It is the beginning of the NBA’s off-season, arguably its best season, when everyone around the league sits back and waits to see what outrageous gifts the league that never sleeps will bestow on its fans, franchises and television partners.
It kicks off with Thursday’s draft and with some superstars heading into free agency or on the cusp of it – LeBron James, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard – there is the potential for some franchise-changing, league-shaking movement tonight and over the next few weeks.
So the next few weeks should be fun and – if recent history is any guide – almost entirely unpredictable, unlike the playoffs.
Life is full of trade-offs.
Where the Raptors will figure into the mix is difficult to ascertain. On paper, a 59-win team without a first- or second-round pick and only one rotation player – Fred VanVleet — heading into restricted free agency should be in coast mode.
But when you fire the favourite for the NBA’s Coach of the Year award a week after being swept in the second round for the second year running, all bets are off.
So it’s worth noting that according to multiple league sources, Toronto is open for business, and in particular looking to shake up the top end of its top-heavy roster. Certainly Raptors general manager Bobby Webster has done little to dispel the idea that they were exploring opportunities to move into the draft, with the usual caveats about how exploring and doing are vastly different things.
In that light, one source told me that all of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka are available this summer. That makes sense when you consider they represent a combined $97 million in salary commitments for a team on the hook for $127 million before signing VanVleet. Given the luxury tax threshold is projected to be $123 million, if they plan on signing VanVleet to a contract that will likely start at about $8 million, they need to shed about $12 million for next season.
Another source told me he believed one of the Raptors’ ‘medium three’ – Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka – won’t be back next season.
The least painful way to avoid the tax would be to find a taker for the four years and $42 million they will owe Norman Powell after July 1. Given Powell is only on the books for $1.5 million before July 1, there might be some potential for that to happen if a team can talk themselves into Powell’s issues being rotation-related rather than a fundamental glitch halting an otherwise encouraging development curve.
But bigger moves could be under consideration – which is miles from them actually happening.
Of the Raptors’ expensive core, it doesn’t seem all that hard to figure out DeRozan would be the most likely to go – at least if you take away his unreserved commitment to the franchise, which probably doesn’t get enough consideration.
As good as Lowry is and as good a season he had in 2017-18, when Lowry was a free agent last summer the market dried up on him quickly, so it’s not clear how many teams would be lining up to absorb the last two years and $64 million remaining on his deal.
Ibaka has two years and $44 million left and is coming off an awful season that will do little to dispel the common view that he’s – ahem – a very mature 28-year-old. Hard to imagine the Raptors getting off his deal without attaching a significant young player or future draft picks as an enticement. Having done just that to get rid of DeMarre Carroll’s contract a year ago (which is why the Raptors don’t have their 2018 first-round pick) it’s unlikely president Masai Ujiri and Webster will want to go down that road again.
Which leaves us DeRozan and the three years and $83.2 million on his deal – the 2020-21 season being a player option.
Locally there is a tendency to focus on his shortcomings (defence, perimeter shooting) but they shouldn’t obscure the fact that he’s 28, never gets hurt (he’s only missed 45 games in nine seasons), possesses top-end character, is coming off consecutive all-NBA seasons and still seems to be improving.
If the Raptors wanted to get into the draft lottery – as was reported by the New York Times’ Mark Stein earlier this week – DeRozan would be their most likely ticket.
Without any particular insight, you have to wonder if DeRozan’s family situation — the health of his parents; two young children living with their mother – might make him open to or even desiring of a move west. The Los Angeles Clippers do have the 12th and 13th picks in the draft and hired Rex Kalamian – who worked closely with DeRozan when he was in Toronto – as an assistant coach.
Would the Raptors take a chance on the perpetually injured but talented Danilo Gallinari, whose best seasons were working for Ujiri in Denver? He ‘only’ has two years and $44 million left on his deal but could likely keep them competitive if he stays healthy, and would otherwise seem like a good fit for the way new head coach Nick Nurse wants to play — offensively, at least.
Would the Clippers pay a premium for DeRozan’s track record and reliability? Would moving into the lottery help the Raptors’ chances of developing a young, competitive core behind the likes of Lowry, Ibaka and Valanciunas?
Moving DeRozan would be an earthquake given he’s been a cornerstone of the most successful run the franchise has ever had and is a fixture in the club’s record books.
But if Ujiri looks at the Raptors’ place in the East and the league the way many do – a good, not great team with playoff potential but no serious championship aspirations – perhaps this is the time to shake things up.
When Ujiri signed Lowry and Ibaka last summer he paid them above market to make sure he could get them on deals that will expire after the 2019-20 season. Valanciunas comes off by then, too.
This version of the Raptors has always had a time stamp on it with this year and certainly next as the competitive window for the current edition of their core.
Maybe that timetable gets moved up?
This is the NBA. This is the beginning of silly season. Stranger things have happened, and likely will.