There will always be time to look back, but with the parade past and free agency all but wrapped up, it’s time for the Toronto Raptors to look ahead.
But what to focus on? And who?
For the past six years, the Raptors’ identity has been largely fixed.
For most of that time, the franchise revolved around the DeMar DeRozan-Kyle Lowry axis and ignored some playoff stumbles. It was as prosperous as any NBA franchise can realistically expect: five straight playoff appearances, more wins than any team in the Eastern Conference, all-star appearances and league-wide recognition.
And then for one magical year, it was Kawhi Leonard front and centre – with ample support – and a championship.
With Leonard gone and DeRozan two years removed, reality is about to change, but how?
Who will be the face of the Raptors from here?
Sure, Lowry will always be in the picture given his tenure and accomplishments, but as a 33-year-old pending free agent heading into the 2019-20 season on a team in transition, it would be hard for Lowry to assume the role, even if he wanted it.
Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol aren’t really the anchor-type tenants a team would look to build around at this stage of their careers, and they are also pending free agents.
Fred VanVleet is such a good spokesman with such a worthy backstory – from undrafted free agent to championship team catalyst – that he will always have a role as the conscience of almost any team he’s on.
But VanVleet’s also heading into the final year of his deal and may be one of the Raptors’ most useful trade assets given teams seeking his ballhandling and shooting abilities would only have to take on a $9-million expiring contract.
No, the most likely candidate to step into the shoes vacated by DeMar DeRozan and help fill the void left by Leonard this past season is Pascal Siakam.
And it’s not by process of elimination.
The soon-to-be fourth-year forward was arguably the Raptors’ best player other than Leonard during their championship season. The NBA’s Most Improved Player award winner wasn’t as consistent in the playoffs as defences ramped up, but he still put up some monster games in the playoffs. He had 32 points, eight rebounds and five assists in Game 1 against Golden State, 26 and 10 to help eliminate the two-time defending champions in Game 6 of the Finals, as well as 25 and 11 in 52 minutes in the Raptors’ grinding, must-have win in double overtime against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the Conference Finals.
Not bad for a player who wasn’t supposed to start when the team gathered for training camp last September in Burnaby, B.C.
In my view, no one on Masai Ujiri’s roster is better suited to carry the torch going forward due to his game, personality and the equity he’s earned in transforming himself from an unheralded late first-round pick to a borderline all-star.
But what does Ujiri think?
Well, we’re about to find out.
Siakam is eligible for an extension on his rookie-scale contract. The two sides have until the start of the regular season to reach a deal, otherwise Siakam would become a restricted free agent on July 1 next year. It’s believed talks are at their most preliminary as most team business was on hold during the #KawhiWatch.
And there’s no particular urgency for the Raptors to sign him to an extension this summer. Siakam isn’t going anywhere and – like most players in his position – doesn’t have much leverage.
Which is why the progress of the negotiations will be interesting. Teams that know what they want and fully appreciate what they have typically don’t waste much time on these deals, which come in a couple of different shapes and sizes. They simply get them done.
At the upper end you, have the standard “max” rookie extension, which is four years at 25 per cent of the salary cap with annual raises of eight per cent of its base year. Estimates put it at about $130 million for the class of 2016.
An even richer deal would involve the Raptors making Siakam their “designated player” and signing him to a five-year extension at 25 per cent of the cap, guaranteeing him about $169-million.
Other than the max deals, the extensions can be anything the two sides agree on.
But it seems reasonable that in today’s NBA economy Siakam, 25, would be eyeing a four or five-year max. The latter is the deal fellow 2016 draft picks Ben Simmons has reportedly been offered and Jamal Murray has already signed with Philadelphia and Denver, respectively.
They are the ultimate vote of confidence a player can get from their team at this stage of their careers.
Given that Siakam trails only Simmons in win shares among their draft class – even with Siakam’s fairly limited role in his first two seasons – and outperformed both Simmons and Murray by most measures in their respective third seasons on a team that won an NBA title, it’s not hard to make the case that Siakam deserves the same contract they got from their teams.
The argument against is cloudier.
Had the Raptors kept Leonard for this season and beyond there was a better case to push off signing Siakam to an extension because heading into next summer his cap hold would have been $7.1 million, giving Toronto more room to work with in acquiring players. By signing an extension, his first-year salary (about $29 million, based on salary cap estimates) would be on the books right away. With Leonard around, the play would have been to use the cap space available to build out the roster first and then sign Siakam.
But with Leonard gone, that thinking goes out the window.
As of next summer, the Raptors’ salary cap is a virtual blank slate. The only significant contract on the books is the $11 million they owe Norm Powell and a few other odds and sods. Even factoring in an extension to Siakam, the Raptors would have all the salary cap space they could conceivably use.
Since there is no logistical benefit to holding off on a Siakam extension and there is no external pressure forcing Ujiri’s hand, doing so now and at that amount is as much about signalling as anything else.
The Raptors only pushback could be waiting out another year to see if Siakam keeps trending toward all-star status as a No.1 option, or if being the focal point of other teams’ defences proves too much to handle. The message – intentional or not – would be: “We’re still not sure yet – show us more.”
Similarly, they could try to whittle him down from a max-type offer purely to try and get more for less, even if it risks damaging their relationship with the player who could quite rightly look at the deals Simmons and Murray have and wonder “why not me?”
Or, the Raptors could jump in with both feet and sign Siakam first chance, make a big splash and anoint him the centrepiece of the franchise as it navigates through their post-championship phase.
One approach is calculating and businesslike.
The other is the kind of leap teams make that – when they work out – elevate the player and the team in one fell swoop.
The player gets the clear message that the organization is placing their belief in him and the franchise has little choice but to begin to plan according to what’s best for their new North Star.
It basically comes down to a simple question:
Does Masai Ujiri believe in Pascal Siakam or not?
There are plenty of good reasons for the Raptors to make that leap with Siakam.
If DeRozan was the quintessential Raptor for his unwavering commitment and steady growth, and Leonard the star who came, delivered and left, Siakam is the epitome of the kind of player Ujiri would surely like his organization to stand for now: An African-born underdog who leveraged the team’s vaunted development system to the hilt, turning himself from a late first-round flier to a max player and potential all-star in four seasons.
Does it hurt that he can speak fluently and confidently in both of Canada’s official languages, or that his message is always about honouring his family and inspiring others like him back in his native Cameroon?
Not a bit. Let’s see if Ujiri gets this done and if the Raptors become Siakam’s team.
The DeRozan era begat the Leonard moment, but now it’s Siakam’s time.