With Kawhi Leonard headed to Los Angeles, what should the Raptors do now?
He (didn’t) stay.
Star forward Kawhi Leonard signed with the Los Angeles Clippers for the maximum four years, $ 142 million US, the franchise confirmed on Saturday.
The Raptors did all they could to keep their Finals MVP. At his introductory press conference in Toronto, Leonard stated two priorities: To be healthy, and to win. The Raptors gave him both, carefully managing his load through the regular season before giving him the spotlight in the playoffs.
Now, the Raptors are tasked with replacing him. Except, as we just saw, Leonard is pretty close to irreplaceable.
With Leonard gone, the Raptors remain above the $ 109-million salary cap. That means the Raptors won’t be major players for the remaining free agents. In the NBA, you can only exceed the salary cap to re-sign your own players, barring a couple of complicated exceptions.
The road to improvement is virtually non-existent, unless we see a massive leap from younger players.
There are two paths Toronto could take: Stay the course, or blow it up.
Staying the course is dependent on the continued improvement of their young stars such as Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby to try to compensate for the glaring hole left by Leonard. That team would be good, but not many would consider them favourites to repeat.
Blowing it up would entail a complete rebuild. Think Toronto Maple Leafs circa 2015. Trade everyone, hand the roster over to the kids and tank for a pick. There are four unrestricted free agents after next season on the team: Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet. If the Raptors choose this route, those players could all be gone.
Neither option is ideal. But which one is preferable?
Stay the course
With news of Leonard’s decision, Danny Green already bid goodbye to Toronto, heading to Leonard’s cross-town rival Lakers on a two-year deal. The Raptors likely weren’t interested in pushing past the salary cap and into the luxury tax just to pay the sharpshooter, anyway.
Ownership just proved it would empty its pockets for a title, but without Leonard, the Raptors aren’t championship contenders. Still, the case to stay the course is twofold — business and spice.
The business reasons are fairly obvious. The Raptors just won the title, and won over tons of new fans along the way. It would be a bad look to turn heel and trade the likes of Lowry and Ibaka for future assets.
And they’re still a likely playoff team even without Leonard. Pascal Siakam won Most Improved Player last season and found himself in the all-star discussion. He’s still growing as a basketball player. Lowry’s been an all-star five consecutive years. In fact, Siakam and Lowry led the Raptors in scoring in the clinching Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
Siakam is poised to be the Raptors’ next star, so it would be wise to surround him with a competitive team, not a tanking one.
WATCH | Siakam pours in 26 points as Raptors win NBA title:
The Toronto Raptors won their first NBA title in franchise history with a 114-110 win in Game 6 of the NBA Finals over the Golden State Warriors. 2:56
Their starting lineup could look something like Lowry-Norman Powell-Anunoby-Siakam-Gasol. Mix in VanVleet and Ibaka off the bench and there’s a decent rotation — especially if one of their G-League contingent (Malcolm Miller, Chris Boucher, Jordan Loyd) prove to be serviceable.
The Raptors would also have something called the non-taxpayer mid-level exception contract to hand someone (up to four years, beginning around $ 10 million with five per cent annual raises). Former Raptors such as Terrence Ross and Cory Joseph reportedly landed slightly above this salary range, for example.
Anunoby is also an interesting case. Before the season, he was pegged by some as the likeliest Raptors breakout player, even ahead of Siakam. The death of his father and a bevy of injuries threw a wrench into those plans, but the flashes Anunoby showed with shooting and defence in his rookie season shouldn’t be forgotten.
His game and quiet demeanour even reminded some of a young Kawhi Leonard.
Blow it up
Masai Ujiri’s swap of DeMar DeRozan for Leonard signaled the Raptors president of basketball operations was unwilling to float along as mildly competitive.
It wasn’t good enough to win a round or even two. The Finals — and that Larry O.B. — were the goal.
A decision to stay the course now would thrust the Raptors right back into the DeRozan era in terms of competitiveness. And even that competitiveness would only last one year before the foursome of free agents hit the market.
If Lowry, Ibaka, Gasol and VanVleet all stay, the first three would be in the declining stages of their careers. Would it really be prudent to tie up cap space in that aging core and possibly cost yourself a chance to go big-game hunting in free agency in 2021, when reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo could be available?
Blowing it up would likely involve trading at least some of the four free agents to recoup draft picks and young players that could form the core of the next winning Raptors team. Lowry has value, though his nearly $ 35-million US salary greatly limits the number of interested teams. Same goes for Ibaka and Gasol.
Another consequence of trading veterans is the acquisition of cap space. Toronto could weaponize that theoretical cap space by taking on other teams’ bad deals with a sweetener of future draft picks, the same way the Carolina Hurricanes acquired Patrick Marleau along with a first-round pick.
That could allow the Raptors to line up their cap sheet for a pursuit of Antentokounmpo in 2021.
However, shedding the salaries of the incumbent free agents would be tough at this point of the off-season, with other teams already having used up most of their available money.
The Raptors, in this scenario, would likely miss the playoffs and enter the draft lottery, where we just saw the team with the eighth-worst record move to first overall and draft a generational talent in Zion Williamson.
A new young core would be well on its way. But first, as another Toronto coach once famously said, there would be pain.
Ujiri made a bold move last summer trading for Leonard. It might be time for another.