Raptors' hands full as decision on home looms amid condensed off-season

Where will the Raptors play the upcoming NBA season? Will Fred VanVleet re-sign in Toronto? What do the latest moves from the Bucks mean? Raps General Manager Bobby Webster weighs in on all things basketball with Tim & Sid.

They are the busiest and most intense periods of the year for an NBA executive: the trade deadline, the draft, the opening of free agency and the start of training camp.

Typically, they are spread out over months, or at least weeks. The trade deadline falls mid-season in February; the draft is the first event of the off-season, taking place in late June, just after the Finals are concluded. Free agency has always taken place at the stroke of midnight on July 1, and then there’s a pause to recalibrate and evaluate over the summer months before training camps open in October.

But in this year of years, it’s coming together in just a little over two weeks. The moratorium on trades – in place since the NBA paused the 2019-20 season on March 11 due to the pandemic – was lifted Monday and a flurry of blockbusters rolled out with more expected in the coming days. The draft goes Wednesday night and free agency kicks off Friday at 6 p.m. Signings can become official Sunday – just eight days before training camp opens.

Whew.

The Toronto Raptors have their hands full. They have two draft picks to make – No. 29 and No. 59 – and the pressure is always on a contending team that will likely exceed the salary cap to find some depth pieces that can help them at a low cost. They have three of the more prominent free agents on the market in Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. They have an important decision to make regarding reaching a rookie extension with OG Anunoby and Kyle Lowry is in the last year of his contract.

But while all this is going on, consuming data plans across the NBA, the Raptors have an issue unique to them that looms over everything: where will they be when they open training camp – a pressing issue given players have to be in market on Nov. 30 to begin COVID testing – and where will they be when the regular season tips off Dec. 22?

“We are working on, as everyone knows, a kind of parallel path here, which is we want to stay in Toronto, but as we all know, time is of the essence and we are also working on a path to play elsewhere,” said Webster on a pre-draft conference call Tuesday afternoon.

“We want to be in Toronto. We want to play here, but we are also realistic about the timing and respectful of the protocols public health has to go through, so it’s a little bit of both. It doesn’t necessarily affect our operations. I think we all know we’ll run a basketball team and the 72 games will get played, but just where that is probably more of a, as everyone can imagine, a drain on personal decisions and families, which always looms large in this industry.”

Agents for several Raptors players contacted by Sportsnet have all said they are in the dark regarding where their clients will report on Nov. 30, with a cascade of issues beginning to pile up – from where to rent an apartment, to what needs to be done regarding kids in schools and everything in between.

Multiple NBA sources have indicated to Sportsnet that if Toronto can’t happen, Tampa Bay has become the preferred option in recent days with Fort Lauderdale remaining a possibility if things fall through.

“Nothing is finalized,” said Webster. “I think as you can probably imagine the number of collective work hours spent on this every single day, you can probably imagine all the different paths. Obviously, we have to work with the NBA, we have to work with wherever we do training camp, where we would play at, so there’s just in some ways an infinite number of boxes to check in each location. So we’re doing that in a couple different ones and obviously we hope to have some resolution obviously on Toronto or the alternate location here as soon as possible … it’s getting close and I would anticipate an answer here in the near future.

“…There’s been stops and starts in different cities and I think that’s just the nature with trying to button everything up. You close one door and another one opens. You’re just trying to find the right place and not go on a wild goose chase of leading people here, then the next day it’s here, then the third day it’s here and that kind of thing.”

While Webster says the team wants to avoid the situation the Toronto Blue Jays found themselves in – where they returned to Toronto to train in the summer, expecting to get clearance to play their home games at Rogers Centre only to have to scramble to set up in Buffalo when Health Canada wouldn’t provide the required border clearances – there is the possibility that the Raptors could have training camp and the first half of the campaign in the U.S. and then come back to Toronto after the mid-season break.

“I think our plan is wherever we do decide on, we want to go down there and get settled and I don’t think we want to have a trip back to Toronto,” Webster said. “But there is going to be, as you all have seen, a natural break in the season, so there would be an opportunity to transition back.”

There are a lot of factors in play.

“We're trying to do what's best for the organization,” said Webster. “So you can kind of go down the line. You know, what is first and foremost? The players. What does the practice facility look like? What would be the accommodations around the medical facilities, the medical treatment? Obviously, you need to have an arena that fits NBA standards. There's a ton of broadcast issues. There's health and safety. There's availability for arena dates. There's a ton of stuff there. And then, you know, lifestyle matters. I think at some point we're asking people here to uproot their lives and go to a place that, you know, they may potentially be away from their families for six to seven months. So I think we want to be respectful of that, and we want people to feel like we're going somewhere where we feel safe and they feel like they can settle in.”

This is Webster’s fourth draft as general manager, but it will be far the busiest. With rival teams making moves, the Raptors have to at least retain their core if they expect to compete. At the top of their priority list, he said was VanVleet – “I think we’ve said it publicly, privately and every which way. He’s our top priority. He’s our biggest priority for the off-season is bringing him back. He had a great run for four years, we fully expect that to continue and everything’s been positive” – but there is Ibaka and Gasol to get done too, all while keeping an eye on the summer of 2021 and desire to be able to compete in what projects to be a robust free-agent market.

There’s his own deal, which was due to be extended already but hasn’t yet – “no comment on the contract. I think whenever as an organization we are ready to say something, we will” – not to mention sifting through what is thought to be a draft where there is as likely to be a contributing player taken with the 30th pick as with the 15th.

It’s a lot, but with the Raptors, it doesn’t end there. And for now, no one is sure where they’ll begin.

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