The Raptors find themselves heading into the upcoming off-season under very familiar circumstances as last season, however the team’s outlook is quite uncertain in comparison.
Last year was a breakout season for the upstart Raptors. They finished with a franchise-best 56-26 record, and made their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance in franchise history. While they were eliminated by the Cavaliers – the eventual NBA Champions – it appeared the Raptors had finally put the league on notice as legitimate contenders.
The Raptors faced free-agency with the task of resigning their All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, and as expected Mr. I-Am-Toronto stayed true to his name, returning to the team after inking a lucrative five-year, $139 million contract. The stage was set for the team to once again contend for the illusive Larry O’Brien Trophy.
This year however, following a lackluster second-round performance against the Cavaliers, the Raptors will need to address key concerns looming over the organization regarding the direction of the team and the fate of their impending free agents.
Re-signing their most notable free agent, Kyle Lowry, may be one of the toughest decisions the franchise will make this offseason. While it may seem like a no-brainer to re-sign their three-time All-Star, there are multiple factors that should be considered.
For starters, Lowry turned 31 this past March, and he carries a history of ankle, back and wrist injuries that have sidelined him for significant amounts of time in the past. Despite innovations in technology and player recovery methods, his gritty, relentless style of play will prove to be a major concern as the physical burdens on his body become harder to overcome.
His playoff performances are also worth mentioning, because despite the excellence he has displayed during the regular season, he has not been able to consistently carry over that level of play into the post-season. He’s had a lower player efficiency rating (PER) in the post-season, compared to the regular season over the Raptors’ last four playoff appearances, and his measurable statistics (points, assists, rebounds…etc) are also lower when compared in similar fashion (playoff vs. regular season)
All in all, however, Lowry is still a hell of a player. He is arguably a top-five point guard in the NBA, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another guard who excels on both ends of the court. But the decision to invest 30-40% of team payroll into a single player is substantial, and playoff performance is a crucial deciding factor.
The other free agents on the roster include Serge Ibaka, P.J. Tucker – both acquired at the trade deadline – and Patrick Patterson. Re-signing Lowry, and any combination of the other three free agents will most likely bring the Raptors over the luxury tax limit, which is an issue for most teams other than the Cavaliers (as I will explain in more detail below).
Masai has said in the past and most recently in the end-of-season press conference that he has the backing of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) to increase the team’s salary past the limit, so long as the team assembled is one that can win. And not just winning games, but winning a championship.
That is the biggest question for the Raptors this off-season: Is this team good enough to win?
Given what transpired in the playoffs, I am certainly not convinced that is the case. But consider this: The Raptors were on pace to historically be one of the best offences during the early part of the NBA season, and not just for a short stretch, but over the course of two months. Surely that is some indication of a championship-calibre basketball team within this group.
Another point to mention is the Ibaka and Tucker trades this past February. While the Raptors gained great value in both Ibaka and Tucker, they also lost their most consistent scorer off the bench in Terrence Ross, which proved to be critical down the stretch of the season and in the playoffs. The Raptors were simply unable to space the floor effectively for a full 48 minutes, an issue acknowledged by coach Dwane Casey and one he and the team plan on addressing this off-season (follow the link above for the full interview with Jeff Blair, he goes into the three-point shooting around the 10:15 mark).
Contrary to what we saw in the playoffs – which at times were truly some unbearable sequences of offence to watch – I don’t believe we’ve seen this team perform to its highest potential. Not simply that they are underachieving (which they are) but more so the fact that this team hasn’t had the chance to demonstrate what they can are capable of when everyone is on the same page. I’ll chalk it up to Lowry’s gimpy wrist, the unfamiliarity between teammates, and an offensive system that had its flaws.
Fact of the matter is; there isn’t comparable talent in the free agent market to replace someone like Kyle Lowry. Yes, there is a lot that can be made about his age, the injuries, and giving a player in that situation a max contract, but what are the other options? Even if the team renounced the cap holds on all four of their free agents, that would only leave roughly $21 million in cap room to sign new players, which in this day and age is hardly enough to sign even one marquee player.
The incentive to retain cap holds is very important to understand as it relates to re-signing players. When a player’s contract expires, even though he no longer is under an active contract, the player is still represented on the team’s salary via the cap hold. The cap hold is a calculation based on a percentage of the player’s salary in his last year of his contract.
Therefore, even if a team had impending free agents, until the cap holds are renounced, a percentage of the player’s salary would still count towards the team’s overall payroll, which limits how much the team could spend on signing new free-agents, as is the case for the Raptors, who would have -$34 million in cap space should they keep all their cap holds. However, by keeping a player’s cap hold, the team is granted Bird Rights (for that individual), an exception which allows a team to re-sign their own free agents past the salary cap limit.
A team can only go so far above the salary cap before there are consequences, in the form of a luxury tax. Prior to every season, the league sets the salary cap limit, and the luxury tax limit. Should a team decide to go above the luxury tax limit, they will need to pay a tax that can get quite substantial. For example, the Cavaliers paid a whopping $54 million in taxes for going $22 million over the luxury tax limit. Small price to pay for an NBA Championship I suppose. (Larry Coon has done a great breakdown of the salary cap and CBA, follow this link for a more detailed explanation).
All things considered, the best move for the Raptors at this point should be to re-sign Lowry and Ibaka. Lowry was out recovering from his wrist injury during the time Ibaka first joined the team, and the pair haven’t had a chance to become acquainted with each other (which was evident during the playoffs). Lowry himself looked off, most likely due to the wrist injury, and while that isn’t an excuse for his play, it certainly is a major reason why I anticipate that the team will look much better next season, especially after a full training camp together.
If the Raptors can bring Tucker back under a reasonable contract (and without going very far over the tax threshold), that would be a bonus for this team. who are desperate for a professional, veteran presence in the locker room. That leaves Patterson; and despite all his contributions to the team since being traded to Toronto in 2013, he is expendable at this point. Of course, all of this is a risk nonetheless; there are no guarantees. But as I have been saying, what are the other options?
At the end of the day, the goal for this team is to win a championship. The Raptors cannot create enough cap space to sign new players from renouncing their current cap holds alone. Unless Masai manages to somehow free up cap space by moving assets, there is no other scenario I can imagine where the Raptors remain competitive without re-signing those free agents.
This is the best roster Toronto has had in its franchise’s history. Yes, they underachieved this past season, but the expectations were high coming going in, only to be further amplified following the Ibaka/Tucker trades. This team deserves a chance to showcase what they are capable of on the court, and the only way that can be made possible is if the Raptors bite the bullet and go into the tax.
Despite what the critics will say, this team responds well in the face of adversity. Just remember, the Raptors posted their best season in franchise history following the first-round sweep to the Wizards just two seasons ago. After their latest post-season exit, I can only imagine the type of response we will be treated to come opening night.