Who knows what’s going to happen tonight and over the next week across the NBA?
Chances are, it will be a lot, and the Toronto Raptors could be right in the thick of it.
It all begins with the draft tonight, but the shock waves could fan out in all directions with the league’s free agency period opening just 72 hours later.
In the space of a week the Kyle Lowry era may be over, and the Raptors could have a new franchise cornerstone. The Raptors are hoping to draft one with the No. 4 pick but there is the possibility that Toronto ends up as the landing spot for Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons in a deal between Atlantic Division rivals, with every move sending another set of dominoes tumbling, locally and across the NBA.
The draft takes place in Brooklyn and, while it represents a point of entry into the league for the 60 young athletes who have been working years to make a dream happen, it also marks a point of departure from momentary calm to customary off-season chaos for a league that – collectively – seems to be waiting for something to happen, maybe even something big.
Programming note: At the 2021 NBA Draft, the future will take shape — and it's on Sportsnet. Live coverage begins Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET on SN 360 and SN Now.
Raptors general manager Bobby Webster is not prone to hyperbole. For professional purposes his preferred expression is 'poker face.'
But even he allowed that the dynamics of the draft and the free agency period that kicks off (officially) three days later on Monday at 6 p.m. ET could combine to shake up the look of the league dramatically.
“You’re preparing for the draft; you’re preparing for different options in free agency. Obviously, things can happen on draft night that would affect free agency so it’s a little tough to lock into anything too early,” Webster said in his pre-draft comments on Wednesday. “We want to see how tomorrow night goes but then you have to [focus] very quickly on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and -- I think free agency opens at 6 on Monday -- be ready to pounce on any deals then.
“There’s pre-work going in now and I think really the majority of the work will happen [Thursday night] based on what happens around the league because undoubtedly there will be movement, significant movement.”
The Raptors will figure into all of it because they have the No. 4 pick in the draft and because, in Lowry, they have a pending free agent who is in demand as teams saw what adding smart, tough, highly skilled veteran point guard like Chris Paul did for the Phoenix Suns on their unexpected ride to the NBA Finals.
On the draft front -- according to the intel I’ve been able to gather -- the Raptors have zeroed in on Gonzaga’s six-foot-five two-way guard Jalen Suggs as their preferred choice if he’s available, though six-foot-nine do-it-all defender Scottie Barnes of Florida State would be a more than welcome fallback option if Suggs is off the board.
Reading between the lines, the Raptors are unlikely to try to move up in the draft order to make sure they can grab Evan Mobley, the USC seven-footer who projects as a multi-purpose modern big, even though Toronto’s most glaring need is for some quality size.
Toronto is optimistic, according to sources, that they can address their need for a big man through free agency, with Sacramento’s Richaun Holmes -- who happens to share an agency with Fred VanVleet -- a potential target, along with Khem Birch, who finished last season strong after Toronto signed him from the buyout market.
If the Raptors move up in the draft, it would be more likely be to guarantee being able to draft Suggs, who generally appears fourth on most draft boards, but who appeals especially to Toronto due to his All-NBA calibre potential as a defender, his athleticism, his ability to score at the rim and in the half court and in transition -- as well as his drive and competitiveness.
“I think over the years, everyone is pretty familiar, we like mentally tough, versatile, players that want to get better,” said Webster. “Players that are willing to put in the hard work, players that are gonna buy into offence and defence and the systems that we run.”
That sounds like Suggs to me.
Still, the most likely scenario is the Raptors stay put at four and, presuming the draft unfolds as has been so widely predicted -- with Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham going first to Detroit; G-League Ignite prospect Jalen Green going second to Houston and Mobley going third to Cleveland -- Toronto would get their guy there.
Not that they won’t be listening to options.
It is interesting to note that Raptors president Masai Ujiri and Webster scouted Australian point guard prospect Josh Giddey in person in Las Vegas, where the Aussies were playing exhibition games before heading off to Tokyo for the Olympics. They have also had Michigan big man Franz Wagner to Tampa for interviews and a workout, so it’s clear they are considering all possibilities, given Giddey and Wagner are projected to fall more in the 7-10 range of the draft.
The interpretation would be the Raptors are considering -- or at least preparing for -- the possibility of trading out of the fourth position with an eye towards leveraging the fourth pick into something more than a single player.
“I think it's very simple: It's obviously easier to trade back [in the draft] than trade up,” said Webster. “So you're talking about trading back and collecting multiple assets and I think at a certain range you want to stay in the same tier and, hopefully, you just value something differently and you get two or three guys and maybe you get a player who's more established. So I think that's always the goal.
"And then trading up, the asking price is always high, whether we're at four trying to trade up one, two or three or if you're someone that's 25 trying to trade up to 15.”
Ah yes, trades.
The Raptors could be active there, too.
With the Golden State Warriors in ‘win now’ mode with their veteran core while also having the No. 7 and No. 14 picks in the draft, there’s good reason the two teams have been linked as potential trade partners. Similarly with the Oklahoma City Thunder sitting on the No. 6 pick and a treasure chest of other draft assets, the Raptors' pick could be one of their targets if they try to move up in the batting order.
It’s tempting to link budding OKC star and Hamilton native Shai Gilgeous Alexander with Toronto in some kind of fever dream trade. But given how well Montreal’s Lu Dort played for Raptors and Team Canada head coach Nick Nurse in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, that could be intriguing as well – although that’s just me musing.
More concretely, I can confirm reports that Toronto has been fully engaged with the 76ers about the possibility of acquiring Simmons, the uber-talented if flawed six-foot-10 guard who has fallen out of favour there, given that his poor shooting -- and even an unwillingness to shoot at all -- has made him a less-than-ideal fit alongside Sixers big man Joel Embiid.
The Raptors' interest is obvious: Simmons just turned 25; he’s under contract for four more years and in four active seasons (he sat out his rookie year due to injury) has been an All-Defence selection three times, an All-Star three times and All-NBA once. Since the Raptors don’t play with anything resembling a traditional centre, the possibility of Simmons switching all over the floor defensively while running freely in the ‘five-out’ sets that Nurse favours on offence is tantalizing.
Is there a fit?
The Sixers see themselves as a floor-spacing veteran point guard away from winning the NBA title and are likely kicking themselves for not coming harder for Lowry at the trade deadline.
At the time, they balked at paying a steeper premium because Lowry was looking for a promise of a two-year extension in the $50 million range. That price has likely gone up -- Lowry is looking for three years guaranteed now -- but so has the Sixers' sense of urgency after getting knocked out of the playoffs short of the conference finals for the fourth straight season, wasting another year of Embiid’s prime.
Reports of the Sixers asking for the moon for Simmons -- a package including Lowry, OG Anunoby, VanVleet and multiple future picks -- have been shrugged off internally by the Raptors as Philadelphia trying to create a market around a distressed asset.
There is no guarantee that the Raptors do get Simmons, and Lowry leaving isn’t even a sure thing -- he’s tested the waters in free agency before and ended up staying in Toronto -- but there is little doubt that the possibility exists for major change both in Toronto and around the NBA.
Get that seatbelt ready, the ride is about to begin.