He came, he delivered, he gone.
Around 2 am ET on Saturday morning, Kawhi Leonard made his decision and will sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, where he’ll be joined by Paul George to lead another stellar supporting cast.
Where does that leave the Toronto Raptors? And where does the team go from here? Should Masai Ujiri & Co. blow up the roster and start from scratch, building through the draft and around burgeoning-star Pascal Siakam? Should they set their sights on free agency in the summers ahead? Or tweak the existing roster and take a run at the new-look East?
No matter the road chosen, expect a bumpy ride.
Losing Leonard swiftly removes the Raptors from title contention next season, with real regression now on the horizon. Toronto remains good enough to stay in the playoff hunt in the East this season, but dreams of recreating the magic of the spring of 2019 anytime soon are all but dead.
The East underwent a shakeup over the past week. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are in Brooklyn; Philadelphia essentially swapped out Jimmy Butler for Al Horford and Josh Richardson while in Butler the Heat have a new go-to player; Milwaukee retained key pieces in Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez but lost another, Malcolm Brogdon, to Indiana; Boston is handing the keys to Kemba Walker. Question marks surround virtually every new-look contender in the conference.
But to win you need a superstar — this is not up for debate — and the Raptors just lost theirs.
Can Siakam assume that mantle, or is it still too soon to place those expectations on the fourth-year forward? (I’ll have more on this on Monday). The Raps are about to find out, but for the time being, here’s the lineup the Raptors are currently heading into next season with:
Matt Thomas (reported signee, but unofficial)
How far can that team go? Not all the way, that’s for sure.
Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster & co. will have their work cut out for them filling out the roster with impactful players — the free-agent market has been all but gutted, with more than 80 players relocating over the first three days of free agency alone.
And so the options are bleak, and the best one may, in the immediate future, be the bleakest of them all.
It’s not what he wanted, but Ujiri now for the first time since taking the GM job back in 2013, the now-team President has an opportunity to re-build the Raptors roster from scratch from the ground-up.
The Raptors’ remaining core are almost all on contracts with only one year remaining. As of now, the team will enter the summer of 2020 with just two players under contract: Powell and Anunoby.
Between Lowry, Ibaka, Gasol, and VanVleet, the team has over $90 million this season in expiring contracts.
The Raptors are eyeing a situation where they could have a ton of cap space in the coming summers and will be positioned to be players in the free-agent market. Of course, a good chunk of that change will likely be spent to re-sign Siakam to a major deal once his contract expires next summer, rendering him a restricted free agent. There’ll still be enough money to land a superstar, and a large contingent of Raptors fans are already clamouring for Giannis Antetokounmpo, the biggest fish in the 2021 free-agency pool.
But the fact is it’s tough — dangerous even — to plan your team-building around free agency, and each and every summer clubs get burned. Too many changes from year to year in the NBA, and there are always teams who clear space to land a big fish only to be left reeling in a bunch of weeds.
What’s more, the Raptors have never been able to lure big-name free agents. But they do have Masai, and his cache around the league and respect among players could be an ace-up-the-sleeve — it’s worked for the Clippers and legendary player and front-office-exec Jerry West.
But that’s not a real plan.
The Raps can play out next season, hope to get hot — and lucky — or pounce on a chance to land a disgruntled player from another team at below-market value again (a significant long-shot).
A better option, though a tough one to swallow after watching the country embrace winning hoops by the millions, is to hit the refresh button — something the team is well-positioned to do.
They can look to trade the expiring contracts for picks and young players — by February’s trade deadline, if the Raptors are middle-of-the-pack and in no-man’s land, then players like Ibaka and Lowry could prove to be valuable trade chips for contending teams.
Moving veterans for assets gives the Raptors opportunity to stockpile picks and give the team flexibility. It could give the team an opportunity to strike rich at the draft, where Ujiri & co. have an excellent track record — and don’t even need lottery picks to hit home runs.
Until recently at least, the most effective way to build in the NBA has been through the draft — landing a future star to build around (which yes, includes tanking). That, too, could be on the horizon in Toronto should the Raptors move on from their veteran core and start over as fans return to the old days of eyeing draft boards and getting way too excited about rookie crops.
Off the court there are bigger implications.
The Raptors gained a ton of new fans during their championship run — a whole nation of them. Viewers tuned in to watch basketball in record droves, and fans grabbed up Raps merchandise like dollar bills raining down from one of those cash-grab booths.
With the team about to regress — potentially dramatically — their fandom is about to be tested right out of the gate. After all, it’s one thing to root on a trophy-hoisting winner but it’s a whole different experience when your team is on the wrong side of the roller coaster’s apex, as long-time Raptors fans can attest.
Toronto may remain competitive this season, but, no matter the route, prepare for a long, long road back to the Raptors ruling the NBA.