Don't assume Raptors have taken step back despite disappointing free agency

Michael Grange explains what the Raptors are getting in Aron Baynes and what Chris Boucher’s role with the team will be.

The Toronto Raptors have traditionally weathered the absence of elite talent quite well.

For example: During the season of Kawhi, those paying attention might have been tweaked to exactly how serious a championship threat the Raptors were by how well they did when Leonard wasn’t playing.

With Leonard nicked up or simply being load-managed for more than a quarter of the season, the rest of the Raptors simply kept rolling, putting up a 17-5 mark -- a better winning percentage than they had with Leonard in the lineup -- and provided a preview of how good a team that relied on the likes of Pascal Siakam or Fred VanVleet or Norm Powell might be.

Last season, with Leonard gone to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors got better. Even in a year when Marc Gasol missed 28 of 72 games, Serge Ibaka 17 and six of the top seven players in the Raptors' rotation -- excluding OG Anunoby -- missed 18 games on average.

It didn’t seem to matter who dressed at times as the Raptors ended up playing at what would have been a 60-win pace in a regular year and finished with the second-best record in the NBA, sans Kawhi and while lurching from game to game with a different lineup due to injury.

Having bought into a ball-sharing, ball-hounding philosophy espoused by head coach Nick Nurse, the plug-n-play Raptors kept chugging along, picking up Ws and belatedly getting credit for it.

That characteristic -- the ability to adapt and compete with a revolving door of sometimes unlikely personnel -- is best to be kept in mind as the dust settles on what seems like a disappointing weekend of free agency.

The high point -- clearly -- was retaining VanVleet, the homegrown point guard who proved he was ready for primetime in his first year as a starter a season ago. Inking VanVleet was the Raptors' stated first priority and they got it done quickly and efficiently and at a number -- $85 million for four years -- that works for both sides.

But losing the centre tandem of Ibaka -- who signed with the Los Angeles Clippers on late Saturday night -- and Gasol -- who signed with the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday -- in a matter of 18 hours was a blow.

It’s hard to spin it any other way. It’s not necessarily a fatal blow to the Raptors' chances of being a competitive factor in the East, but are they still realistic contenders?

The Raptors may adapt and adjust and find a way to compete and surprise the NBA again, but it seems like a less-than-ideal approach to getting the most out of Kyle Lowry’s final year under contract.

They have now lost four of their top six rotation pieces from their championship team in 18 months.

Eventually, it would seem, something has to give.

Ibaka was a positive locker room presence who put up 20 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 39 per cent from three on a high volume and contributing meaningfully on defence as well.

Gasol’s boxscore line wasn’t impressive -- 7.5 points and 6.3 rebounds to go along with 3.3 assists -- and his offence slid further down the cliff after the hiatus. But his positional defence and rapid-fire ball movement meant the Raptors starters were plus-12.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, even when he considered his own scoring an afterthought.

Replacing 23 years of combined experience and a combined 338 playoff games doesn’t happen with a finger snap.

Still, Raptors president Masai Ujiri is the last person to show his cards at moments like this. He’s not prone to puddling when things get difficult.

“We’ll be OK,” he said via text message after Ibaka signed for two years and $19 million, trumping the Raptors' reported offer of one year for $12 million.

“It’s how these things work,” was his message after Gasol signed a two-year deal for the veteran’s minimum -- the Raptors wouldn’t offer a second year -- to chase a ring with the defending champion Lakers just after dinner hour Sunday.

By then the market for free-agent centres had dried up considerably.

Still, the Raptors recovered nicely by signing Phoenix Suns centre Aron Baynes to a two-year deal (the second year a team option) for a reported $14.7 million and then giving Chris Boucher a two-year deal (again, with a team option for 2021-22) for $13.5 million, a nice payday for the rail-thin Montrealer whose slog to NBA security has been long and uphill.

So, the Raptors have a centre tandem, but the question is if they’re any better than they were on Friday?

The only proper answer is "we’ll see," but at the very least that’s a lot of name recognition to replace.

Baynes is a nice pick-up. He’s a bruising but surprisingly quick-footed Australian international who gave up rugby for hoops as a teenager. The six-foot-10, 260-pounder will be 34 when the season starts, but has extended his career by adding a three-point shot to his game over the past two seasons. He shot a respectable 35 per cent from deep for the Suns last season on four attempts a game and will be appreciated for his screen setting.

The Raptors were hoping to have Baynes complement Ibaka or Gasol, I’m guessing, but not so much that they were willing to offer a second year of term to either.

Instead, the Raptors will be providing a significant opportunity to Boucher who has shown he can be wildly productive in small samples -- he averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per 36 minutes last season -- and will now get the chance to show he can do it over longer stretches.

And if Baynes or Boucher seem to be well-compensated given their profile, chances are they got a premium for being willing to accept deals where they don’t have a second-year guaranteed. As well, if the opportunity for a significant trade arises, the reality is you need some beefy contracts for salary-matching purposes.

And even with the signings (plus the addition of former Atlanta Hawks bench piece DeAndre' Bembry) the Raptors remain about $5 million under the luxury-tax threshold, so nothing is lost there.

The Raptors' focus in all of their business has included keeping flexibility for the summer of 2021 -- right now it looks like they’ll be able to carve out enough room under the salary cap to either sign or trade for a max salary player -- and clearly telegraphs what their priorities were in this off-season.

How that translates into this coming season is the more pressing question.

The temptation is to look at a team that has lost two key pieces of a championship roster and a 60-win team and assume they’ve taken a step back.

They might have. But the Raptors have in the past proven they can find a way to be competitive and to silence doubters.

Who is to say that if Anunoby takes another big step forward, Siakam grows a little more comfortable as a primary option and Powell remains as productive as he was for long stretches when healthy last season, the Raptors don’t continue steaming along?

Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have earned that level of trust.

But they’ve left themselves plenty of wiggle room too, with short-term deals and escape hatches all around if things don’t quite pan out.

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