“Sometimes we create our own heartbreaks through expectation,” a wise soul once shared with the world. Heading into the 2020-2021 NBA season, most followers of the Toronto Raptors were likely a tad too optimistic about the team heading into Tampa. Certainly, almost everyone underestimated the effect of moving 2,000 kilometres South of the border to play an entire 72-game season on the road during a global pandemic. Compounded by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka which were unsatisfactorily cushioned by the signing of Aron Baynes, in addition to the fact that Nick Nurse struggled throughout the entire season to find a reliable bench unit, setting a team record of using 37 different starting lineups, naming year this an adverse one would seem like an understatement.
Nonetheless, this season is finally over – despite the meaningful portion of the campaign having concluded several weeks ago. The Raptors – as explained by coach Nurse last week – still won’t be moving back to Toronto for a while. Exit interviews, in addition to draft scouting, prospect workouts, and hosting various other meetings within the front office will all occur in Tampa Bay for the time being, until the team gets a green light from the federal government that they will be able to play next season North of the border. Regardless, Larry Tanenbaum, Bobby Webster and company will all have a long to-do list that they’ll have to get started on ASAP.
The obvious omission from the aforementioned list is Masai Ujiri, who in addition to the greatest Raptor of all-time, is also a free agent this summer. There has been speculation for several years now regarding whether the New York Knicks might try to poach him, however with their newfound success this season under the management of Leon Rose, it is beyond doubt that owner James Dolan will opt not to change anything within their front office.
Larry Tanenbaum has stated several times that Masai won’t be going anywhere, and that despite the fact that conversations surrounding Ujiri’s extension had stalled mid-season, he remains confident that the former Executive of The Year will remain a Raptor. Should Ujiri choose not to stay in Toronto to help usher in a new era of basketball success, he’ll likely have his sights set on something bigger than controlling a basketball front office – such as maybe getting involved with the newly founded Basketball Africa League.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Following the events of March 25th, 2021, fans of the Toronto Raptors hoped that any talk of Kyle Lowry playing for a team other than the dino’s would become eviscerated. After only appearing in nine contests after the trade deadline however, speculation of the six-time All-Star heading elsewhere this offseason has begun to run rampant again.
As the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat were preparing to have a bidding war over Lowry late in March, Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Philadelphia native would be seeking a contract in the two-year, $50 million range upon hitting free agency. Since the Raptors own his bird rights, they would be one of just seven teams capable of offering the guard that hefty of a salary. Other teams who could get into the mix and sign Lowry outright without having to work out a sign-and-trade include the New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, and Memphis Grizzlies.
If Lowry decides to walk, then his cap hold will come off the Raptors books, and they will be left with upwards of $34 million to play with in free agency. If he stays, then upon handling rookie contracts and re-signing one marquee restricted free agent, they will only have their exceptions available to them to round out the roster.
Before moving on, it’s important to recognize that both Khem Birch and Stanley Johnson are also unrestricted free agents this summer.
When Khem Birch was bought out by the Orlando Magic, The Ringer‘s Kevin O’Connor described his decision to join the Raptors mid-season as “his free agency.” Now that Birch has hit free agency officially, there’s no reason to be seen why he wouldn’t re-up with the Raptors at a reasonable price point.
On the other hand, Stanley Johnson’s stint with the team has not gone as expected. Nurse was quick to call him out during his first training camp with the Raptors for not working hard enough, and he’s struggled to find a spot in the rotation since then – aside from a short stretch of games this year when half of the roster was knocked out by COVID-19. It seems more likely at this point that a younger team seeking some defensive help on the wing would give Johnson a short-term contract to test him out, but it’s surely possible that the Raptors could bring him back on a minimum contract as injury insurance.
Restricted Free Agents
Earlier I alluded to one marquee restricted free agent that (hopefully) Masai Ujiri will have to deal with this August. That man is Gary Trent Jr. – who was not only the youngest player on the 2020-2021 Raptors roster – but who was quick to make an impact after arriving from the Portland Trail Blazers. Within his first few weeks wearing a Raptors uniform, he hit an improbable game-winning three-pointer over the Washington Wizards, and then proceeded to drop 44 points on 17-19 shooting against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
A big part of why the Raptors dealt Norman Powell for Trent Jr. in the first place is because of the gained control that the Raptors would have over Trent Jr.’s free agency, in addition to the youth that Trent Jr. brings to the table as well. It’s no secret that he will be donning a Raptors uniform next season – the only question that stands is concerning the price tag that he will stay for.
