Why Raptors waived Sam Dekker: Explaining the luxury tax implications

Toronto Raptors forward Sam Dekker (8). (Alex Brandon/AP)

As it turns out, 54 seconds aren’t enough to change much.

That’s how much playing time Sam Dekker received over the course of the three-week extension of his tryout with the Raptors on which he was playing. Dekker and Isaac Bonga had beaten out Ishmail Wainright, Freddie Gillespie and Reggie Perry in the battle for the team’s final two roster spots, but the team was unsure about a Dekker-or-Bonga-or-both decision. Both players agreed to bump their contract guarantee dates from Oct. 19 to Nov. 6, extending their battle 10 games into the season.

On Saturday, the Raptors waived Dekker.

He played just shy of a minute at the end of a blowout victory against the Indiana Pacers on Oct. 27, enough for people to remember he was an official part of the team on his stats ledger or basketball card (K.J. McDaniels, you might remember, didn’t get that concession in 2017-18 , when he spent two games with the team before being released in a near-identical battle with Alfonzo McKinnie).

It’s a disappointing end for an intriguing player who has put a lot of work in on and off the court.

Originally somewhat of a non-shooter, Dekker became a knock-down threat in Turkey last season and carried that over into a strong shooting camp with Toronto, capped by a 5-of-8 mark in exhibition games. And while there were some questions about Dekker’s potential cultural fit, he displayed genuine growth and maturity, and won fans on the bench and in the organization (if you get OG Anunoby to write multiple sentences in support of you or congratulating you on your birth announcement, you know you’ve made an impact).

Ultimately, Bonga’s more prototypical Raptor-ness – he’s six-foot-eight with a long wingspan, positional versatility and the ability to push the ball with size – won out over Dekker’s shooting and slashing. That Bonga is five-and-a-half years younger probably didn’t hurt, either, though both players were on one-year deals and would have been unrestricted free agents after the season.

“It was pretty close all the way,” head coach Nick Nurse said of the battle between Dekker and Bonga Saturday. “Isaac probably just kind of filled the role that we want. He’s got size, he’s kind of a versatile defender, he’s on the offensive glass. He’s kind of a real role-playing guy that we think we can throw in there at any time. He’s good enough to get into games right now, to be honest with you, but we can’t play everybody. …

“We were real close on it. Sam was awesome. He spent a lot of time with us from the moment, all the way back from when we first looked at him in the sort-of open run situation, and he spent a lot of time working the job. But it’s the tough side of it, man. Tough side. Sorry to see him go.”

It’s unclear what comes next for Dekker. Because of the size of his partial guarantee, he’s ineligible to join Raptors 905 (he’s also ineligible for a two-way contract with any team due to his experience level). He will almost surely clear waivers – claiming him would result in that team absorbing his full guaranteed salary, and remove his partial guarantee from the Raptors’ books – but there should be interest around the league, even with only a few open roster spots league-wide.

Dekker could also opt to play things out in the G League as an extended audition, head back overseas or simply wait for an opportunity while working out at home near his pregnant wife.

What follows are a few notes on why this move was made, and why now.

Why do this?

The Raptors are extremely close to the league’s luxury tax line right now. By waiving Dekker, they’re currently skirting it by just $18,541, based on my numbers.

They might get additional breathing room there if Gary Trent Jr. doesn’t achieve some of his bonuses or if they make a trade down the line that brings back less salary than they send out. For now, though, this allows them to operate without the threat of the luxury tax moving forward.

Why now?

The Raptors gave Dekker a $350,000 partial guarantee to compete for a roster spot. If he was on the roster past Saturday, his deal would have become fully guaranteed, locking him in for $1.67 million.

Why care about the luxury tax?

Yes, I know fans sometimes suggest, well, just pay it!

And while that’s fair in some cases – the Raptors paid deep into the tax in their championship season, for example – it doesn’t make as much sense now because this is a team coming off of a low-revenue season abroad that has also given out major extensions to key members of their coaching staff and front office within the last 18 months or so. The salary cap may be a “soft cap” that offers room, to outspend your opponents in some instances, but the money is real.

That’s exceptionally true this year, where the league-wide tax projections are extremely high. The luxury tax paid by tax teams is split between the non-tax paying teams, so getting beneath the tax not only cuts costs, it makes the Raptors eligible for a substantial payout at the end of the year. So the move could have conceivably saved the Raptors $1.32 million in Dekker salary and $1.95 million in luxury tax payments, and opened them up to an estimated $13 million in tax payments, for a total of about an $18.27-million swing. Even if the figures come in lower than estimated – the league has some discretion with how to use half of the luxury tax pool – it’s a major swing for a 15th man.

Was this necessary?

Not entirely. The decision wasn’t explicitly Dekker versus Bonga. It was Dekker versus Bonga versus keeping both and swallowing that hit to their financial flexibility.

Luxury tax is calculated based on your cap sheet on the day of Game 82, not a running total, so the Raptors could have allowed both players to guarantee and then found a way beneath the tax later, either by attaching a second-round pick to shed a small salary or by dealing someone like Goran Dragic in a cap-positive move.

What’s the deal with Bonga?

To hear the Raptors tell it, Bonga looks rotation-ready if a spot opens up at any point. That’s not a huge shock given Bonga has played a good chunk of minutes the last two NBA seasons and was one of the potential low-cost targets we identified back before free agency. It’s just unlikely to matter any time soon. Bonga’s played seven minutes so far, and Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam are both back now, with Yuta Watanabe hopefully not too far behind.

My personal hope is that Bonga is Raptors 905-bound at some point. Bonga and the union would both have to grant permission for such a move, as he’s in his fourth NBA season. That hasn’t been much of a problem for the Raptors in the past. With the still-young Bonga needing playing time to continue growing and auditioning for future contracts, it would make sense for him to spend the odd game in Mississauga.

There’s not much stigma around the league for a former second-round pick who is 21 years old needing additional development reps, and it will likely be best for Bonga short- and long-term to actually be playing every so often.

Did the alternate camp strategy this year work?

In recent years, the Raptors have used the last few training camp spots differently than they did this year. It’s always a camp competition, to be clear. Earlier competitions, though, were often players on Exhibit 10 deals with small guarantees, where those on the outside looking in at the end could be bound for the 905 and those who made it could be bumped to a two-way contract (or from a two-way contract to a proper NBA deal).

This time around, the Raptors only had one Exhibit 10 player (Perry) and had their two-ways filled. They had Gillespie ($50,000), Wainright ($250,000 this season, $125,000 next season), Dekker ($350,000) and Bonga ($200,000) all competing for one spot with partial guarantees; all of those guarantees except Gillespie were large enough to make the players 905 ineligible, and Gillespie’s G League rights are held by Memphis. In other words, Perry and the two-ways were the only 905 considerations, which has left them a little thinner to start the season than were used to.

How we evaluate this change in approach likely comes down to Bonga. The Raptors are paying $775,000 in dead money to the players who lost out to him, and he’s a UFA after the season. If he becomes a longer-term piece, then it will have been worth it. If he ends up as “Just A Guy” and the 905 developmental pipeline is worse off for it, I’d guess we’ll see a pivot back to the prior strategy next year.

Can you give me the TL;DR version?

• The Raptors prioritized flexibility around the luxury tax over carrying a 15th player they were unlikely to need or use.
• Bonga gets a delayed victory in the camp battle for the final roster spot.
• Toronto moves forward with Bonga, an empty roster spot, $775,000 in dead money and breathing room under the tax as they plot out trade strategies between now and November.

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