The 2015-16 season was an historic one for the Toronto Raptors. The team set a franchise record of 56 wins in a single season and survived 2 gruesome playoff match ups against the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat, both of which went all the way to 7 games.
The Raps also reached the conference finals against the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers, ultimately falling 4-2 in the series. There were no major shakeups throughout the season and only one minor roster change that involved cutting ties with Anthony Bennett and signing Jason Thompson.
Now that the dust has settled and the season is done, the organization’s off-season begins. There are several question marks regarding what the Raptors will do to improve the team. This off-season, however, is completely different from any other one in Toronto’s history.
With that being said, it’s also the most important. The moves made this off-season will either produce another historic season next year or make the so-called basketball “experts” of ESPN and CBS Sports (#WeTheOther) fit the description. Let’s delve into some of the challenges the Raptors will face in their quest to build a championship squad.
Bis or DeMar?
Two members of the teams core will be in high demand this summer as DeMar DeRozan and Bismack Biyombo are free agents. Both are very valuable and were vital to the Dinos’ historic postseason run. However, in all likely hood, it looks like Toronto will be forced to choose between the 2. While it may be a no-brainer to some, let’s look at the numbers.
Regular Season: 23.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4 APG, 1 SPG, 44.6% FG, 34% 3FG & 85% FT
Playoffs: 20.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.1 SPG, 39.4% FG, 15.4% 3FG & 81.3% FT
Regular Season: 5.5 PPG, 8 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 54.2% FG & 63% FT
Playoffs: 6.2 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 58% FG & 60% FT
After analyzing the numbers, it’s a foregone conclusion that each player provides their own unique value to this team. Pleading his case, DeMar is one of Toronto’s All-Star’s and has been in the 6ix since the roughest days in franchise history. He’s made it clear of his intention to stay in Toronto and help the Dinos win their first championship ever. Having been two wins away from the NBA Finals, championship hopes are pretty realistic.
The question now is whether DeMar is worth the maximum contract the Raptors can offer him. While his regular season stats are among the best of shooting guards, his postseason numbers are not at all in tune with the highest-paid players in the league. In fact, this is DeMar’s worst playoff showing ever. As a 7 year veteran, the starting salary for DeMar would be 18.9 million.
Biyombo, on the other hand, has only been in a Raptors uniform for one season but has made his impact within the organization, the community and even the entire country. After being under the radar for 4 seasons with the Charlotte Hornets, Bis’ play was crucial for Toronto’s postseason hopes this past year.
Overall, I can justify DeMar getting the max because, although he didn’t do as well as expected in the playoffs, the man showed up in some crucial games, including game 3 against the Cavaliers where he put up 32 points. Not to mention, he’s improved his game every single year upon entering the league.
With that being said, I can’t rationalize the Raptors giving Biyombo more than 8 million a year. Don’t get me wrong. I acknowledge that he provided incredible value in regards to his defensive instincts and intensity. He really stepped up big time when JV went down.
However, that’s just it. JV is Toronto’s center of the future. While Bis brought it in the absence of JV, the latter stepped up when DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were slumping in the playoffs. The big Lithuanian has a bright future in the league and doesn’t shy away from high-pressure moments.
After analyzing each individual’s impact on the team and their numbers, it’s clear that DeRozan is much more important to the teams success than Biyombo. Therefore, if I were Masai, I would prioritize the re-signing of DeMar over that of Bis.
About that 9th pick…
While the Raptors did take care of business in the playoffs, president and general manager of basketball operations Masai Ujiri was at the draft lottery representing his team. In case some of you are unaware, Masai’s first rule of action as GM of the Raptors was getting rid of Andrea Bargnani, dumping him off to the New York Knicks and retaining legitimate assets, including an unprotected first round pick for this year. As a result, the Dinos are slotted to pick 9th in the draft.
After such an historic run this season, the team is in win-now mode meaning there isn’t time for developing rookies. With the emergence of Norman Powell and the promising future of Delon Wright, not to mention the potential of Bruno Caboclo, the best Toronto can do in accommodating another draft pick is sending him straight to Raptors 905.
In addition to this pick, Masai and his team also have the 27th pick in this years draft and another 2 in next years draft. Given the current state of the team, it is very unlikely that adding 4 rookies over the next 2 years is a situation which they will encounter.
