The Raptors have officially been eliminated from playoff eligibility for the first time in eight seasons. It was a tough season filled with adversity ranging from Covid scares to injuries to playing home games 1,000 miles from Toronto. Happily, we can close this chapter and look on with hope for a fresh start in the 2021/22 season.
With the disappointment of this year’s team, there are some difficult decisions to be made this offseason. What caused the drop from just missing the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2019/20 bubble to failing to even qualify for a play-in series this year? What can GM Bobby Webster and company do to get the Raptors back to contender status?
Here is one potential path that they could take. This is a relatively conservative approach that works under the assumption that this team, as currently constructed, is a much better squad than this year’s brutal record shows.
Let’s get into it:
The Lowry Dilemma
The biggest name Raptor (as far as players go, at least) heading into free agency this offseason is Kyle Lowry. Lowry is considered by many to be the Raptor’s GOAT, as the driving force behind a decade of playoff runs and the vocal leader of the 2019/20 championship squad.
At 35 years old, the end is on the horizon for Lowry as an All-Star level point guard. However, he is still playing at a very high level. Lowry averaged 17.2 points, 5.4 boards, and 7.3 assists per game on the season.
The Raptors have considerable depth at the point guard position. Fred VanVleet, who currently starts at the two, is a natural point guard. Malachi Flynn, this past year’s first-round pick, showed a great deal of potential in his limited play. So, what to do with Kyle Lowry?
Bring him back one more time
I would propose bringing Lowry back on a two-year deal. It is difficult to determine exactly what Lowry’s value will be on the open market, but it is entirely possible he would be willing to take a minor hometown discount to retire in the city that made him a champion and a legend.
A two-year deal worth around $20 million per season would be a considerable reduction from the $30 million he made this past season. It is still a very generous deal for a player who will be 36 years old next season on the back nine of his career.
Lowry is still a borderline All-Star and one of the great leaders in the league today. If the Raptors want to truly contend next year, his leadership will be critical.
He has a reputation for getting the best out of the Raptor’s “bench mob.” He would likely retain starting point guard duties, but Nick Nurse could also hand the reigns to Fred VanVleet as the full-time starter. This could give a returning Gary Trent Jr. a chance to play an even bigger role. Kyle Lowry would instantly be the front runner for Sixth Man of The Year if they made this move. Lowry would also mesh with a solid backup unit featuring Chris Boucher and Malachi Flynn.
In the best-case scenario, Lowry plays out his two-year deal at a high level and rides into the sunset of retirement as a Raptor at its conclusion.
Fixing the Front Court
The biggest weakness for the Raptors this season was at the center position. Letting both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka walk in the previous offseason was a mistake. Aron Baynes was not the answer, as his play fell off across the board this year. Back up Alex Len was cut a few months into the season.
Chris Boucher broke out this year, but his frail frame is a bad matchup against Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and the bigger centers of the world. The Raptors need a big, strong, skilled body to get them back into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.
So, who is the best fit to fix this front court?
How about a familiar face?
Serge Ibaka has a player option in his Clippers contract this offseason. Scheduled to make just over nine million next season if he opts in, Ibaka would be doing himself a disservice, not to opt-out and test the market.
If he opts out, I recommend the Raptors give him the deal they should have last season. The Raptors should offer Ibaka a nice raise with a contract in the area of two years, worth $14 million per season.
Ibaka is still just 31 years old and has only gotten better as he entered his early thirties in several aspects of his game. He is a staunch defender, a solid rebounder, and while not the dominant shot-blocker he was early in his career, he is still an intimidating rim protector. He was a great leader and mentor for Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. He would bring back more of the championship culture of the 2019/20 Raptors team.
Bringing back Ibaka, of course, makes Aron Baynes expendable. Decline his team option and let him walk.
Retaining Key Free Agents
The Raptors have three other pending free agents this offseason aside from Kyle Lowry and Baynes.
Stanley Johnson is a defensive specialist who has still never developed any form of an offensive identity. While he has had a handful of impactful moments over the past two seasons, we have seen his ceiling. It is time to move on.
