The power of the NBA’s free agency period is that possibilities seem endless and rarely predictable. It was during this magical time of year that Shaq became a Laker, that Danny Ainge brought together the Big Three in Boston and Pat Riley placed his bag of championship rings on the table in Miami and saw LeBron James’ eyes light up.
Four summers later LeBron sent his love letter to Cleveland and a new chapter in NBA history was written.
Once the playoffs are over the fun and games can begin.
For most of their existence the Toronto Raptors have been bystanders when the high stakes musical chairs revs up. Quite often this is a good thing, as the Raptors giving 39-year-old, semi-retired Hakeem Olajuwon three years and $17 million (in 2001!) would suggest. It was in early July, remember, that prop children from Toronto’s Turkish community were on hand at the Air Canada Centre to help celebrate the fact the Raptors had pledged $54 million and a training camp vacation to Hedo Turkoglu.
But this summer feels a little different. The Raptors are no longer the Raptors, but the Eastern Conference finalists, winners of 56 games, veterans of three straight playoff appearances and an organization that oozes stability and quality.
Could this be the summer that Toronto gets in on the party?
Short answer: Probably not, but more on that later.
The main issue that will dominate the next 72 hours or so is how Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri deals with free agent DeMar DeRozan, the team’s leading scorer, model citizen, bridge from the bad old days to the time of plenty and – unfortunately – a below average defender who doesn’t shoot threes well.
Ujiri will be leading a small Raptors contingent including fellow executives Jeff Weltman and Bobby Webster to Los Angeles to meet with DeRozan – likely on July 1, though the details haven’t been set in stone. As when Ujiri signed Kyle Lowry two summers ago, Ujiri won’t be arriving with strobe lights and a smoke show. The Raptors have had seven seasons to impress DeRozan; there is no fooling anybody.
True to form, Ujiri hasn’t shown his hand, other than to say at his end-of-season press conference that re-signing DeRozan was his top priority, though he stopped short of saying he would do it at any cost.
Similarly, the DeRozan camp has been typically low key. The 26-year-old from Compton, Calif., spoke powerfully about his pride in being a Raptor and his role in turning the franchise around.
The only question, really, is what Ujiri is going to offer the most loyal player the Raptors have ever had. If it’s a maximum contract worth a projected $153 million over five years, the formal part of the meeting will last about five minutes. DeRozan will sign on the spot and the rest of the time will be spent figuring out what other moves Toronto needs to make to close the one-game difference in the standings between them and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
There’s a good chance the meeting will last longer than that, however. How long and how it ends will say a lot about the nature of the two men involved.
Ujiri’s not one for beating around the bush. Typically he has a number in mind that he’s willing to spend and won’t budge on it. It’s why he claims to not get anxious about these kinds of things. He makes his decision in advance and arrives with his best offer. If the other party doesn’t like the money or the term, everyone parts ways and it’s on to Plan B. Last summer when he met with DeMarre Carroll he presented their offer – four years and $64 million – but was clear that the deal expired once the meeting was over. Carroll signed without meeting with another team.
Similarly Aaron Goodwin – DeRozan’s longtime agent – isn’t known as a Scott Boras type, who’s looking to extract every last dollar and willing to use every conceivable ounce of leverage to do so. When the Raptors were negotiating the four-year extension with DeRozan, Goodwin ultimately put the decision in his client’s hands, according to sources, recognizing that in the end it would be the player, not him, who would be living and working under the terms of the deal.
And it’s important to note that the Raptors have a considerable advantage in being able to offer DeRozan the best deal. They can pay him the aforementioned $153 million over five years while any other team can only offer $114 million over four.
Here’s betting that the bulk of the negotiation will be finding a number between those two figures that both sides can live with; Ujiri has a spread of $39 million to work with where every dollar saved can be used elsewhere on a roster that still has some big holes.
If DeRozan wants to play the most important years of his career in Toronto he will likely do it for less than the full max. The upside? He will still earn more here than anywhere else, in total dollars, and will have the best chance to win.
DeRozan will surely want to know who he’s going to be playing with, another interesting question. The Raptors’ primary vacancy is at power forward and as their efforts to land Serge Ibaka in a trade indicated, they have ambitions about how to fill it.
In the end the Raptors balked at sending Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, Patrick Patterson and their No. 9 pick to Oklahoma City for Ibaka. Ujiri wants to add to his talent base, not create a new weakness (bench strength), which is why he stood still at the trade deadline too.
Patience has been his calling card and he could be wise to wait another year. In the summer of 2017 Ibaka – who Ujiri has known since the Cameroonian was a teenager – is a free agent when all he would cost the Raptors is money. Another name to watch? Danilo Galinari, the centrepiece of the Carmelo Anthony trade Ujiri engineered when he was general manager of the Denver Nuggets.
If the Raptors are comfortable with Patterson starting at power forward this coming season – and there is every sense that they are – Toronto could end up sitting out this year’s free agency frenzy with an eye towards finding the right fit a year from now.
Which brings us back to DeRozan. Shaving a few million off the max helps the Raptors add the talent around him that a winning team needs. There is always some risk in trying to convince a two-time all-star and U.S. Olympian, entering what should be the prime of his career, to take anything less than absolute top dollar. But Ujiri might have some leverage in this regard.
As much as the summer of 2016 has been touted as the beginning of a two-year financial free-for-all as a flood of new TV revenue is expected to push the salary cap to $94 million (from $70 million) for this coming season and $110 million the following year, the fact remains that there aren’t all that many winning teams with all kinds of money to spend, and those that do might not have DeRozan on their radar.
DeRozan has long been linked to his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, mainly for reasons of geography – publicly he’s never even tried to pretend he wants to head home. But the Lakers have been a gong show for years and even if the fading lustre of their legacy can still garner attention from top players, there’s a growing belief the Lakers will want to preserve their salary cap space for the summer of 2017 in the hopes of becoming the destination for a player-led takeover featuring some combination of Kevin Durant, LeBron James and friends, should they sign the one-year-plus-an-option deals with their existing teams many expect.
And among the winning programs that could offer DeRozan both money and a chance at a championship? DeRozan hardly seems like a fit in San Antonio or Golden State, and the Los Angeles Clippers are full. The list of realistic suitors grows pretty short after that.
And while Bryan Colangelo and the Philadelphia 76ers seem like another possible landing spot for DeRozan, given the newly installed Sixers boss drafted him in Toronto, extended him and now has a massive amount of money to spend, the sense is a newly patient Colangelo wants to see the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and their other young talent on the floor together – likely bolstered by some veteran shepherds on rich, short-term deals – before committing long money in free agency.
Moreover, why would DeRozan take less money to play on a 10-win team than he would to be a Raptor-for-life and see if his career-long struggle to help Toronto carve out a spot on the NBA map can bear fruit?
In the big picture the Raptors are operating from a position of strength. Not that Ujiri is the type to press his advantage, just that he doesn’t have to be held hostage, which isn’t something DeRozan or his camp seem primed for.
The reality is that Ujiri and DeRozan want the same thing – to win with the Raptors – which should make things easier and their negotiation a quick one.