2015-16 was always going to be a pivotal season in the direction of the Toronto Raptors franchise.
On the one hand you had a 50-win team returning a core centered around its all-star backcourt looking to take another step forward toward contending for a title. On the other, you had a roster in flux with key contracts coming off the books and plenty of short and long-term decisions still to be made.
Take that next step, and you’ve found a foundation to build upon. Fail to live up to expectations, and the whole thing blows up and we start all over again.
Those were the stakes this season. We all know how it played out. After finishing second in the East during the regular season, within a game or two of the top spot for much of the year, the Raptors followed it up with a run to the Conference Finals for the first time. It was touch-and-go, with a pair of Game 7’s and an 0-2 deficit to start the third round, but the team and its players and coaching staff all proved to be a future contender worth believing in.
Yet, less than a day after Toronto’s Game 6 loss, the Summer of 2016 already looms over the team, as it has since the season began.
With questions surrounding the future of players like Bismack Biyombo and Terrence Ross, along with the team’s two first-round picks that may be packaged in a trade, the most pressing decision in Raptorland is whether or not DeMar DeRozan will return next season.
The two-time All-Star is expected to decline his player option worth $10 million and enter free agency this summer, where he will be among the most coveted players on the market. He finished eight in the NBA in scoring this season and passed Vince Carter for second all-time on the Raptors while also establishing a franchise record for free throws while appearing in 78 games.
At just 26 and now with a handful of impressive performances deep into the playoffs on his resume, DeRozan is a lock to earn a max deal worth north of $20 million. And there are 21 NBA teams expected to have the money available to offer him a deal.
Whether or not the Raptors should be the team to do so (it’s worth noting that Toronto is allowed to offer slightly more than other teams), has been a topic of contention among Raptor fans for much of the season.
Earlier this week, I wrote about why it’s a no-brainer that the Raptors lock DeRozan up long-term, noting that DeRozan’s sense of ownership in bringing the franchise back to relevancy and his loyalty to the team and city are part of why DeRozan wants to re-sign with the Raptors. That means the decision will be Ujiri’s to make.
Today while meeting with the media for the last time this season, DeRozan, naturally, was asked about the decision he faces this summer. He wasn’t exactly cryptic about his desire to come back to Toronto and continue to play a major role in a budding title contender.
There have been reports and rumours, and a prevailing belief among many, that DeRozan will want to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, the hometown team he grew up idolizing who happen to have boatloads of cap space and a need for a primary scoring wing player. DeRozan addressed that, too:
“I grew up in L.A. That’s my home…I don’t get caught up into it. I let whoever comes up with [the Laker rumours] say what they want to say. The only thing appealing to me is the things I’ve done in this organization and the things that can be done here. And that’s always been my mindset.”