Raptors bet Siakam could join team’s pantheon of greats with extension

Pascal-Siakam

Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam, left, is pressured by Houston Rockets' Russell Westbrook during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Saitama, near Tokyo. (Jae C. Hong / AP)

There is a list of Raptors icons that even the most casual fans can rhyme off as the franchise gets set to celebrate its 25th anniversary season.

They represent different stages of the club’s herky-jerky development while simultaneously often being responsible for it.

The expectation is we will soon be able to add Pascal Siakam to the roll call after he reached an agreement with the Raptors on a four-year, $130-million max contract extension Saturday, well before the midnight deadline Monday.

The deal kicks in for the 2020-21 season and should keep the dynamic 25-year-old, fourth-year forward from Cameroon with the club for the majority of his prime.

The logic behind the deal is fairly straightforward.

While giving a max deal with barely a season of elite play on his resume might seem risky, for the Raptors, getting Siakam – who is earning $2.8 million this year – for four more years deal at 25 per cent of the salary cap is a victory of sorts.

The deal was hammered out over the weekend at the OVO Athletic Centre, concluding talks that began in July in Las Vegas with Siakam’s agents Todd Ramasar and Jaafar Choufani. Lawyers with the NBA Players Association were in the loop to make sure some of the more unconventional elements of the contract would be approved under the collective bargaining agreement. Siakam’s representatives were lobbying to get a player option on the fourth year but the Raptors held firm, but then things got creative. The two sides agreed that if Siakam makes second-team all-NBA in the coming season his deal will be worth 28 per cent of the cap. If he makes first team it will be worth 29 per cent and if he wins the MVP award this season his deal will be worth 30 per cent of the cap. If he hits final incentive, his four-year deal would be worth $156 million.

In the end there was little haggling over that point – if Siakam is a top-10 player or league MVP, the Raptors will doubtless consider it money well spent.

From Siakam’s point of view the Raptors could have waited until next summer to sign him and gained some salary cap flexibility – he would have been a restricted free agent and Toronto could have matched any competing offer – but by doing it now they avoid any potential awkwardness with a player who they project to be the foundation to their post – Kyle Lowry future.

There is the small inconvenience of having Siakam’s roughly $30 million first-year salary on the cap next season, along with Kyle Lowry’s $31-million extension, but it may indicate that the club sees its surest path to growth being acquiring players via trade, rather than gambling in free agency.

Regardless, it’s an issue for another day.

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Meanwhile, Siakam doesn’t have to sweat an injury or anything else derailing him this season or in the future. He has his money and the club’s faith.

It’s a win-win.

By the time the deal kicks in – and certainly over its course – we will more fully understand where Siakam will fit in franchise history. Much like his game, it is safe to say the floor of his range is high. Even if Siakam merely replicates his breakout 2018-19 season – when he averaged 19.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists on a per 36-minute basis, with sparkling True Shooting percentage of 62.8 – the deal will represent decent value.

But the hope is that over the next five years Siakam will reach some yet unidentified ceiling, one which is hard to project, given how quickly the 27th overall pick in the 2016 draft has outstripped expectations to this stage in career.

No one knows if Siakam will become an all-NBA player – top-15 in other words – over the course of his contract, but it would foolish to be against it.

Pull it off and Siakam’s chapter in the Raptors’ storybook may be the most interesting yet.

An unheralded late first-round pick touched by tragedy – to this day Siakam celebrates every career milestone by acknowledging his late father, who dreamed NBA dreams for his sons at home but was struck down in a car accident before could see them realized – whose growth curve has almost become NBA shorthand.

“A Siakam-like leap” is part the lexicon, the way to explain it when a player goes from bench piece to borderline all-star in a single season as Siakam did in earning the NBA’s Most Improved Player honours in 2019-20.

Pull it off and Siakam will take a unique place in the Raptors’ ever-evolving history. For the moment, the Raptors pantheon looks something like this:

There is the original – Damon Stoudemire, the first player the team drafted, the 1995-96 rookie-of-the-year and a tone-setter in that he became the first Raptors star to either force his way out of town or bolt when the bolting was good.

There is Vince Carter, who ripped across Canada’s sports landscape like a comet, flying high if ultimately crashing to earth in New Jersey.

There is Chris Bosh, who was brilliant, committed unlike any previous Raptor for long stretches, but ultimately felt like his destiny lay elsewhere.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

More recently there is DeMar DeRozan, the self-made star who never wanted to be anywhere else, but who was sent for Kawhi Leonard so the club could reach its destiny. It was a move that could be argued was the end of the innocence for a fanbase that was left with some blood on their hands – the price of a championship ring.

And of course, there is Kyle Lowry, who has ascended to the position incrementally and at times grudgingly, but will forever be the player who made winning a habit in Toronto.

To the list we will likely soon add Siakam, who may go down as the quintessential Raptor, the player who represents everything good about a franchise and organization that has often had to do things the hard way.

Every other Raptor can argue that it was their presence that lifted the franchise, which made the organization better and helped right a listing ship.

Obviously the organization has provided the platform – certainly DeRozan and Lowry have benefitted hugely from the stability and upward trajectory that have marked Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s years running the team – but Carter, as an example, provided a sheen that the Raptors at the time simply didn’t have.

Siakam represents a different story.

You would never suggest that the development of an athlete possessing his drive, skill and fearlessness was attributable to anything else than his own efforts, his own will to dream big.

But it is fair to note that Siakam arrived in Toronto at the precise moment the franchise was properly equipped to maximize his growth and facilitate his amazing climb.

As a rookie Siakam was thrust into the fire as a starter when an injury to Jared Sullinger opened a spot in the starting lineup. He worked hard, ran the floor like the wind and showed some whiffs of promise, but was otherwise overmatched and overwhelmed.

In the past, the only option would have been to cut Siakam’s minutes, potentially crush his confidence and conceivably lose his trust.

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But the Raptors were in their second year of their G-League experiment. Siakam became a regular in Mississauga, getting playing time, getting reps, getting some tough love under the watchful eye of former 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse.

He showed his potential as a game-changer by tearing up G-League competition. Rather than sulk he kept pushing and ended up as the Finals MVP when the 905 won the G-League title.

Another summer of development followed as Siakam pushed aside any expectations that he was merely going to be an “energy guy” with some skill by becoming the centre piece of the “Bench Mob” – the ball-hawking, ball-moving second unit that was instrumental in the Raptors’ record-setting 59-win season in 2017-18.

That set the stage for his 2018-19 season when Siakam – after initially being pencilled in as part of the second unit again – proved capable of taking his abilities to attack off the dribble and some expanded shooting range honed in summertime runs in Los Angeles into NBA games.

Even then it was more of an evolution than revolution. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse limited Siakam to 20 minutes a night through the first five games of the season.

But Siakam wouldn’t be contained, or limited. He set career marks in scoring seven different times, going off for 22 points in the seventh game of the season and raising the bar almost weekly, it seemed, before topping out at 44 points against the Washington Wizards’ in the Raptors’ 59th game of the year. He had one 20-point game in his career heading into last season, by the time he was done, he had 35 more of them, including 11 in the playoffs.

What Siakam’s career profile will look like over the next five years is an open book, but based on the chapters written so far you can see why the Raptors have bet big that the best is yet to come and will ultimately be a story worth a prominent place in franchise lore.

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