The Toronto Raptors have won over 50 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history and both times they were easily eliminated in the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Everyone is predicting another Cavs – Dubs rematch in the NBA Finals again next year, so, in that light, what are six things the Raptor should be doing this summer?
President Masai Ujiri says the goal is to get past the Cavs and win an NBA championship, but to be blunt, every NBA GM says they want to win a championship and almost none of them have any reasonable expectation of accomplishing it next season or even in the foreseeable future.
By any historical measure, Toronto has nothing to be upset about. This team has succeeded on the court while Ujiri has handicapped his head coach with quite literally half a roster of inexperienced, inexpensive players under development. The building is sold out and the organization is raking in the cash from 16 home playoff dates over the past two postseason runs. But for injury, the Raptors could have easily set a fourth consecutive record for franchise wins in a season last year.
This summer will be different. The team has four key unrestricted free agents that they should have no trouble hanging onto if Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) will open their checkbook, but that would end the days of modest payroll and huge profits. What the Raptors should do for their fans and will do for their corporate masters may not be on the same page.
1. Re-sign Kyle Lowry (31-years-old), unrestricted free agent
Everything this summer for the Raptors revolves around re-signing Lowry. If Ujiri screws this up, the rest of free agency will quickly circle the drain.
The Raptors need to get the best deal possible and hopefully that’s in the order of four years and $120 million, but if if takes five years and $150 million plus to get it done, well, it’s time the Raptors started spending some of that money they’ve made off of their loyal fans.
2. Re-sign Serge Ibaka (28) and P.J. Tucker (32), unrestricted free agents
Ujiri said he traded for these two players at the trade deadline in February in order to get their Bird Rights. Well the only reason you need a player’s Bird Rights in free agency is so you can go over the salary cap to re-sign them, so get it done.
This is no time to cheap out. Ibaka wants to be in Toronto, but he isn’t going to take a below market deal, so offer Ibaka five years and $100 million. Tucker said he was looking for fit in his next contract and Lowry would be a big factor in determining that, but he’s 32-years-old, offer Tucker three years and $25 million and be prepared to go higher.
Failure to re-sign Ibaka and Tucker means Ujiri gave away a young three-point shooter in Terrence Ross, a first round draft pick and two second round draft picks for nothing.
3. See what the market says UFA Patrick Patterson’s (28) value is
Over the past four years the Raptors have played better as a team with Patterson on the court, but he has proven to be an unreliable offensive threat who seems to get hurt at the worst time and his limited offense takes a holiday after returning from injury.
Patterson didn’t do himself any favors in the playoffs over the past two seasons either as this career average 36.8 percent three-point shooter fired 30.2 percent from deep over his last 30 postseason games.
From a Raptors perspective, it would be nice to re-sign Patterson to another cheap three-year deal to continue coming off the bench, but like Bismack Biyombo last summer, expect Patterson to get paid a lot more elsewhere than he’s worth to Toronto.
Get ready to say bye-bye to a great guy in July.
4. Trade DeMarre Carroll
Despite not living up to some very high expectations or his contract, Carroll has done nothing wrong in Toronto and it’s likely his knee will finally be 100 percent and he’ll return to being an effective ‘3-and-D’ combo forward next season.
It’s just, at 31-years-old in July, after two disappointing seasons in Toronto, he’s in the way of younger players and it’s time to move on and potentially help a different (younger?) team that needs what he should still be able to bring to the table.
Ujiri can’t expect much back and he might have to include him in a larger deal just to move him. However, the Luxury tax savings alone should make a trade for nothing back worthwhile from a corporate standpoint. From a team standpoint, he should be able to do a little better.
5. Trade Jonas Valanciunas
Valanciunas can probably improve his jump shooting dramatically and within a couple of years become that trailing three-point threat on the fast break who is left wide open. However, he’ll never be decent runner and his lack of quickness will continue to challenge him when guarding on the perimeter.
Given 30 minutes a night, JV can almost guarantee a double-double average, so he should have solid trade value as one of the top rebounders in the NBA on a percentage basis and a still improving player on offense.
Unfortunately for Valanciunas, if the rookie Jakob Poeltl continues improve over the summer and Ibaka is re-signed, Poeltl should be able to just take JV’s minutes at a much lower cost.
To fit with the direction Ujiri seems to be taking this team, he needs to get back a more mobile big man with a better jump shot or a solid ‘3-and-D’ forward.
6. Reduce The Number Of Prospects On The 15 Man Roster
While there should be no objection to Ujiri drafting the injured small forward OG Anunoby with the 23rd pick in June, there should be huge concerns about heading into the 2017-18 season with eight players still on their rookie deals.
Of those eight players,
As the most sure-fire young player on the Raptors, Norman Powell is ready to take on a much bigger role this season. Depending on what other moves Ujiri makes this summer, Powell could be starting. He’s earned it.
Jacob Poeltl needs a spot in the rotation somewhere as he is far too good to get anything out of being sent back to the Raptors 905.
Ujiri needs to decide if it’s going to be Delon Wright or Fred VanVleet assuming the third string point guard duties next season. Both are promising young players, but he needs that roster spot to improve the team’s depth elsewhere. So, pick one.
Between Bruno Caboclo, Pascal Siakam, Lucas Nogueira and Anunoby, Ujiri needs to start making decisions about who he believes in and who he is just hanging on to out of hope. At least one of these guys should be available in trade to make room for a more NBA ready player or just simply to grease a trade.
The Raptors have two new quasi-roster spots available (total 17) on two-way deals this season that don’t count against the salary cap. Use them and get the prospects on the 15-man roster down to a more manageable number.
The Raptors need to follow the plan Ujiri created when he traded for Ibaka and Tucker at the trade deadline this past season. Everything follows from there.
Whether the roster Ujiri manages to put together will be good enough to get past the Cavs or not, Raptors fans deserve the best team possible, even if that squeezes MLSE’s 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.