Whether or not a team in the NBA East is serious about being an NBA Finalist will be judged by Luxury Taxes next season and the Toronto Raptors are not an exception. A willingness to pay the tax has been a long standing test of the resolve to win in Toronto and and elsewhere, and it’s a test that has left the fans wanting most of the time.
The Cavaliers are already committed to being a tax team next season with seven open roster spots still to fill in the summer. As much as the Cavaliers are winning now because of LeBron James, having the highest payroll in the NBA and a willingness to pay huge Luxury Tax bills has tipped the scales heavily in their favor. If an Eastern Conference team wants to compete with the Cavs, trying to do it on the cheap is laughable.
The new CBA gives teams a significant advantage with their own talent, but it makes many of the old tricks of the trade teams like the Lakers used to pull to add talent from other teams more difficult or even completely offside.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri traded for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker in February as much to acquire their “Bird” rights this summer as to add talent for the stretch drive and the playoffs. Now he’ll be tested by the tax if he wants to keep them.
There are many people in Toronto who will look at the numbers and think Kyle Lowry is gone. They won’t believe Ujiri really wants to keep his All-Star point guard when the team can likely remain a non-tax paying playoff team by re-signing Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker and letting Lowry walk.
However, no team is a serious conference finalist contender without at least an All-Star candidate point guard. Not in a point guard driven league.
Alternatively Ujiri could look to dump the salary of Jonas Valanciunas and/or DeMarre Carroll to significantly lower his Luxury Tax commitment, but to compete against the Cavs, he needs veterans in his rotation. Veterans like Valanciunas and Carroll, but not necessarily these specific players.
One advantage of bringing back one’s own free agents and keeping what he’s got is it gives Ujiri a bigger pool of players with which to use in the trade market. He might not keep a player for an entire season, but having a $15 million salary on the roster you could live without could be what’s needed for that big trade deadline deal.
That’s the old trick the Lakers used to great success in the past that can still work, hanging onto a big salary they didn’t need in order to use it as trade ballast in a big trade during the season.
With Ibaka back and Jakob Poeltl looking ready to take on a backup center role, Ujiri can shop Valanciunas and maybe acquire the three-point shooting wing or forward he needs.
If Ujiri is comfortable with a three guard lineup of Norman Powell, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, then he could look to swap Carroll for a less expensive backup. Although, if Carroll can get and stay healthy, he could be the answer as an expensive three-point shooting backup combo forward. It’s only money….
Concerns should only arise if Ujiri starts dumping salary just to get below the tax line.
Toronto was third in NBA attendance last season and the fans deserve to see their team willing to spend in order to put the best roster possible on the court. The Raptors have made a lot of money as a non-tax paying team over the past four years, they can afford to pay to keep talent for themselves or to use as trade bait.
Maybe $100 million in Luxury tax is over the top, but $40-50 million isn’t. This team should be judged by their willingness to make a big commitment to paying the tax in 2018. Otherwise, Ujiri is only pretending to want to compete for a championship. (The unlikely fleecing of another GM out of a star on a cheap contract notwithstanding.)