-signing again this summer?
Patrick Patterson came to Toronto in a trade deadline deal in 2013 and re-signed with the Raptors on a very team friendly contract in 2014. After bouncing around the league in unpalatable situations, all he’s done in Toronto is go to the playoffs every year and play for a head coach that obviously supports him.
There is a risk if the Raptors re-sign their other three free agents that Ujiri doesn’t have a big enough budget to re-acquire Patterson, but it won’t be because Patterson doesn’t want to be in Toronto.
Ibaka and Tucker were 2017 trade deadline moves, so it’s harder to make a call about how badly they want to return, however, all indications are they are interested and they were key pieces of Casey’s rotation.
However, wanting to return and re-signing these unrestricted free agents may not coincide unless Ujiri really does have the ability to commit the Raptors to a massive increase in payroll next season. While he may not have to outbid other teams, he can’t insult these guys with below market bids either.
This referendum is as much about the Raptors ownership group being willing to spend the money they have and can easily afford to invest in these players as it is about Raptors free agents interest in playing for Toronto.
In light of other recent news, this referendum could have bigger implications than just whether some key players are back or not.
The Knicks have finally addressed the disaster that was Phil Jackson and the New York media has focused in on Masai Ujiri as the executive who could put this storied franchise back on track.
Ignoring the fact Ujiri is still under contract to the Raptors and the Knicks would have to: a) ask for permission to talk to him; b) pay some serious compensation in draft picks and dollars; and, c) bribe Ujiri to leave with an outrageous contract, this isn’t an impossible scenario.
Imagine Ujiri is handcuffed by the Raptors ownership and the promised budget that is supposed to allow him to pay significant luxury tax dollars next season isn’t there. His free agents walk, the Raptors are thrust into a rebuilding program, and Ujiri is seriously embarrassed with what he was forced to offer players he has built close relationships with.
In one act of putting profits ahead of winning and player relations, the Raptors turn back the clock and once again become a team players can’t wait to leave.
What has been a very stable Raptors franchise over the past four years: general manager, coach Casey, Lowry and DeRozan could all be at risk. This is one referendum the Raptors can’t afford to lose.