Five questions the Raptors must answer as the NBA’s silly season begins

The most anticipated, hyped, over-hyped and potentially transformative few days of the NBA calendar are upon us.

Over the coming days and weeks the NBA draft will have concluded, and free agency will mostly have come and gone. The most significant business associated with each will largely be wrapped up by the first week of July.

For a club like the Toronto Raptors, the next few weeks offer an opportunity to reshape a team that seems largely caught in NBA limbo — not good enough to contend, but not bad enough to begin selling for scraps.

They could also do a whole bunch of not much, which is a choice too.

Last season the status quo translated into a 41-41 record, a loss in the first play-in game, and a fired head coach. Raptors president Masai Ujiri then suggested selfishness and a slippage in team ‘culture’ were factors in the way his club fell back from 48 wins the season previously.

How much is chicken and how much is egg for a team that otherwise finished 28th in effective field-goal percentage and 29th in opponents’ eFG will be up to recently anointed head coach Darko Rajakovic to figure out.

There is no debate that Toronto has some work to do, and questions that need answered.

Among them:

• Do they look at trading one of their core pieces — and given the contract status most of the key players in the Raptors rotation, we really mean one of O.G. Anunoby or Pascal Siakam — for a chance to move up in the draft?

• Do they (or can they) re-sign veteran point guard Fred VanVleet, who is a pending free agent?

• Do they re-sign shooting guard Gary Trent Jr, presuming he declines his player option before Tuesday and becomes a free agent?

• How much will it cost to re-sign free-agent centre Jakob Poeltl?

• If they don’t trade up in the draft, which is on Thursday, who or what kind of player might be available with the No. 13 pick?

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In isolation, the choices the Raptors are facing aren’t all that significant for an NBA team. Rare is the franchise not dealing with important player personnel decisions. But given where the Raptors stand and the number of seemingly interconnected choices they have to make, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that the calls the front office makes — or don’t make — in the coming weeks will shape the Raptors’ direction for years to come.

And while it’s common to suggest the Raptors are shrouding the entire process in mystery, that’s not necessarily the case. They haven’t published a manifesto or anything, but their words and actions certainly provide some basis for what direction things might take in the coming weeks.

Perhaps the most significant thing is that there isn’t an appetite to tear things down and start over, as we’ve seen some other ‘limbo’ teams do in recent years. The Washington Wizards moving on from Bradley Beal on the weekend being the most recent example of that, and how moves made by the Utah Jazz last summer or the Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder before that can be categorized.

Breaking things up and selling them off for parts has never been seriously entertained in private conversations I’ve had. Publicly the stance hasn’t been all that different. The Raptors don’t see themselves as all that inferior — if at all — to the Miami Heat, who have made the NBA Finals two of the last four seasons. The ‘lowly’ Knicks made the second round this year, and the Sixers, Bucks — and even the Celtics — have proven themselves beatable in the right circumstances.

Why step back if you believe yourself not all that far behind?

“There is parity in the league, and I just don’t view breaking down a team as the only way to build a team,” Ujiri said at his end of season media conference.

There are always caveats about opportunities unseen that may present themselves. This time last year it was a Kevin Durant trade request. Last week it was Bradley Beal — though with Beal wielding a no-trade clause, he had the power to dictate where Washington could trade him. The Raptors aren’t dogmatic; they’re open to possibilities.

But the most likely scenario? The biggest move they make this summer has already happened with the parting of head coach Nick Nurse and the jettisoning of his staff.

“What I’m hearing now is they’re not going to trade from their core,” said one league source.

Said another: “It wouldn’t surprise me if they run it back. There is a lot of holding and waiting going on.”

Ignoring whether they should or not, the challenge is how, exactly, they can thread the needle and pay good players their market value while avoiding the luxury tax, which would kick in on cumulative salaries above $162 million.

Sportsnet’s Blake Murphy did a thorough analysis of the Raptors’ off-season cap situation and while there are plenty of variables, the simple math is Toronto will have about $60 million to spend on VanVleet, Poeltl and Trent Jr. as free agents.

A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation tells me … that’s not enough to get it done.

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VanVleet will be looking for a starting salary in the $30 million range. Per league sources, Poeltl is expecting a deal with a starting salary of $20 million range, or an average of. And given Trent Jr. would be declining an option worth $18.5 million, he’s not going to come cheap either.

There could be some creative solutions — negotiating lower first-year salaries on longer deals, for example — but it’s hard to see the Raptors not having to move some salary. It would be nice if someone would take Otto Porter Jr.’s $6.3 million off their hands, but that would require attaching draft picks for a player who has negative value (after playing just eight games last season) to convince someone to take him into their cap space. “Nobody wants Otto Porter Jr.,” said one league executive. “He’s frail. He’s always a lay-up away from being out six-to-eight weeks.”

He could be a useful low-rent pick-up for a team with championship plans, but none of those teams have the cap space or trade exceptions.

Another option, but no easier to pull off, would be trading Chris Boucher and the two years and $22.5 million left on his deal, ideally while taking minimal money back. The problem there is you no longer have Boucher, who is hardly a perfect player, but is a useful bench piece at his price on a Raptors team that lacks depth.

The simplest solution of any would be letting Trent Jr. walk (presuming he declines his player option), which would leave the Raptors plenty of money to sign VanVleet and Poeltl while staying under the tax.

But it would mean the shooting deficient Raptors would lose a 24-year-old career 38 per cent three-point shooter for nothing, which doesn’t seem like the best roster management.

There are more drastic alternatives: Letting VanVleet disappear into free agency or hoping to salvage some kind return in an always tricky sign-and-trade would certainly clean up any salary cap issues, but seems like a horrible way to move on from an all-star point guard still very much in his prime.

Certainly the Raptors have signalled publicly and privately they intend to keep VanVleet. Regardless, failing do so without gaining a significant benefit in return would be a colossal screw-up from a front office that doesn’t make those kinds of mistakes.

Trading Siakam? It would be the most aggressive play they could make and could provide an opportunity to re-orient the team around its younger core without having to completely rebuild. But rarely does trading your best player make your team better. And given the Raptors’ situation — not a free-agent destination, not a team that is looking to be tanking any time soon — moving on from All-NBA level players who actively appreciate being in Toronto, are low-risk off-court investments and who are coming off a career season is the kind of decision that uses up a lot of goodwill internally. Mess it up and be expected to answer for it.

That said, there are no indications that the Raptors are even entertaining offers for Siakam at this stage. And given any team taking on Siakam — or O.G. Anunoby, for that matter — would likely want assurances that a signing a contract extension would be a formality, it’s the kind of move that would be hard to keep completely under wraps.

Who knows, maybe whoever the Raptors draft with the 13th pick (back-court help and shooting would be nice) would help clear things up, but the Raptors are holding their cards close to the chest there too. In the past, the team would hold media availability for prospects they bring into Toronto to work out, but not this year. Unless a player makes it known they’re in Toronto via social media, it’s like it never happened.

Of course something is going to happen, and sooner or later. Check back in a couple of weeks.