The Toronto Raptors season starts next Tuesday, but their off-season could be going strong until midnight on Monday, as the defending champions plot their future.
Midnight on Oct. 21 is the deadline for NBA teams to sign eligible players — those heading into their fourth season — to rookie-scale extensions.
With the Raptors having officially signed their ‘legacy’ player Kyle Lowry to a lucrative extension — a $31-million ‘thank you’ for seven years of elite-level service — they can now turn their attention to 2018-19 breakout star and NBA Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam.
The team and Siakam’s representatives have been meeting semi-regularly since first sitting down in Las Vegas in the wake of Kawhi Leonard’s departure for the Los Angeles Clippers. There was some contact when Siakam was in Cameroon and Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s Giants of Africa camps were touring the continent, and there was another set of meetings in Toronto before training camp kicked off.
With the deadline looming, Siakam’s representatives are on their way to Toronto and further meetings are expected over the coming days.
While Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported Wednesday that it was “almost a certainty” the team will reach an agreement with Siakam before Monday’s deadline, no one I spoke with was quite as definitive, although both sides said things were trending positively and hopeful that Monday’s deadline will get them to the finish line.
The context is this: Siakam will earn $2.34 million this season in the fourth year of his rookie deal, but if he can reach an agreement before the deadline, he can play the year knowing he’s under contract for the next four or potentially five seasons. It would signal the transition of the team from the DeRozan-Lowry years and their various twists and turns to a new era: Siakam and friends.
It would seem a no-brainer from the Raptors’ point of view. Siakam has a chance to be the Raptors’ ultimate success story as the franchise heads into its 25th-anniversary season celebrating and defending its 2018 NBA championship.
An unheralded tweener taken with the 27th pick of the 2016 draft, the six-foot-eight Siakam struggled as a rookie but found his legs with Raptors 905 late in the year, earning Finals MVP honours while leading them to a G-League title. He turned heads in his second season as an energizer on one of the NBA’s best second units and then blew up in his third season, going from a likely sixth man — he only got to start after OG Anunoby had to leave the team in training camp due to personal issues — to arguably their most important player not named Kawhi Leonard.
What better advertisement for the franchise’s development culture could the Raptors have than Siakam’s journey from projected journeyman to likely all-star in the space of four seasons?
As well, a long-term extension with the 25-year-old would lock him up for what would likely be his prime, and largely without risk — the belief is Siakam can either be the foundation of the club’s next competitive window or their most valuable trade asset if the need arises to pivot to a full rebuild.
The questions are only of terms and timing. Siakam’s representatives have been consistent in their view that their client deserves a ‘max’ extension — either four years at 25 per cent of the salary cap or, if the Raptors make him a ‘designated player,’ five years at 25 per cent. While the exact figures depend on the 2020-21 salary cap, the deals are projected to be worth either $130 million (over four years) or $168 million (over five years).
From Siakam’s camp, the term is less of a sticking point than the value. They are believed to be open to either four or five years, as long as they are for the maximum allowed per year.
From the Raptors’ point of view, there could be some advantage in sticking to four years. If they give Siakam five years as their designated player and he makes an All-NBA team in 2019-20 Siakam’s deal would become a ‘supermax’ and eat up 30 per cent of the team salary cap (with five-per-cent annual raises) carrying a five-year value of about $191 million. Not cheap, although if Siakam reaches All-NBA levels it might be a good problem to have.
But why wouldn’t Siakam push for the max?
Not only did Siakam lead the non-Kawhi Raptors in points, rebounds and free throws made in the regular season, he was one of the most statistically robust players in the NBA with a True Shooting percentage (which captures two-point shots, three-point shots and free throws attempted and made) of 62.5 — sixth-best among players with at least 800 shot attempts.
He was a mismatch nightmare in the post (his 1.08 points per possession was third among players with at least one post-up a game) and dangerous in isolation (averaging 0.97 points per position, tied with LeBron James and Blake Griffin). He showed promise as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll in limited opportunities — his 1.12 points per possession ranked 10th — and his success wasn’t dependent on defences having eyes only for Leonard. In 20 games that Siakam played and Leonard sat, he averaged 19 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists.
In the playoffs, as Siakam became a focal point of the league’s best defences, he held steady, averaging 23.8 points on 59-per cent shooting in the Raptors’ four Finals wins, as an example.
The Raptors might want to quibble about Siakam’s defensive rebound rate or pull threads around on his tendency to turn the ball over. They might reasonably argue that a single season of elite-level play isn’t all that much to go on when forking over $168 million or more.
They could play a modest version of hardball and suggest that Siakam has no true leverage — if he doesn’t sign an extension, he becomes a restricted free agent and the team can match any offer he would get next summer anyway.
They have and may yet try to make the case that for those reasons a deal slightly less than the max is still more than fair and the money saved could be used to add more talent around him.
But chances are they won’t push too hard. Chances are the Raptors will choose to reward the player they helped build up from modest beginnings and who represents the best of themselves. They will choose to have Siakam as both a symbol to the rest of the league of what’s possible as a Raptor and as an active participant in recruiting new talent to help keep the franchise’s competitive window open.
Siakam is their future and some time between now and Monday night the betting is they’ll jump into it together with both feet.