By: Rossy Pasternak
There are a lot of moving parts in Masai Ujiri’s head right now. On top of moving to the beautiful new house in Toronto, he also has to deal with the potential departure of four key cogs in his roster.
By now, everything that could be said about the 2016-17 Toronto Raptors has been said. There have been millions of media outlets, sports blogs and enthusiasts, and basketball fans and players who have chimed in on the team. Opinions have ranged from ripping apart the team, letting all the free agents walk, and building around the young draft picks – to re-signing everyone, paying the luxury tax, and chasing second place behind the Cavaliers for years to come. Where the solution truly lies, is somewhere in the middle.
Let us start with the biggest decision Raptors GM Masai Ujiri will have to make this summer: Kyle Lowry. As much as re-signing a three-time All-Star who makes a case as the most valuable player on his team should be a no-brainer, it’s not. Lowry is going to turn 32 next season, and is a small point guard that relies a lot on his quickness and deceptive athleticism. Sure, Lowry may not dunk a lot – or at all – but he can still run around with the best of them. The problem is, point guard’s don’t usually age well, especially when they are as small as Lowry is. A comparison for Lowry could be Deron Williams, whose descent began in his age 29 season. Like Williams, Lowry has suffered from a few nagging injuries – nothing too serious, but also serious enough to make them miss considerable amounts of games. Williams is still capable of bringing playmaking and shooting to a team, but there is a reason the Mavericks bought out his $9M contract, and the Cavs only paid him $410K this year. Lowry is going to ask for a max contract, which comes out to 5 years and around $200 Million. He has every right to do so also, he has been an All-Star the past three years, has put up big numbers, and took a massive discount on his last contract. He has also taken the Raptors from being afterthoughts to being LeBron’s stepping stone – not the best transformation, but a positive one at least. One must wonder how wise it would be to give an aging, small, injury-prone point guard a 5-year, $200 Million dollar deal.
Still, letting Lowry walk makes the Raptors considerably worse in the short-term. They’ll lose 22.4 points and 7 assists per game. For a team that ranked dead last in the league in assists per game (18.5), the loss of their main distributor would be deadly. Also, taking away one of the league’s premier 3-point shooters from an already sub-par 3-point shooting team is a scary thought. Then again, Lowry could be a, if not THE, source of the Raptors lack of ball movement. Many possessions for the Raptors consist of Lowry or DeRozan dribbling around screens, throwing risky passes, and shooting questionable shots. Even Masai Ujiri has recognized this, saying “… our style of play is one of the things we’re going to evaluate.” during his exit interview. While Head Coach Dwane Casey could be to blame for designing sets that consist of his point guard dribbling the ball at the top of the key for 23 seconds while everyone else stands still, he obviously tailors his gameplan to his roster.
Lowry stated that he would be chasing a ring in free agency this summer. Rumours have been swirling that he’ll choose to do so in the Western Conference – I guess he likes his chances against KD and Steph better than against LeBron? – which would eliminate his hometown Sixers. If we use chances at a ring and the Western Conference as criteria, and consider the teams who have a need for a point guard and the ability to sign him, the options are pretty limited. If we are looking purely at current title contenders in the West, there are the Rockets, Spurs, and Warriors. The Rockets have James Harden, and it would be nearly impossible for them to create the cap space to sign Lowry, so we can rule them out. The Warriors: unless Lowry is willing to take the veteran’s minimum to win a ring, it is impossible for this to happen. That leaves the Spurs, who would also need to create cap space for Lowry, assuming Pau Gasol opts into his $16.2M player option, which it is likely he does. There is a sign-and-trade framework that would entice the Raptors, which would be built around SG Danny Green and PG Dejounte Murray. Green is a sharpshooting 2-guard who has the size (6’6) to slide down to the 3 spot and play alongside DeRozan. He is also a lockdown defender, although he has been outshone by Kawhi Leonard’s “Klaw”. Murray, on the other hand, is Cory Joseph 2.0 – the heir apparent for Tony Parker, but likely a couple of years away from being starter-worthy.
I actually see only one way that Lowry leaves the Raptors without a sign-and-trade: going to Denver. The Nuggets have cap space to play with, a roster on the cusp on competing, and a coach that has shown the ability to blend with troublesome players. Dwyane Wade shocked the world by almost going to Denver last summer, and Lowry could do the same by signing there this summer. The Nuggets have the shooters and passers on their roster already to add Lowry into their system seamlessly. Lowry would have to let his ego take a hit, but add him to the mix, and the Nuggets could vault all the way up to the NBA’s elite.
If Lowry walks, the Raptors choice is easy: let the remaining free agents walk, and keep all of their options open. One of those options could even be to trade DeRozan. Ujiri has proven himself capable of signing players to huge deals, only to later trade them – see Nene in Denver. I don’t think trading DeRozan is a thing that Ujiri should – or even can – do though. DeRozan is the face of basketball, not only in Toronto, but in all of Canada. He is the guy that stuck it out through the down Andrea Bargnani years, and propelled the Raptors to heights they had never seen before. I have a hard time believing that Raptors ownership will allow Ujiri to trade DeRozan, or that Ujiri will even try. If the Raptors organization owes their unwavering loyalty to anyone, it would be the player who has shown that loyalty to them time and time again.
What is more likely is that DeRozan becomes the well-paid veteran who puts up stats as his team grows. Even without Lowry, Patterson, Ibaka, and Tucker, the Raptors have a roster capable of competing for the 8-seed. Norm Powell has proven himself as a capable starter, Cory Joseph was exceptional replacing Lowry when he went down, and the Raptors would have enough cap space to sign a player capable of starting at the 4. The Raptors actually could even have max-contract money this offseason, and could be in the running for Blake Griffin, who absolutely adores the Toronto nightlife – although that is a long-shot, and likely even a pipe-dream.
For the Raptors, it may be time to once again focus on the young guys. The organization has shown an exceptional ability to draft and develop players. DeRozan was never projected to be the star he now is, Valenciunas has improved considerably, Terrance Ross was as raw as they come when he broke into the NBA, and Norm Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl continue to reap the benefits of the Raptors 905.
As Masai Ujiri makes his move to his new home, he’ll have many things to consider. Luckily for Raptors fans around the country, Ujiri will have a spectacular view to ponder what exactly to do with his team.