It feels like so long ago now, but less than a month ago Toronto concluded the best regular season in franchise history with a win total and point differential only surpassed by the Rockets. Despite largely similar personnel to last season, especially at the top, coach Dwane Casey was able to overhaul the Raptors’ offense as they moved from sixth to third while also improving from tenth to fifth on defense.
That growth came from some remarkable places, as stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry embraced changing their approach while the Raptors also saw significant improvement from Pascal Siakam, Jonas Valanciunas, Fred VanVleet and so many others. Inconceivably, the bench lineup of VanVleet, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, Siakam and Jakob Poeltl ended the season with a NetRtg of +17.1, the second-best mark of any five-man combination that played 300 or more minutes.
Of course, that all feels different after Cleveland eliminated Toronto for the third consecutive year and second straight sweep. Many of those regular season gains evaporated under playoff pressure without a clear-cut fix for either Casey or team president Masai Ujiri. This complicated series of factors puts both ownership and management in an unusual place heading into a significant summer.
Here are three key storylines to watch for Toronto this offseason:
One of the 2017-18 season’s biggest success stories was the undrafted VanVleet becoming both a valued bench contributor and frequent game closer for the Raptors in just his second season. Restricted free agents with just two years of NBA experience are subject to what is commonly known as the “Arenas provision” that limits other teams from offering a salary higher than the mid-level exception for the first two years of an offer sheet, though it can push as high as the player’s maximum after that, as was famously the case with Jeremy Lin back in 2012. While it appears unlikely VanVleet will get a deal that extreme, another team could challenge the Raptors since he may be the second most desirable point guard free agent behind Chris Paul due to a series of injuries and disappointing seasons at the position. The front office can be proactive and try to secure a deal with VanVleet before an offer sheet or make a bet that the limited cap space around the league will work in their favor.
The luxury tax
Last summer, Toronto attached their 2018 first-round pick to DeMarre Carroll’s contract in order to get under the luxury tax. They were able to replace him remarkably effectively with young players, but it remains to be seen if the front office faces the same pressure this time around after a very successful regular season. Jonas Valanciunas appears to be the most likely export should that sort of move need to happen, but the Raptors only have two seasons left with Lowry and Ibaka under contract so ownership may be more willing to pay some luxury tax for one or both of those years to make the most of the opportunity.
If ownership wants to truly maximize the 2018-19 season, they also have two trade exceptions to work with for the first two weeks of July: $11.8 million from the Carroll trade and $7.6 million from sending Cory Joseph to Indiana one day later. People focus on potential trades due to the name, but another potential use for them is claiming players off waivers and there could be some intriguing talent cut or bought out between now and mid-July as teams try to clear space or breathing room under the tax. Depending on who is willing to take the mid-level exception with them, Toronto might be able to find a better value with a trade exception than the MLE.
Potential free agents: Fred VanVleet (Restricted), Lucas Nogueira (Restricted) and Alfonzo McKinnie (Non-Guaranteed)
Likely summer of 2018 cap space:None
Realistic maximum summer of 2018 cap space (using $101M estimate):None
2018 Draft assets: None. First-round pick owed to Brooklyn and second-round pick owed to Phoenix.
Potential targets: Due to their remarkable depth, the biggest need for the Raptors to fill with their mid-level exception would presumably be replacing anyone who departs through trade or free agency. There would be a slew of center options if Ujiri finds a taker for Valanciunas, fewer at point guard if VanVleet gets an onerous offer sheet, and even fewer on the wing should they make a bigger move.
Another creative solution if ownership does not want to foot the full MLE bill would be offering contracts worth more than the minimum that could potentially be only partially guaranteed as well. That structure gives potential end-of-the-roster players more financial upside than most other teams would offer and some money for their trouble if Toronto chooses someone else for the final spot. They could also save the MLE, which reduces in value after January 10, to have a larger salary to offer on the buyout market after the trade deadline.
Pressure scale: 8
This is only a pressure-packed offseason if management feels the need to change up after this unusual season. Every key contributor other than VanVleet is under contract for at least one more year and a vast majority for two or more. Before the playoffs started, it appeared more plausible that ownership would be willing to pay a modest luxury tax bill for a season or two but any hesitation on that front also ratchets up the challenge for Ujiri. Most of the straightforward ways to avoid or reduce the tax bill involve making the team worse for next season, though that was the conventional wisdom when they used a first-round pick to dump Carroll and ended up not being the case.
The biggest factor that could dissipate this pressure would be if another team overvalues one of the Raptors on a big contract. These situations are notoriously hard to predict but happen consistently. After all, it only took one team thinking Andrea Bargnani was a positive on his contract to get Toronto out of the final two years and it would be a much smaller leap for a GM to see how they could utilize Ibaka or Valanciunas. If management is willing to listen, the same could be said for DeRozan and Lowry, as well. The Raptors have a series of fascinating players in this vein and it would only take one overzealous general manager to move Toronto under the luxury tax and two to partially overhaul the roster without giving up significant assets.
State of the franchise: To Be Clarified
There may not be a more fascinating example of the difficulty defining success in the NBA than the Raptors this offseason. They put together the most successful regular season in franchise history and were the best team in the Eastern Conference for 82 games. Those statements are no less true after their sweep at the hands of LeBron and the Cavaliers, though they ring pretty hollow.
Reasonable people can take these inputs in remarkably different directions, especially considering the uncertainty in the rest of the East. This could be James’ final run in the Eastern Conference, which would open up a clearer path to the NBA Finals than the Raptors have seen despite all their recent success. The Celtics and 76ers are looming but do not have the intimidation factor, at least not yet. Keeping this team together for at least another year becomes substantially more desirable should that occur. Of course, James could also stay in Cleveland or join a different East team to change the balance of power against the Raptors long-term.
Others could see the league’s second-best record and point differential as a triumph in and of itself that does not require playoff success as validation. Most franchises would love to be consistently relevant while still possessing the ability to duck under the luxury tax when necessary with their veteran star players only having a few more years under contract. Toronto’s young players have also improved so much over the last few years that they could grow into even more dynamic talents that could supplement or even replace the current starters soon enough. Furthermore, there is not a reasonable way to trade enough away to make the Raptors bad enough to get a strong draft pick, so some of the biggest fruits of an overhaul are off the table, at least for now.
There is not a “right” answer to how the Raptors should define success, but ownership and the front office needs to decide their unified answer because that will guide their challenging, fascinating offseason.