It feels a little early, yet the NBA trade deadline is just under three weeks away. Teams have until 3 p.m. on Feb. 7 to fortify their rosters via the trade market. That includes the Raptors, who own the second-best record in the league despite plenty of quality time lost to rest and injury but should still be looking to fortify wherever possible.
You don’t swap franchise players, land Kawhi Leonard with a one-year window to contend and convince him to stay and then get passive improving from there. If there’s a window to be aggressive, the Raptors should jump. Whether that window presents itself remains unclear. Team president Masai Ujiri has historically preferred to do his work in the offseason rather than the trade deadline with 2017 standing out as an exception. The Raptors are also a little light on assets.
Perhaps more importantly, teams around the league have been slow to reveal themselves as buyers or sellers owing in part to the parity of the Western Conference and the new lottery odds shifting the thinking on acceptable losing at different leverage points in the standings. There was an early start to this year’s transaction frenzy and things have since quieted to their normal levels. Whether this is the calm before the storm or a sign of a hushed marketplace this year is unclear and may depend on how the next fortnight plays out. As of this writing, 23 teams are still within four games of a playoff spot, at least a handful of which could be convinced to shift their eyes toward future seasons if a losing streak or a strong trade offer comes along.
The unofficial start of trade season means it’s time for a tradition I’m carrying over to The Athletic this year: The annual “why all your trade ideas are bad” mailbag. That’s coming later this week, though. (I will put out a tweet calling for suggestions/scenarios on Monday afternoon. Please respond there rather than in the comments here for ease of organization on my part.)
First, we have to go through the more practical part of the annual tradition: the trade deadline primer. What follows is an explainer on the different assets the Raptors have available to them, the rules regarding trades under the collective bargaining agreement and other areas of clarification people have asked about in the past or last week on Twitter.
This particular snapshot tends to be more useful for our summer free agency primer than the trade deadline one, but it can be helpful to refresh what the team looks like now and for periods into the future.
The Raptors are well over the salary-cap and luxury-tax markers right now and project to be once again next year if they retain Leonard and player options for C.J. Miles (a near-certainty) and Jonas Valanciunas (probable) are picked up. McCaw and Delon Wright are headed to restricted free agency if the team tenders them a qualifying offer, while Greg Monroe, Malachi Richardson and Danny Green will be unrestricted. (The Raptors hold full Bird rights on Green and can exceed the cap to re-sign him; they won’t have the luxury for Monroe, who they only have Non-Bird rights on, or Richardson, who is capped in what the Raptors can offer since they declined their 2019-20 team option on his deal.)
Any moves the Raptors make will take their long-term cap sheet into account. That could work two ways: they would likely be hesitant to eat long-term money unless it moves the needle significantly, particularly money that extends past 2020, and they would likely be eager to get out of a long-term obligation like that of Miles, who is unlikely to return value on his $8.7-million option for next year. You don’t always get to be that picky when making a deal — Miles’ contract will be hard to move, and eating money could be the best way to grease wheels in a seller’s market — so this is just to keep in mind when spinning through hypotheticals.
All salary data and cap info comes courtesy of Basketball Insiders, CBAFAQ.com, or my own calculations based on the CBA document or reporting.
As things stand, the Raptors would be set to pay $34.7 million in luxury tax after the year. That could be even higher if Kyle Lowry achieves incentives in his contract considered unlikely or if they acquire additional salary in a trade. As things currently stand, the Raptors are into the fourth bracket of the luxury tax, which means they’ll be charged $3.25 for every additional dollar of salary they add. If they add more than about $3.2 million, they’d bump into the next marginal bracket, paying $3.75 per dollar from there.
As outlined when discussing Lorenzo Brown being waived, any small savings could go a long way here, too, if the Raptors can manage to shed salary. It’s why I thought they may wait the full 14 days allowed between letting Brown go and signing a 14th player, as that would have saved them about $500,000. Instead, their only means of trimming the bill is to engage in a trade that sheds salary. Teams are charged the tax based on how their roster looks on the day of Game 82 (plus any waived salary like Brown’s) rather than as a running tally, so there is an opportunity to do so still. That wouldn’t seem to be a priority with how all-in the Raptors appear to be, but it’s real money and therefore a real consideration.
One other small note here: All of the Raptors’ contracts are now guaranteed for the year. That doesn’t mean they can’t cut someone, but unless they absolutely need a roster spot, it won’t make sense to since they’ll be paying the player (and the luxury tax on them) regardless.
Other Tradeable Assets
In addition to players, the Raptors have some other trade assets available to them.
C.R.E.A.M. – NBA teams are allowed to send $5.24 million in trades for the 2018-19 league year. That amount is a cumulative cap, meaning teams can’t trade additional money they’ve received. That’s relevant to the Raptors, as they received $5 million from the Spurs in the Leonard trade. The Raptors have their full $5.24-million allotment still available to send out, an amount that resets (and will increase in accordance with any salary cap increase) on July 1. They can only receive $243,000 in trade, on account of having received that $5 million already.