Khem Birch had a breakout season for the Raptors this year. He averaged 11.6 points and 7.2 boards per game and showed that he has the ability to be a starting big in the league. Unfortunately, he likely outplayed what the Raptors can afford to retain him. Unfortunately, we have to let him walk.
Most importantly, we have Gary Trent Jr. At just 22 years old, Trent averaged 16.2 points per game since joining the Raptors at the trade deadline in a swap for Norman Powell. He is developing into a star and could be a part of the backcourt of the future along with Fred VanVleet. He is a restricted free agent, so the Raptors should look to do whatever it takes to match any offer sheets he receives and keep him in town.
Trent Jr. has been quoted expressing his love for the Raptors organization and the city of Toronto. He is an ideal fit for the organization. Bring him back.
At the time of writing this article, the Raptors are mathematically favored to land the eighth pick in the NBA draft. If that’s where they land, the Raptors should look to draft Florida State Freshman Scottie Barnes. Barnes is an athletic power forward with a 7’2” wingspan who can defend, pass and is developing a shot.
He would add to the depth behind Ibaka, Siakam, and Boucher. He would be in a great, low-pressure position to continue his development.
With one of their two second-round picks, I would like to see the Raptors take a shot at a developmental point guard. Perhaps Oral Roberts’ Max Abmas could be a fit. Miles McBride of West Virginia would be a great addition should be fall to the second round. I won’t spend too much time here. Masai is legendary for his skill at finding deep talent in the draft. In Masai we trust.
The Lineup for 2021/22
Let’s take a look at where these moves would leave the Raptor’s 15-man lineup to start the 2021/22 season:
- PG: Kyle Lowry, Malachi Flynn, Max Abmas
- SG: Fred VanVleet, Jalen Harris, Paul Watson
- SF: OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Deandre Bembry
- PF: Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, Yuta Watanabe
- C: Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher, Freddie Gillespie
This lineup is very similar to the one that took Toronto within a game of the Eastern Conference Championship just one season ago in the bubble. The primary differences are the addition of Trent Jr., who appears to be an upgrade over Powell since the trade. As noted, Nick Nurse could get creative and move Lowry to the bench to give Trent a chance to run with the starters.
Chris Boucher has developed into a starting-caliber big. Also, the team’s young core of Siakam, Anunoby, and VanVleet has only further developed and grown since.
They have a great blend of veteran leadership (Ibaka, Lowry) and young talent and athleticism. They have excellent depth with Boucher, Trent Jr., Flynn, Harris, and Bembry all showing great potential in their appearances this year.
Some may be disappointed if the Raptors don’t make any major splashes in free agency. However, looking at this year’s crop, outside of Ibaka there just isn’t a big name on the list that is affordable, interested in coming North of the border (sorry Kawhi hopefuls), or a true difference-maker.
Running it back with the core that had success in the bubble and is chocked full of NBA champions is the best bet at this point. Defensively, they are stocked with stoppers. Offensively, they have three talented point guards and an entire team of three-point shooters.
Unlike this past disappointment of a season, they should be able to play their home games back in Toronto as the Covid crises seem (hopefully) getting under control and the world is opening back up. The home-court advantage in Jurassic Park should not be underestimated.
There is no reason why this team can’t, at the very least, duplicate the success they had in 2020/21. I believe they can do even better. The Celtics took a step back, the Sixers have historically struggled against this Raptors group. The Raptors could and should jump back into a top-four position in the East.
This should be a 50-win squad and a favorite to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Bring Back Masai Ujiri
The most important move to be made for the Raptors ownership group is to retain their President and CEO, Masai Ujiri. Ujiri is, without question, one of the most talented and successful executives in the league. He has built the Raptors into champions, perennial contenders, and a destination where star players develop and stay for the long term.
For the Raptors to maintain their place as a preeminent franchise in the league, they must find a way to keep Ujiri in-house and leading the team into the future. Whatever the price, make it happen.
We will take a look at some other hypothetical strategies that the Raptors can take this offseason as the draft and free agency get closer.
More to come from Toronto.