If you haven’t already heard, the Toronto Raptors are on the list of teams pursuing the reigning back-to-back Most Valuable Player. Of course they are. Any team would love to add Giannis Antetokounmpo to their roster. It has been made very clear that they are using this Free Agency period to prepare for the chance to sign Giannis next summer. Who knows exactly how likely their chances are of landing him and there is no way to know until he signs his next contract, whether in Milwaukee or elsewhere. Raptors fans will salivate at the prospect of acquiring Giannis until the day (if) he signs a super max with the Bucks, but we must remember that he is just a piece of the puzzle and not the whole thing. An extremely important piece, of course.
We know that Giannis is one of the best players in the game today, but he alone cannot win an NBA championship (which is the case for most any Superstar in league history). Sure Kawhi Leonard was the key for the Raptors 2019 championship run, but the rest of the team around him was equally necessary. Leonard is already calling for change to the Los Angeles Clippers roster after a second round exit in year one with his new team. Look at Steph Curry, a three time NBA champion, he could not win without Kevin Durant and a hobbled Klay Thompson in 2019. We know that Lebron James has infamously had rosters overhauled to create a champion. James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, have gone their whole careers unable to find that perfect formula to win it all. Its not an easy task.
We’ve seen what the Bucks have tried in Milwaukee with Giannis. The results have not been abysmal – however, they have not won the ultimate prize. The 2019-2020 Raptors were a team constructed around Leonard… minus Leonard. They can replace that superstar void with Giannis,but he has different needs than Kawhi did. So how exactly should the Raptors look by the start of the 2021-2022 season, assuming they can land Giannis Antetokounmpo? Well they have options.
The Starting Front-court
In Milwaukee, Giannis has been paired with a Center in Brook Lopez. He served as a solid option as a good rim protector and stretch big. His other front court partner, Khris Middleton, is an elite shooter and solid wing defender. The Raptors have a chance to become a revolutionary front court with Giannis in the mix. Imagine an OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Giannis front-court. Sure you don’t have a traditional centre in this lineup, but you have three players who can switch on to any defensive matchup. How nice would that have been during last postseason after watching Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka get cooked when switched onto Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum. Not only is this trio extremely versatile, they might be three of the top 10-20 defenders in the entire NBA at any position. Any one of them can fill in as a centre on defence and provide floor spacing on offence better than most other centres.
Photo from – Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
The only other Raptors currently with the team who are candidates for a position here are Gasol and Ibaka. It is unlikely that Gasol will return this season (never mind next) and even if he does he is already showing signs of his age. Ibaka could be an option if OG is moved to the shooting guard, but that would really crowd the rim with a Siakam-Giannis-Ibaka trio who aren’t elite shooters. I like the idea of Ibaka being a sixth or seventh man, but he may be priced out of the team.
The Raptors could look to move Siakam or OG for a back court player such as Bradley Beal, or Jrue Holiday. This is intriguing, but unlikely. If they were to move OG, they could look for help elsewhere in 10-12 million dollar options like Christian Wood, Richaun Holmes, or acquire a player like Jarrett Allen in a trade. Myles Turner could be an option as he is rumoured to be moving on from the Indiana Pacers. He would likely cost them either OG, or a sign and trade involving Fred VanVleet.
The Starting Backcourt
The main question for the Raptors before this season begins is if they can bring back Fred VanVleet, who is currently an Unrestricted Free Agent – and looking to get paid. Fred is an elite shooter from distance, as well as an elite defender. He can guard shifty point guards (like Kemba Walker, or Steph Curry) better than almost anyone in the league. Further, Fred is a good passer and an adequate floor general. He likely cannot be the primary ball handler on a championship-level team and benefits from spending time playing off ball to get open looks. He profiles similar to a former teammate of Giannis, in Malcolm Brogdon, who fit very well with Giannis. If they can keep Fred in that 18-22 million dollar per year contract, he figures to be a good third or fourth option on a team with Giannis.
Next, we have our beloved Kyle Lowry. Kyle signed a one year extension before last season that keeps him with the Raptors until next summer. This is a tricky one. Lowry would surely be a compliment for Giannis, but how much can we expect from a 35 year old point guard? Last season he was arguably the best player on the team. This season he needs to be just as good if the Raptors want to hang with the top dogs in the Eastern Conference. To me, the answer is easy: never give up on Kyle Lowry. Barring a complete fall off this season it would be wise to keep Lowry’s leadership and talents into the Giannis era if he can be afforded alongside the rest of the younger core.
Norman Powell is a potential in-house candidate if Kyle leaves for a starting backcourt position alongside Fred. Personally, I don’t love the fit. Norm isn’t a good enough passer or floor general to work with Freds inefficiencies in running an offence. For the same reason, I don’t believe that moving OG to the backcourt and going with a really big lineup would be the solution either. Norm could be a valuable bench piece for this team as a scoring option, but there is a good chance that they will have to move on from him to clear space for Giannis with Fred, OG, and Kyle needing new contracts as well.
