Last Wednesday Jonas Valanciunas was writhing about on the floor in Lithuania while wearing his country’s bright-green uniform, holding his left thigh in obvious pain.
It was his first game with the national team in preparation for EuroBasket 2015, which doubles as the qualifying event for the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, and he had slipped on a wet spot on the floor, straining his groin. It turned out to be nothing too serious.
He joked about the fall the next day: “I do not even remember how it happened, but I know I slipped and managed to stretch my hip flexors for the first time in my life,” Valanciunas told reporters.
It may just be a coincidence, but only four days after his injury scare reports surfaced — first in Lithuania and subsequently confirmed by Marc Stein of ESPN.com — that Valanciunas had left his national team to return to Toronto for a physical and put the finishing touches on a four-year, $60-million contract extension.
Calls to the Raptors and to Valanciunas’ agent hadn’t been returned as of this writing.
Like we said, the timing could be a coincidence — Monday just happened to be the day Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri was due to return from his annual trip to Africa. But in a summer when all the conversation was about how the next two seasons will be the best ever to be a valuable NBA player due a contract, the Raptors seem to have gotten themselves a deal.
Four years and $60 million for a quality big man and a homegrown player is what passes for a bargain in a league where the salary cap is expected to jump from $70 million to $90 million to $110 million over the next two summers.
Precisely what Valanciunas is worth is a matter of debate. Earlier this summer some well-informed NBA media types believed Valanciunas would be able to command something close to a maximum contract either this summer or next.
Statistically, Valanciunas is coming off his best season in year three of his NBA career, having averaged 12 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while shooting 57.2 per cent from the field and 78.6 per cent from the free-throw line, numbers that were also personal highs on a per-minute basis. He is one of the NBA’s best offensive rebounders and has missed just seven games in three seasons. Throw in that he’s seven-feet tall, just 23 years old and is — it’s probably worth noting — a really good guy, and signing him seems like a no-brainer for the Raptors.
If the Raptors don’t sign him now then certainly when he’s a restricted free agent next summer and an estimated 20 other teams have the room to make him a max offer, Toronto’s hand will be forced or they’ll risk losing a considerable asset for no return.
It’s this line of thinking that has stalled contract negotiations between Tristan Thompson and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thompson was taken fourth overall in the 2011 draft, one spot ahead of Valanciunas, and has one more season under his belt as Valanciunas stayed an extra year in Europe.
A year ago, Thompson, with a resume comparable to Valanciunas’ (long on rebounding numbers, some limitations offensively and defensively), turned down a four-year, $52-million contract from Cleveland and played on a one-year qualifying offer. This summer he’s seeking a reported five-year deal for $95 million, while the Cavaliers are offering something closer to $80 million.
Last year’s disagreements seemed to have carried over as the tension between the two sides has seemingly ramped up, with Thompson’s agent, Rich Paul, telling Sportsnet last week that if Thompson doesn’t get the contract he’s looking for this season will be his last in Cleveland, while LeBron James has resorted to going to bat for his teammate in public.
From the Raptors’ point of view, it’s all illustrative; had the Cavaliers been a little more generous with Thompson on his extension — say offered $60 million instead or $52 million — they would have saved themselves a minimum of $20 million and perhaps as much as $35 million if Thompson gets his way. Maybe just as important, Cleveland would have avoided coming to a contract impasse with one of their hardest working and most popular players.
So the Raptors have all the reason in the world to try to get a deal done with Valanciunas sooner rather than later. Chances are they will use the same logic in negotiating with Terrence Ross, who is also due a contract extension.
But would Valanciunas be best served by forcing the issue a little more, hitting the open market next summer as a restricted free agent?
Maybe, but he would be taking on risks too. As that little slip in Lithuania proved, nothing is more fragile than an athletic career — the wrong injury at the wrong time can cost you millions of unearned income.
But that’s not the only risk Valanciunas would avert if he signs a deal now. The NBA is changing, or has changed. The starting centre for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors was six-foot-seven Draymond Green, who was on the floor to shoot threes. The Warriors glued their plodding low-post presence Andrew Bogut — who is a much stronger defender than Valanciunas — to the bench when they had an NBA title on the line.
Trying to matchup with teams playing small-ball was typically the justification Raptors head coach Dwane Casey used for playing Valanciunas so sparingly in the fourth quarter most nights to date in his career — his defensive liabilities out in space on the pick-and-roll judged not able to offset his offensive contributions. And one of the themes for the Raptors this summer has been building a team that can both play small-ball and defend it, which is why they spent $60 million on DeMarre Carroll and targeted Bismack Biyombo as a free agent.
Sure, most expect Valanciunas to raise his game another notch in his fourth NBA season, and he’s already an impactful player. But what if his skills and role get further marginalized if the Raptors get swept up in the NBA’s small-ball revolution? Or what if he gets hurt?
With all that is on the table, the timing is perfect for Masai Ujiri to sign Valanciunas to a “steal” of a deal, and it makes perfect sense for Valanciunas to take it.