Draft picks – The Raptors included their 2019 first-round pick in the Spurs trade, which means not only is it not available, the Raptors also can’t include their 2020 first-round pick. That’s because of what’s known as The Stepien Rule which prevents teams from dealing futurefirst-round picks in consecutive years. I note future because once the 2019 draft passes, the Raptors can once again include their 2020 first, assuming they haven’t dealt their 2021 first by then.
The Raptors own all of their second-round picks but technically can’t trade their 2020 or 2023 seconds. That’s because if the 2019 first pick they owe the Spurs, which is lottery protected, doesn’t convey, it would become those two second-rounders. Even though there’s only an infinitesimal chance of the Raptors falling out of the playoffs this year, they can’t trade those seconds because in theory they could be owed to San Antonio.
Teams can trade picks up to seven years out, so the Raptors can trade their picks as far as 2025.
Player rights – The Raptors hold the draft rights to Emir Preldzic and DeeAndre Hulett, two players who are unlikely to ever see the NBA. These rights still hold value because NBA rules dictate that each side has to send something in any trade, and so outdated draft rights can work as a sort of currency. The Raptors also hold free-agent rights on Nando De Colo, Lucas Nogueira and Jason Thompson, but those rights are not eligible to be traded — they strictly apply to free agency. (In 2011, the NBA closed the loophole that previously existed where teams could use Bird rights to sign a free agent to include for salary matching purposes.)
Everyone on the Raptors’ roster is eligible to be traded except McCaw. Teams can’t trade a player until three months after signing them (unless it’s a sign-and-trade) or until Dec. 15, whichever comes later. In McCaw’s case, the three-month window will expire after the deadline.
Two-way contracts are allowed to be traded, by the way, but they don’t count for salary matching and can’t create a trade exception. The Raptors also couldn’t, say, convert Chris Boucher to an NBA contract and then include him in a trade, as the three-month window that applies to McCaw also applies after a two-way deal is converted. (This doesn’t mean Boucher or Jordan Loyd couldn’t be trade chips, just that they can’t help make any math work.)
In some years, there are a lot of complicating factors in this section. At times in the past, the Raptors have been operating as a below-cap team, an above-cap team or a hard-capped team. This year, they’re a luxury-tax team that also isn’t hard-capped. That means they face the harshest trade restrictions but it really simplifies what is and isn’t allowable from a salary matching perspective.
The Raptors can take back 125 percent of their outgoing salary, plus $100,000.
So if they send out $10 million, they can take back $12.6 million. If they send out $15 million, they can take back $18.85 million. If they send out, oh I don’t know, $8,333,333, they can take back $10,516,666. And so on. There are big luxury-tax considerations for taking on additional salary, as discussed, but the Raptors can theoretically continue to add to their cap sheet via trade.
It’s worth exploring the restrictions for other teams, as any trade will have to satisfy the rules for both teams. (Luckily, teams involved in a trade don’t have to structure trades the same way, so there’s some wiggle room here for structuring deals in a way that suits both teams. This is beyond the scope of this piece but you know Bobby Webster has these accounted for.) Here are the conditions other teams have to satisfy in a trade, per CBAFAQ.com:
There are three exceptions teams can use to get around the salary matching rules in trades.
Disabled Player Exception – Teams can apply for one of these if they lose a player for the year. The Raptors don’t have one.
Minimum Player Exception – Teams are always permitted to acquire minimum-salary players so long as they have the roster space.
Traded Player Exception – These are common in many trades and are not movable assets but rather something that is created automatically if a trade structure necessitates. Basically, if salaries don’t match and a team is over the cap, an exception is created. Once created, a team has a year to use the exception to take on additional salary.
The Raptors are holding two trade exceptions right now, one from the Spurs trade created by structuring the deal such that Jakob Poeltl was sent separately from Toronto’s side, and one from last year’s deadline created by structuring the deal similarly around Bruno Caboclo.
These exceptions aren’t incredibly helpful here, though they’re not without value. The biggest issue is that exceptions can’t be combined with each other or added to salary for matching purposes. They can only be used to acquire a player who fits into that exception, plus $100,000. What that means is that if the Raptors want to acquire someone who makes less than $3 million (roughly), they can absorb him with an exception. But they can’t combine these two for a $5-million player or add them to, say, Miles for a $13-million player.
The Poeltl exception is good until the summer and the Caboclo one expires the day after the deadline, so expect them to use the Caboclo one first if a salary fits.
The buyout market usually materializes after the trade deadline and will be a separate (and far simpler) piece later on. For now, I just wanted to note that not only do the Raptors have a 15th roster spot open to add a player, they also technically still have the prorated amount of the taxpayer mid-level exception available, so they can go beyond the minimum salary on the buyout market if there is a worthwhile player.
As noted in the luxury-tax table a few sections ago, though, even a minimum-salary player will cost about $36,000 per day once signed, so going beyond a minimum will get expensive fast.
Players have to be waived from their previous NBA roster by March 1 to be eligible for a playoff roster.