Trent Jr. is not the only young two-guard that the Raptors will be looking to keep on their books this summer. After they signed last year’s 59th pick, Jalen Harris, to a one-year contract, he finds himself in a position to negotiate his spot on the roster once again. After showing flashes of having a dynamic scoring ability down the home stretch of the season, it would be a mistake for the Raptors to let the Nevada product walk to another franchise. In his last outing of his rookie campaign, he poured on 31 points against the Dallas Mavericks, and nearly secured the Raptors a win.
Though the Raptors do not have to worry about any team or club options this offseason, there are several partially guaranteed salaries that they will have to look at heading into next season, including the likes of Chris Boucher, Aron Baynes, Rodney Hood, Freddie Gillespie, DeAndre’ Bembry, and Yuta Watanabe. Among the players on this list, the only one who should be confident about having his salary guaranteed is Chris Boucher, however if the team fails to retain Lowry, then Gillespie, Bembry, and Watanabe could all see their bank accounts spike as well.
After dealing Matt Thomas and Terence Davis Jr. to Utah and Sacramento respectively at this year’s trade deadline, the Raptors are well equipped with one lottery pick and two second-rounders heading into this year’s stacked draft. The NBA draft lottery is set to take place on June 22nd, where the Raptors will have the seventh best odds of landing the #1 overall pick, and a 32.5% chance of landing in the top-four. In the unlikely event that all of the ping pong balls bounce to perfection and the Raptors wind up with the seventh overall pick, there should still be several enticing prospects for them to take a look at – including Jalen Johnson, Scottie Barnes, Moses Moody, Keon Johnson, Davion Mitchell, and Ziaire Williams.
In addition to their top-ten pick, the Raptors will also have Memphis’ second round pick – which will land at #46, and Golden State’s second round pick – which will land at #47, although Detroit currently holds Toronto’s second rounder – which will land at #37. The bottom of the draft is always more volatile, and therefore harder to predict than the top, however some names to look out for if the Raptors opt not to trade either of those picks are Luka Garza, Quentin Grimes, Roko Prkacin, Scottie Lewis, and Isaiah Todd.
The Raptors currently have $34 million in practical cap space, however that money will be soaked up fast by Gary Trent Jr., Khem Birch, and potentially Kyle Lowry’s new contracts. Once the Raptors run out of cap space, they will still be able to re-sign Jalen Harris, and then they can continue to explore options to fill out the roster using their $9.26 million mid-level exception.
Finding a New Assistant Coach
Last week, Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun asked Nick Nurse whether he plans to fill the void in his coaching staff left by Chris Finch – who left part-way through the season to become the new head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Nurse responded that he’ll certainly look to add another coach to his staff, but he isn’t sure whether he will ultimately choose to promote someone from within the organization, or if he will choose to search externally.
One name for fans to keep an eye on will be Nate Bjorkgren – the current head coach of the Indiana Pacers, and former assistant coach of the Toronto Raptors. Per ESPN‘s Adrian Wojnarowski, Nate Bjorkgren’s future in Indiana is uncertain amid turmoil in the locker room. Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report released a disparaging article about the rookie head coach last week, however it should be noted that several Raptors players and staff have refuted statements and stories highlighted in the piece.
Ultimately, the front office will face numerous questions this summer on several different fronts. The biggest, and first domino to fall will be Masai Ujiri. If he stays, then Raptors fans will be able to find solace in knowing that no matter what happens, the second greatest Raptor of all-time will make sure that his team recaptures success one day. At this moment, the Raptors depth chart currently looks as follows:
|Malachi Flynn||Fred VanVleet||OG Anunoby||Pascal Siakam||Freddie Gillespie|
|DeAndre’ Bembry||Rodney Hood||Chris Boucher||Aron Baynes|
|Paul Watson Jr.||Yuta Watanabe|
Hold on, Raptors fans. This is going to be a wild ride.