How Close Are Toronto Raptors to a Rebuild?

Three weeks after winning their first NBA championship in franchise history, the Toronto Raptors’ feel-good summer came crashing to a halt.

Kawhi Leonard shook the league to its core by announcing he’d be signing with the Los Angeles Clippers, who had long been rumored as a possible free-agent landing spot for him. While the Los Angeles Lakers were left to lament the preemptive downfall of what could have been the best Big Three ever, the ramifications were even more far-reaching in Toronto.

Last year’s Raptors entered the season with dreams of winning a championship and convincing Leonard to re-sign with them. This year’s squad likely has the ceiling of a second-round knockout, with a retooling process looming shortly thereafter.

Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are all heading into the final year of their respective contracts, and each will be on the wrong side of 30 when the 2019-20 season begins. Fred VanVleet will also become an unrestricted free agent in 2020, and Pascal Siakam will become a restricted free agent if he and the Raptors don’t agree upon an extension by mid-October.

In other words, general manager Masai Ujiri has a number of enormous decisions to make between now and the February trade deadline.

According to Josh Lewenberg of TSN Sports, Ujiri doesn’t plan to do anything drastic just yet:

No one should begrudge Ujiri for standing pat at the moment. Any free agents who signed this summer—so, roughly 40 percent of the league—won’t be trade-eligible until Dec. 15 at the earliest. He will have far more flexibility come mid-December, especially once teams begin to see their new-look lineups in action.

Perhaps some other franchise’s bold offseason gamble will backfire, leaving it looking for an exit ramp. Having three gigantic expiring contracts on the books—Lowry is earning $35.0 million this season, while Gasol and Ibaka aren’t far behind at $25.6 million and $23.3 million, respectively—should help Toronto facilitate deals from a salary-matching perspective.

May 5, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) is covered by the defense of Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) and center Serge Ibaka (9) and center Marc Gasol (33) and guard Danny Green (14) during the fourth quarter in game four of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Besides, the Raptors who remain deserve to have their moment in the sun. Especially Lowry, who has spent the past seven years in Toronto and will go down as one of the franchise’s all-time greats, will get to bask in the glow of a ring night in a Raptors uniform.

That rationale admittedly might not be optimal from an asset-maximization standpoint. (In theory, teams would be willing to give up more for a full year of a player on an expiring contract instead of a few-months rental.)

Then again, franchises might not be clamoring to give up significant assets for veterans in their mid-30s like Gasol or Lowry anyway. The Raptors may have to lower their asking price as the trade deadline approaches, which could actually drive up the market and number of suitors for each.

The Raptors shouldn’t necessarily be in a hurry to flip any of their expiring contracts. Outside of the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, no team stands out as an obvious Finals contender in the Eastern Conference.

The Boston Celtics retooled fine enough in the wake of losing Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, but the latter’s departure could prove disastrous for their defense. The Brooklyn Nets likely won’t be true contenders until Kevin Durant returns from his Achilles injury in 2020-21. The Indiana Pacers might be the third-best team in the East by default, but Victor Oladipo’s early-season availability remains in question as he recovers from a torn quad tendon.

Thus, while Raptors would likely be a fringe playoff team in the West, they can likely sleepwalk into an Eastern sixth or seventh seed at worst if they stand pat this season. They could turn 2019-20 into a yearlong celebration of their title-winning squad before turning their eye to the future in the summer of 2020.

However, Ujiri shouldn’t allow the pull of a playoff berth to sway him from trading away Lowry, Gasol or Ibaka ahead of the February deadline if the right deal comes along. Getting something in exchange for them—even if it’s only a protected first-round pick or multiple second-rounders—is better than losing them for nothing in free agency.

Jun 13, 2019; Oakland, CA, USA; Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri (right) hugs guard Kyle Lowry (7) after defeating the Golden State Warriors in game six of the 2019 NBA Finals to win the NBA Championship at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit:Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors have Bird rights on all three players, which might increase their trade appeal. Capped-out teams without a realistic pathway to acquire a second or third star could view them as a viable alternative to a big offseason splash, particularly given the lackluster 2020 free-agent class.

With the league more wide-open than it’s been in years, some GM may view Lowry, Gasol or Ibaka as a possible difference-maker in the playoffs. The lack of a Golden State Warriors-esque dynasty may convince more teams to go all-in this season, future costs be damned. and that’s where the Raptors should strike.

Losing Lowry, Gasol or Ibaka may be painful for Raptors fans still cherishing the memory of their championship-run heroics, but it’s inevitable. Whether they leave in trades this winter or via free agency next summer, none of them should be long-term fixtures in Toronto. The Raptors are Siakam’s team now, while other young players such as VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Norman Powell and Stanley Johnson will have increased opportunities to put their own stamp on the process.

As long as Siakam remains in Toronto, the Raptors will be too good to outright tank, so a full rebuild won’t be on the table. Besides, it’s unclear whether Ujiri believes in a Sam Hinkie-esque teardown in the first place.

“You play ball to win,” he told then-Grantland’s Zach Lowe in 2013. “It’s difficult to teach winning by losing. There is value in winning. If it comes to a point where you feel like the team is not what you felt it was, then I think you can react. But I think the team will dictate where we go.”

At the time, Ujiri had just traded Rudy Gay to the San Antonio Spurs, and it appeared as though Lowry would be the next one out the door. Instead, the Raptors promptly kicked off the greatest stretch in franchise history, which culminated with a coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy less than six years later.

Toronto might not return to the Finals stage for a while, but with Ujiri at the helm, they’re in good hands. How he approaches the upcoming decisions with Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka will go a long way toward shaping the post-Leonard future.