If the Raptors are to lose Kyle or Fred (or both but let’s hope not) they should look elsewhere to fill the void. Victor Oladipo will be a Free Agent and has been linked to the Raptors. Injuries are a concern with Oladipo, and who knows what his price range will be on a new contract. Caris LeVert would be an intriguing option to replace Fred if he is to walk the summer. He will likely cost a decent price in a trade, but he has shown flashes of brilliance as a ball handler and playmaker with the Brooklyn Nets. Evan Fournier will be a UFA next summer and could be a cheaper solution than the above mentioned, which would leave some cap space for the bench. He is a decent playmaker, a good shooter, and a somewhat capable ball handler that can be a high-end 5th starter. A VanVleet-Fournier backcourt isn’t ideal, but could be a solid backup plan. The options are thin and unless an unlikely candidate emerges for this position I would take an ageing Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet over any other option.
Depending on how the starters are shaped the bench can take many different variations. If the Raptors are loading up with the Starters, the bench will have to be full of affordable players. As much as I love Norm and Serge, I find it unlikely that they will be able to be a part of the team due to cap restrictions. Additionally, It seems unlikely that Terance Davis will be around as he deals with off-court issues. Matt Thomas grew a lot as the season went on, and would be an awesome threat off the bench mixed into lineups with starters to throw different looks at opponents. Pat McCaw still exists and could figure into the deep bench. Others such as: Oshae Brissett, Paul Watson Jr, Chris Boucher, Dewan Hernandez, and Stanley Johnson could fit into the equation if they show growth with the Raptors this season.
Of course, the Toronto Raptors have two drafts before the 2021-2022 season that could see them land players to fill the bench on cheap contracts. Ideally, whomever they draft with the 29th pick next week will be a third point guard behind Fred and Kyle, or a second string big off of the bench as a 7th-9th man. This could be Theo Maldeon, Malachi Flynn, Xavier Tillman, among others that could be a contributor with this Raptors Lineup.
As for players that could be targeted by the Raptors from elsewhere, there are options. One option that I believe would be a fantastic bench fit is former Raptor Delon Wright. He is long, a solid defender, as well as a good playmaker that would allow the Raptors to mix in different looks than the undersized Fred and Kyle point guard lineups. He is under contract for two more years but could be acquired for a reasonable price. If they go with the no true centre lineup, it would be important to have a good one coming off the bench. Tristan Thompson, Aron Baynes, or Daniel Theis all would be players who would be strong off the bench, a reasonable price, and capable of starting when other players are injured.
Three different Top-10 Player rotation options
The Toronto Raptors have plenty of flexibility for a Giannis led team. They are a team with plenty of versatility and are ready to add a Superstar. Masai and company will have many options moving forward. Here are my three favourite options for a primary 10 player Raptors rotation for the 2021-2022 season, assuming they land their prized target Giannis Antetokounmpo. Of course, variations of these could be achieved as well.
Option 1 – Familiar Faces
– Keep the pick this year and draft a big.
– Trade Powell for Delon Wright and a 2nd round pick
– Sign Thompson for the Mid-Level (Serge would be priority one but is likely priced out)
PG – Kyle Lowry
SG – Fred VanVleet
SF – OG Anunoby
PF – Pascal Siakam
C – Giannis Antetokounmpo
BENCH – Delon Wright
BENCH – Matt Thomas
BENCH – Tristan Thompson or Serge Ibaka
BENCH – Paul Watson Jr
BENCH – Xavier Tillman
Option 2 – Trade the vets
– Trade Kyle and Serge to acquire LeVert and Allen.
– Draft a guard.
– Trade Norm for Fournier to add playmaking (could also just stick with Norm).
PG – Fred VanVleet
SG – Caris LeVert
SF -OG Anunoby
PF -Pascal Siakam
C -Giannis Antetokounmpo
BENCH – Jarrett Allen
BENCH -Evan Fournier or Norman Powell
BENCH -Theo Maledon
BENCH -Paul Watson Jr
BENCH -Chris Boucher
Option 3 – Fred leaves, let’s get crazy
– Sign and trade Fred to the Pacers for Myles Turner.
– Trade OG to the Pelicans with picks to acquire Jrue Holiday.
– Keep Norm, we have enough playmaking with Lowry and Jrue.
– Sign Baynes (Maybe Thompson or Theis instead). Ibaka will be priced out.
PG – Kyle Lowry
SG – Jrue Holiday
SF – Pascal Siakam
PF – Giannis Antetokounmpo
C – Myles Turner
BENCH – Norman Powell
BENCH – Aron Baynes
BENCH – Matt Thomas
BENCH – Paul Watson Jr
BENCH – Chris Boucher