With that being said, the most favourable scenario would be to build a package around the pick and Terrence Ross. Why Ross? He simply hasn’t progressed. Instead of taking time to improve his game, Ross goes on social media and retaliates to fans that are critical of his play and those that take it even farther. That also puts the spotlight on a potential maturity issue of Ross, which would be detrimental to the teams chemistry going forward.
The Raptors have no shortage of options in regards to what the team can do with the pick. Masai Ujiri might choose to keep it and build for the future without mortgaging the present, which wouldn’t be surprising at all. In my opinion, the Raps need to use this pick to trade for a proven player (preferably a stretch power forward) that can help the squad reach the NBA Finals.
This brings me to my next point…
With the NBA salary cap is expected to jump from $70 million in 2015-16 to $90 million in 2016-17, the Raptors will have to be creative in finding ways to acquire talent via free agency. As it stands, the organization paid $71,337,189 in contractual obligations during the 2015-16 season. Even with DeRozan and Biyombo coming off the books, Toronto’s payroll is expected to increase to $79,144,959 at the start of the 2016-17 season.
This is significant because the team would be just below 10 million under the cap. They wouldn’t pay any luxury taxes if they were to sign a player to a deal anywhere within that 10 million. However, if the Raptors decided to trade a player to a team with cap space, that frees up money and gives them flexibility for this summer.
As mentioned before, Terrence Ross received a $30 million, 3 year contract and hasn’t shown any signs of progression. He’s 25 and still has yet to show any signs of consistency. With that being said, his ability to knock down the 3 and defend the perimeter can be overlooked. By no means is a “3-D” guy, but the man plays small forward and is 6’7, weighing in at 195lbs. In other words, there is no room on this team for him.
Norman Powell has proven to be too good to ignore and Delon Wright is a tall point guard that has already flashed potential of becoming a really good player in this league. And again, there’s Bruno who’s now officially 2 years away (hey, Fran Fraschilla). With these projects already showing promise and Ross not serving any real purpose, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Terrence will be wearing a different jersey next season.
Asides from Toronto’s own free agents, some of the top targets in free agency include Kevin Durant and Al Horford. While Durant’s likely to demand the max, Horford’s value seems unclear. He’s definitely one of the most skilled big men in a league devoid of bigs with low-post moves. If the Raptors were to get Durant, an appearance to the Finals would be out of the question. If the Dino’s were somehow able to acquire Horford, the team would have solved it’s power forward solution.
Other free agent targets include Nicolas Batum, Pau Gasol, and Ryan Anderson. While none of these players figure to receive or demand the max, they all can contribute to contending teams and be key rotation players whether starting or coming off the bench.
Throughout the year, there were rumours of Batum wanting to sign with Toronto after his first year with the Charlotte Hornets. However, after a short but competitive playoff run with the Queen City, it’s unclear what decision Batum will make in free agency.
Pau Gasol has been around the league for quite some time now and has 2 rings under his belt. At the age of 35, he’s still able to produce solid numbers for teams. After averaging 16.5 points, 11 boards and 4 assists with the Chicago Bulls, Gasol’s only priority is to win. Should he choose to give the Raps an interview, the opportunity to win would be a given. This team went to the Eastern Conference Finals without a solid power forward, toggling with the 4 position all season long. Toronto would also provide a large Spanish community for Gasol.
An ideal fit at the 4 for the Raptors includes Ryan Anderson. I know, Anderson is no defensive specialist but he’s the definition of a “stretch 4”. The man can shoot the ball from anywhere on the court, boasting career averages of 13 points and 6 boards on 42% shooting from the field, 38% from beyond the arc and 86% from the charity stripe. On top of that, he’s behind Anthony Davis on the depth chart for the New Orleans Pelicans.
It’s funny. I remember during the Vince Carter and Chris Bosh days when even the mention of “Toronto Raptors” and “NBA Championship” was only used in an ironic context. It’s now 2016 and the Raps were only 2 wins away from the Finals. It’s without a question, a step in the right direction. I think re-signing DeMar and trading for another proven player will be the next steps this squad will take to winning an NBA title. They need a solid veteran that can shoot the 3-ball and play defense.
In that regard, I can’t stress just how important it is for the Raptors to be careful of any rookies they may have to welcome next year. This summer is the first time that Toronto is validated with their optimism for the future. After reaching the Conference Finals, there’s a lot at risk but continuity is necessary. This team likes one another and they play well together, trusting each other in crucial moments.
The Toronto Raptors are heading in the right direction. With Masai Ujiri at the helm, their inclusion in the championship conversation just got a lot more serious.