The Toronto Raptors stated goal three years ago was to become relevant this past season. Mission accomplished. Now the goal is to build on their Eastern Conference Finals appearance and president and general manager Masai Ujiri has his work cut out for him. There are things he should do and things he must do if his team is to be better than the 56-win 2015-16 version.
Ujiri has already completed one of his top priorities by getting head coach Dwane Casey’s name inked to an extension, but as both parties were anxious to get something done, this didn’t come as a surprise.
“I think that’s very easy for us to figure out, that’ll be done in our sleep, I think,” Ujiri said shortly before the contract extension was announced.
When it comes to adding players, however, the summer of 2016 will not be like last year. This time Ujiri isn’t working with an abundance of salary cap room, counting first round draft picks and salary cap holds, he is basically working with no space at all. It’ll take every trick in the book to get what should be done accomplished this time.
Ujiri signed up for the first stage in continuity by re-upping Casey, but there is more to it than that.
Continuity has played a big part in the Raptors success. Giving Casey the reins with a consistent message of defense first helps to keep this team focused beyond the court – in the draft, in free agency and with trades. Ujiri believes in acquiring players that fit with his head coach, players who will go with the program and accept the roles assigned to them. This team should – nay must – continue down the same path this summer.
Whomever Ujiri decides to add to this roster, they need to be a fit with Casey’s program.
2. The Draft – Up or Out
The Raptors hold the 9th and 27th picks in the 2016 NBA Draft and as Ujiri said at the end of the season, this team doesn’t need to add any more players that aren’t ready to help the team right away. He needs to make a move.
“I don’t know if it’s a draft where we can get somebody that will come and impact our team right away,” Ujiri said two days before the draft.
He’s right of course and Ujiri’s admitted they are talking to other teams about trading one or both of their draft picks. While it might not be possible to fully complete a trade at the draft if players under contract are involved, the Raptors should be looking to trade up or out of this draft.
It’s been reported that the Celtics, Suns, Timberwolves, Pelicans and Kings are all trying to trade their (better) lottery picks, so trading up and getting a player Casey could use in his rotation off the bench is a real possibility.
The Raptors need a high potential forward that Casey can develop in the NBA (as opposed to the D-League). Ujiri should be trying to move up to get Washington power forward Marquese Chriss or California forward Jaylen Brown.
3. Bring Back Bismack Biyombo
Bismack Biyombo was a free agent steal last summer, but like all good things, eventually you got to pay up to keep them. Biyombo, backing up Jonas Valanciunas, gave the Raptors two players who were dominant on the glass and made it possible for Toronto to win the battle of the boards most nights. Biyombo also covered for Valanciunas when the Raptors starting center was injured and the team just kept on winning.
There have been some crazy numbers thrown around about how much Biyombo will be able to command in free agency, as high as $17-20 million, but for a player with very limited offensive skills, that’s too high even this summer. However, he will command a salary north of $10 million per season even with the promised hometown discount to stay with his mentor – the Raptors GM Ujiri.
Biyombo says Ujiri told him he’d find a way to bring him back and anyone who follows the team should know if Ujiri says he’ll do something, it happens. The price will be a player or players that will have to be traded to create the salary cap space necessary.
4. Bring Back DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan says he’s coming back and the salary cap math says Ujiri has little choice but to make it happen as Toronto won’t have the room to go after anyone better. It may cause some fans to gag on paying DeRozan as much as $26.6 million per season, but his salary cap hold is just over $15 million, so with the right timing, Ujiri can do what he needs to elsewhere as long as DeRozan is last to ink a contract.
The longest serving Raptor in the organization, DeRozan is a huge part of the continuity that has created the current run of success and as the second leading scorer in the Eastern Conference, it isn’t a stretch to say DeRozan has earned a max deal. Besides, no one should be even slightly surprised if DeRozan leaves a little money on the table to re-sign with Toronto. He wants to be there and that’s important in a city that has struggled to hang onto it’s All-Stars in the past.
5. Be Willing To Let Go
Ujiri is loath to let any young player he’s developing escape, but with salary cap restrictions and an NBA roster size capped at 15 players, eventually push comes to shove and decisions have to be made.
Between Bruno Caboclo, Lucas Nogueira, Delon Wright and Norman Powell, only Powell cracked Casey’s rotation last season and he earned it. Powell’s style of play and skill-set fits with his head coach. The other guys may develop, but on a team looking to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals, that’s too many guys you really don’t know if they’ll be ready to help if needed.
If the Raptors end up drafting a player, then one of Caboclo, Nogueira or Wright need to be moved out. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea to move out one just to create room to add another veteran.
It’s time to re-evaluate Terrence Ross’ future with the Raptors. Ujiri signed him to a modest (under a $94 million salary cap) extension last summer starting at $10 million per season in July, so in a league looking for long range shooting, this career 38 percent three-point threat isn’t overpaid. However, he may have just lost most of his minutes to Powell next season.
Ross is an obvious trade candidate to create the salary cap space needed to retain Biyombo or as an attractive chip in a bigger deal. If only Ujiri can let him go.
6. Bring Back James Johnson
James Johnson has his supporters in the Raptors fanbase and when DeMarre Carroll was injured (twice), Johnson filled in and helped keep the 56-win season on track.
The 29-year-old combo forward has never been as good as he thinks he is and as a result, he brought a history of conflict with coaches past and present, but he’s matured and accepted his role in his latest (second) stint in Toronto.
Ujiri will likely have to rescind his rights early in the process as the Raptors work at completing more important deals, but bringing back Johnson with one of the minor exceptions or even a veteran’s minimum contract would likely pay dividends for the Raptors next season.
Guys get hurt, Johnson is versatile and stays ready to play. Every good team that goes deep in the playoffs needs guys like him on their bench and Johnson is a known quantity.
This summer is not like the summer of 2015. The Raptors are coming off a successful playoff run that didn’t include all of their best players firing on all cylinders. A healthy version of last year’s team should be noticeably better in 2016-17.
Continuity is the key, so retaining Biyombo and DeRozan should be the top priority. This team was second in the Eastern Conference and lost in six games in the Conference Finals with a banged up Carroll, Valanciunas and Lowry. Imagine what they could accomplish if they can get to next April with everyone back and healthy?
The NBA All-Star Game is coming to Toronto in February and the Raptors want to be taken seriously – perhaps for the first time in franchise history.