Raptors: The case for running it back… or blowing things up

The Raptors continue to have a mediocre season. They are 20-24 and currently tied for the last play-in spot in the East. There is still some hope they can turn it around since they’re 15th in net rating for the year, suggesting that they’ve been underperforming to some degree. After winning 48 games last season with mostly the same team, they should be better than this but they may not get back to that same level.

Even if the Raptors manage to turn things around it appears that this iteration of the core is not a championship contender as is. Since 2019, they’ve won one playoff series and have slowly seen several core players from that group leave. They could be at a crossroads with their starters since they are all due for raises as soon as this offseason or the next. Some tough decisions could be coming soon in Toronto.

Here is a look at the Raptors’ long-term cap outlook if they continue to run this group and what a retool or rebuild could look like.

Keep running it back

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The Raptors chose to run it back after winning the 2019 championship despite Kawhi Leonard leaving. They remained one of the East’s top teams and reminded us that they had one of the best supporting casts. While this can be said about most teams, all they’ve been missing was a star player. Their path toward contention with this group again likely depends on filling that Kawhi-sized hole.

If a star becomes available and is interested in remaining long-term in Toronto, they have the means to get a trade done. As detailed in HoopsHype’s 30-team trade guide, the Raptors are pick neutral and have good players that would interest other teams. A trade package featuring up to four first-round picks and some of their best starters would be as strong as any offer out there. The question is will an opportunity to acquire a star arise?

Toronto was reportedly involved in discussions for Kevin Durant before he agreed to remain in Brooklyn. However, the Nets reportedly demanded Scottie Barnes in any Durant deal which was apparently a non-starter for the Raptors. The presence of Barnes could make trade discussions difficult since most teams would naturally want the proven forward bursting with potential.

With or without a star player, keeping this Raptors core around will get expensive. Both Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. have player options this offseason that they are expected to decline for raises in unrestricted free agency. As Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports notes, VanVleet can be looking at $30-35 million annually on his next contract while Trent Jr. can be looking at a contract upwards of $25 million per year.

The Raptors would project to be a little into the luxury tax next season if they re-sign VanVleet and Trent Jr. to those respective salary ranges. This projection also includes the Raptors getting a mid-to-late lottery selection and Otto Porter Jr. opting into his $6.3 million player option. There are still ways they can avoid the tax in this scenario such as waiving Thaddeus Young’s $8 million salary and moving off role players like Porter Jr. and Khem Birch.

Because the finances with this group are manageable with a path to stay under the tax, the Raptors could choose to run it back at least for at least one more season. They could then use the upcoming offseason to retool their bench, add shooting, and perhaps find an answer at center. Beyond 2023-24 could get interesting since Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby will then be due for raises.

If Siakam finishes the 2022-23 season on the Raptors and earns All-NBA honors again, he will become supermax eligible this summer. Even if he doesn’t qualify he’s still looking at a significant raise considering he’s met the value of the maximum contract he signed in 2019. He will be eligible to extend next season for up to four years, projected at $190 million, while the supermax extension this offseason is projected at five years, $285.6 million. If not extended, he is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2024.

Anunoby has a $19.9 million player option for 2024-25, a salary figure that he has outplayed and will certainly decline to become an unrestricted free agent in 2024. He will be eligible next season to extend for up to four years, $100 million, a structure which would have his $19.9 million player option amount replaced with a $22.4 million salary. In a rising salary cap environment, he could probably earn more than $25 million annually on the open market.

If the Raptors go into 2024-25 with all of Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby, and Trent Jr. with significant raises they will likely become taxpayers going forward. Even if they move on from Trent Jr., who has been reported as the most available player on the Raptors, they still won’t have much flexibility to improve the roster with the other three making as much as they’ll likely command. Factor in a lucrative extension for Barnes which would kick in for the 2025-26 season and that lack of flexibility will continue to stretch.

What a retool/rebuild could look like

(Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)

If the Raptors organization concludes that there isn’t a path to contend with this core, it doesn’t make sense to bring back all of Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby, and Trent Jr. on new deals that cost them future flexibility. Whether this season or next, there is a good case for them to start looking for deals involving some of these players soon.

Moving Trent Jr. this season makes sense regardless of their direction. There are plenty of teams that could use him and his $18.8 million salary isn’t difficult for interested teams to match in a trade. As detailed in HoopsHype’s most recent notebook, teams that project to be over the cap could pay a premium for him since they wouldn’t be able to sign him in free agency. The Raptors could be looking at a first-round pick or a similar player type who earns less and is under team control for Trent Jr.

The more interesting player who hasn’t been heavily discussed as a trade candidate is Siakam. As mentioned earlier, he is due for a significant raise and could command even more if he becomes supermax eligible. Trading Siakam would likely mean they are shifting toward a retool or rebuild with the goal of bottoming out for a high lottery selection in this year’s draft. The case for trading Siakam would mostly be on the basis of if the Raptors feel that they are currently getting his best remaining production. If so, it would make sense to trade him while his value is sky-high.

The trade market for All-Stars right now is arguably overpriced right now after Utah extracted optimal value from Minnesota and Cleveland for Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, respectively. If the Raptors can get a similar haul including multiple unprotected first-round picks, prospects, and good veterans on team-friendly deals, they should strongly consider it. Teams like Dallas, Phoenix, and Atlanta, would be great fits for Siakam and could all make strong offers for him.

If Siakam is moved that could open up the possibility of trading VanVleet too. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the Suns and Magic are potential free agent suitors for him. The Magic could generate enough cap space to sign VanVleet outright while the Suns aren’t projected to be a cap space team this summer. They would need to acquire VanVleet via trade or sign-and-trade in order to be able to pay him what he’ll command.

It would be far easier for Phoenix to get him now in a trade versus a sign-and-trade this offseason since they have several expiring contracts like Jae Crowder, Dario Saric, and Torrey Craig they could use as salary ballast. Like the Raptors, the Suns have all their draft picks going forward so they can offer a picks-based package for VanVleet. As explained in HoopsHype’s trade guide, the Suns could really use additional backcourt help heading into the playoffs. VanVleet would not only help them now but also serve as their potential point guard of the future post-Chris Paul.

If the Raptors can get enough value for Siakam and/or VanVleet, then there won’t be as much urgency to trade Anunoby. The six-year forward is having a career season and has elevated himself to be one of the best defensive wings in the league. There is still room for him to improve and at 25 years old, he’s still young enough to be a part of the next great Raptors team. Trading him now could be considered selling short on him.

The Raptors have never undergone a full-scale rebuild since Masai Ujiri was hired in 2013. The furthest step they’ve taken back is bottoming out in 2021 for a high lottery pick but then became competitive again in 2021-22. History suggests if they do take a step back this season it’ll only be temporary. Depending on what types of deals they do now, they could gain enough flexibility and assets to make the appropriate trades to reshape their core and potentially have significant cap space to add depth.

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Story originally appeared on HoopsHype