The best news a Toronto Raptors fan could possibly have heard over the weekend is that the club’s previous president, Bryan Colangelo, is on the verge of a deal that will secure the Philadelphia 76ers the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s NBA draft.
The second-best news in what is shaping up to be a pretty crazy couple of weeks as the league heads into the draft and free agency, is there haven’t been any rumours or whispers or sources connecting Raptors current president, Masai Ujiri, to the Indiana Pacers’ Paul George, by far the shiniest of all the shiny things that are catching the light in the league’s silly season, unfailingly the most entertaining silly season in all of sports.
First things first.
The Raptors’ trickiest decision between now and the early hours of July 1 is what to do with their free agent-to-be point guard Kyle Lowry. The club wants him back, and why wouldn’t they? He’s been a top-five player at his position for four years, with only perennial MVP contenders – the Chris Pauls, James Hardens and Russell Westbrooks – of the league ahead of him in class.
But Lowry is 31 and may be seeking a five-year contract worth in the neighbourhood of $205 million to remain a Raptor. The Raptors don’t want to pay him that much for that long. Not for an aging guard with an injury history in an increasingly up-tempo league who has shot just 39 per cent in the post-season.
Three years with the fourth year only barely guaranteed? Sure. Four years with a team option for a fifth? Maybe.
But whether the Raptors can retain him and at what price is also a function of market forces. The most any other team can offer Lowry is four years and about $150 million. If there is a club out there that wants a veteran, win-now point guard and is willing to offer Lowry that version of a max-deal, that represents his floor.
Ujiri and his staff have spent much of the past few months trying to assess exactly what the market for Lowry’s services will be come July 1. They are pretty good at this kind of financial poker. Three summers ago, when Lowry was a much younger free agent coming off an all-star calibre season, the Raptors were pretty spot on in determining the whispers linking Lowry to the Miami Heat or Houston Rockets or Los Angeles Lakers were mostly hot air and they got Lowry for four years (with a player option for 2017-18) for $48 million. The contract has been great value for Toronto as Lowry has led them to the most successful three-year run in franchise history.
So why does the news the Sixers are flipping picks with the Boston Celtics help the Raptors’ cause?
Because Philadelphia is expected to use the No. 1 pick to select Markelle Fultz, the runaway consensus top pick in the draft who just happens to play point guard, representing the perfect piece to play alongside Joel Embiid, their massive, multi-talented centre and Ben Simmons, a point guard in a power forward’s body. Assuming they can stay healthy, adding Fultz – a James Harden type that defends is the NBA shorthand – gives Philadelphia a nearly ideal foundation for their interminable rebuilding project.
And it also leaves them not needing an expensive, veteran point guard, who just happens to be from Philadelphia and who Colangelo was responsible for bringing to Toronto in the first place.
Where else could Lowry command big money?
There have been mentions of the San Antonio Spurs being linked to the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul, the top free agent point guard available.
But in pursuing Lowry, the Spurs would have the same challenge they’re going to have in pursuing Paul: unless a fading 37-year-old Pau Gasol declines the $16 million option owed to him by San Antonio and they make some other un-Spurs moves – waiving the injured Tony Parker, for example – they won’t be able to pay Lowry anything close to what the Raptors could offer per season.
Complicating matters further is that 2017 is the summer of the free agent point guard – there are four or five quality veterans available, and that’s not counting Steph Curry — and the draft is point guard heavy as well.
The 76ers, with Lowry’s home ties and history with Colangelo, seemed like the best bet to bid up Lowry’s value.
Their move up in the draft leaves them out of the market for Lowry and should help the Raptors keep their all-star point guard without having to commit to anything longer than a lightly guaranteed fifth year, or maybe even a three-year deal. Avoiding a fifth or even a fourth year means the Raptors can keep Lowry alongside backcourt mate DeMar DeRozan to keep making runs at the top of the Eastern Conference and beyond, while allowing them to pivot into a rapid rebuild should the need arise without fretting about paying $45 million to Lowry when he’s turning 37.
Which brings us to George, the Lowry of wing players – not quite at the level of the MVP candidate crowd, the LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard set – but a world-class player by any measure.
On Sunday, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that George had told the Indiana Pacers that he wasn’t going to re-sign with them in 2018. The Los Angeles native has long been thought destined for the Lakers.
But the clarity provided allows the Pacers to see how much of an auction they can create for George, even as a one-year rental.
Almost instantly came news that the Cleveland Cavaliers were in on the bidding, desperate to add talent to close the gap on the Golden State Warriors. At almost the same time began speculation that the reason the Celtics and 76ers had reached their agreement so early – Philadelphia is reportedly sending Boston the rights to either the Lakers’ first-round pick in 2018 or the Sacramento Kings’ first-rounder in 2019 – was so Boston would have more assets and time to pry George from the Pacers.
No word so far about the Raptors’ interest, which is a good thing because Ujiri has proven adept at keeping his team’s business out of the rumour mill, historically. Were there all kinds of Raptors-George chatter circulating, one could assume someone in Indiana was trying to push up the price they can command for what is effectively a one-year rental.
That the Raptors have yet to be linked to George at least gives promise that Toronto is trying to line up a big splash.
Should they? Can they?
Yes – a hundred times yes — and maybe.
Presuming the Raptors can bring back Lowry and the wide belief they are the frontrunners to re-sign Serge Ibaka, adding George to a lineup that also includes DeRozan would be good enough to challenge for top spot in the East almost regardless of what the Celtics or Cavs are able to do.
The Pacers are looking for a starter, picks and prospects, although their bargaining position is hampered by George’s intention of signing with the Lakers in a year’s time.
Could a Raptors offer of Jonas Valanciunas – a young centre to pair with the Pacers’ Myles Turner, an emerging big man with three-point range – and either Norm Powell or Delon Wright win the day? The Raptors still have all their future first-rounders to add as sweeteners if they wanted to go all-in.
It might. The Cavaliers have little to offer in a deal other than an injury-prone Kevin Love. The Celtics could likely trump any offer with their depth of young prospects and picks, but are they building for now or for a post-LeBron future?
The Raptors’ odds of keeping Lowry improved considerably over the weekend, which makes them a win-now team if there ever was one. Going hard for even one season of George would help that cause hugely.
The Raptors and Ujiri have yet to tip their hand, as good a sign as any that they might be playing for keeps.