The Toronto Raptors appear to be facing a dilemma with their young starting center Jonas Valanciunas this summer. Heading into his fourth NBA season after starting almost every game for Toronto since his arrival in 2012, the usual career progression for a 7-footer in this situation would be to sign a maximum dollar contract extension and his team would be happy or possibly feel forced into making it happen. However, in Valanciunas’ case, it’s pretty obvious that the Raptors simply can’t afford to do it.
This isn’t only about the money. With the salary cap rising about $20 million in each of the next two seasons, the cap space is there. Although, a max contract for a player coming off his rookie deal next season will start at – choke on this – about $21 million per season. Yes players’ salaries are set to explode next summer, but Valanciunas would have to take a major step forward in his on court contributions before it would be worth tying up that kind of money.
However, this isn’t all about a rapidly rising salary cap screwing with our perceptions of a player’s worth. The top players coming off their rookie deals and players that project to join the elite will get maximum dollar contracts just like they always have. It’s only the number of dollars involved that we aren’t used to. In Valanciunas’ case, it comes down to his worth on his team playing in Head Coach Dwane Casey’s system.
Valanciunas projects out as a traditional center that plays with one foot in the paint at all times and at best develops a mid-range jump shot. In his own words, he knows his game has to change to become “not like a slow center.” Adding a reliable jump shot is one thing, but actually getting quick enough to guard a stretch-five and still get back to protect the paint isn’t a skill one learns. Valanciunas is a plodder, there is nothing quick about how he moves after the first few feet.
The NBA has gone small and when opponents play smaller quicker players, Casey has little choice but to sit Valanciunas down. However, even as a starter facing more traditional lineups in the first quarter, the big guy was still a net -0.1 points last season. For the entire game, Valanciunas was the only regular starter on the Raptors to average a negative plus/minus at -0.3.
At the end of games last year, Casey sat Valanciunas 23 times for the entire fourth quarter and he did it with good reason. In the 57 fourth quarters he played in, Valanciunas averaged 5.1 minutes, 2 points, 1.6 rebounds and was a net -0.6 points. Contrast that with the more mobile journeyman backup big James Johnson’s production. In his 57 fourth quarter appearances, he averaged 2.8 points, 1.5 rebounds in 7.7 minutes for a net +0.9 points. It paid to go smaller.
The biggest beneficiary of Casey’s end of game rotation was Patrick Patterson. The backup power forward appeared in 80 fourth quarters averaging 8.6 minutes, 2.8 points, 1.9 rebounds and was a net +0.9 points. With so many teams featuring mobile big men in the fourth quarter, a player like Patterson becomes indispensable.
Even Valanciunas acknowledges what he needs to do, “I am trying to increase my speed.”
If Casey can’t play Valanciunas at the end of games, the Raptors can’t commit to a maximum dollar extension, but any extension at this time creates additional problems for President and General Manager Masai Ujiri. NBA teams still need true 7-footers and moving past what Valanciunas can’t do, what he can do is still pretty valuable.
The 23-year-old Lithuanian center was one of the top finishers in the Association last season, shooting 57.2 percent from the field. His post game is still developing and there never has been anything wrong with his jump shot except a lack of confidence to use it. Valanciunas can also hit his free throws, so if he can figure out how to stay on the court, teams can’t foul him as a means of stopping a run. It’s assumed that big men take longer to develop and Valanciunas puts in the extra work to get better, so giving up on him at this stage could look pretty silly two or three years out.
However, the Raptors are starting to win now and are developing a style that may never mesh well with Valanciunas’ skill-set. The best move Ujiri could make may be to trade him this summer or at least before the trade deadline and signing any extension would almost completely eliminate that opportunity.
After signing an extension, a player’s outgoing salary in a trade is his current actual salary, but his incoming salary to the team he is traded is the average of all the years remaining on his contract including the extension and that makes trades very difficult to complete and often nearly impossible.
So, if Ujiri has his eyes on another player that would better fit the Raptors style of play, he can’t afford to consummate an extension with what is perhaps his best trade asset.
The dilemma in Toronto with Valanciunas is two-fold. As of yet, the big man hasn’t shown what his true value is and it’s certainly nowhere near a starting maximum salary of $21 million. Plus, assuming Casey isn’t about to change the Raptors style of play, Valanciunas doesn’t seem to fit long term. The best move may be to trade him while his value is high, he projects to get better and a team trading for him can control their incoming asset past this season.
There really isn’t a lot of downside for Ujiri to wait. The current changes going on in the NBA have made doing rookie extensions difficult for a lot of teams and Valanciunas’ agent should not expect things will be any different in Toronto.
Ever since his arrival Ujiri has maintained the flexibility to make changes on the fly and it isn’t any different this time. You won’t meet a nicer guy than the Raptors GM, but he’s proven just how ruthless he can be when it comes to making his team better. In his first season in Toronto, he tested out the value of Rudy Gay by having Casey feature Gay as a point-forward and that was something very new to the usual second/third scoring option from the Grizzlies. Gay failed miserably and was traded to Sacramento. This summer he let the very popular Raptors veteran Amir Johnson walk in free agency as well as the current Sixth Man award winner Lou Williams. Ujiri can be downright ruthless – in a nice professional way – when it comes to his team.
Unless Valanciunas is willing to sign some kind of bargain deal that his agent might quit over, the Raptors simply can’t afford to extend him this summer. Don’t expect Ujiri to fold and pay Valanciunas what the open market might command next summer just because he’s their asset.
photo credit Paul Saini Fylmm.com
The young center is heading into his fourth NBA season and if he doesn’t negotiate a contract extension this summer, next July he’ll be on the market as a restricted free agent. Adding possible power forward to his resume will boost his market value. “I feel like I can prove that I can be a center and a power forward too,” Valanciunas said.