Raptors need to keep competing despite Kawhi Leonard's exit

The Toronto Raptors’ title defence ended before it can even begin. The departure of Kawhi Leonard guaranteed it, while the usually buoyant Masai Ujiri even suggested as much in his statement, thanking both Leonard and Danny Green for their time in Toronto.

“As an organization, the Raptors will focus on the future and continue our pursuit of a second championship.”

Not defend the title, not try to repeat, pursue a second championship at a later point in time yet to be determined.

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The added exit of Green puts their ability to compete for home court advantage in question, and after the fans got a close-in look of what it really takes to get to the promised land, they know the roster as constructed isn’t it.

Outside of the top two likely being Milwaukee and Philadelphia, the east looks wide open. The Raptors may well have enough veteran savvy and experience to nab a top-four seed, but players like Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet will have to take a leap, as will reported acquisitions Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Masai Ujiri has his work cut out for him to remain competitive in the post-Kawhi Leonard era. (Nathan Denette/CP)
Masai Ujiri has his work cut out for him to remain competitive in the post-Kawhi Leonard era. (Nathan Denette/CP)

The dilemma

What complicates matters is the final-year contracts of Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and VanVleet which account for approximately $93 million coming off the books next season. Toronto just lost one transcendent star and one of the best 3-and-D players in the league without return. Such is life when you go all-in for a championship. Can Ujiri and co. suffer a similar fate a summer from now? Probably not for all four.

Ibaka looks the most likely to go as he transitions from championship worthy backup centre to overpaid backup on a respectable playoff team. Gasol’s player option at $25.6 million makes it quite possible he’s looked at as someone who provides negative asset return.

Lowry is the heart and soul of the franchise, and while Ujiri was willing to give that up for a generational talent before, there is no disgruntled star on the market at the minute and there’s unlikely to be one for a 33-year-old point guard unless it involves a premier young talent like Siakam in return.

If Lowry remains the incumbent in the starting point guard role, would VanVleet then look for opportunities elsewhere? If Lowry wants to leave, Is VanVleet an everyday starter and is he worth that kind of money?

Kick the can down the line

After a year of winning it all, going completely in the other direction so quickly seems a disservice to the fanbase and to the players that remain. Although it is wise to know when to walk away, now is not the time to do so. A ring ceremony and a raising of the banner without any of Leonard, Lowry, Gasol, Ibaka, VanVleet and Green seems silly. As would Toronto’s first Christmas game.

It may come down to seeing what’s what in February, at least. As now proven players with championship pedigree, their appeal should hold considerable weight when the trade deadline arrives to as many as eight possible title contenders.

That’s when a team within striking distance, as the Raptors were last trade deadline, may be willing to surrender a decent return for a Gasol or maybe Lowry in the belief that they’re the type of piece that can take them over the top. What they look like with Siakam and not Leonard as the centrepiece will be vital in maintaining value.

Competing to secure Siakam, future free agents

The Cameroonian is already a top-30 player and with Leonard and Green negotiations out of the way, there may already be an opportunity to discuss signing an extension before the season begins.

Siakam’s development is predicated on his undying belief that there is no glass ceiling for him and that he can become one of the best players in the league. To be viewed as such, though, he’ll need to be on a winner. The Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets brought themselves some stability in the front office and showed they could compete on the court, and that allowed them to make the biggest noise in free agency.

If the Raptors want Siakam to hang around, they’ll need to show they can sustain this blow and keep trucking along. They’ll need to do even more to lure Giannis Antetokounmpo away from Milwaukee in the summer of 2021 or any other major player they plan on making a run at. The free agency pool in 2020 is sparse, with Anthony Davis leading the way but the likes of Draymond Green, Gordon Hayward, Otto Porter Jr., and DeMar DeRozan the best names after that.

How Ujiri and co. manage the cap in 2020 to be major players in 2021 will be intriguing to follow and critical to getting back to an elite level.

Ultimately, the Raptors put themselves in position to win a title by winning consistently and then striking gold at the right time. Their playoff runs over the past six seasons that’s culminated in a championship has given them access to the high rollers table, and if they play themselves out of it, it’s a long way back.

This is a franchise looking to be the world’s team, like a Real Madrid, Liverpool or Manchester United as Ujiri put it, and continuing to build on a foundation of a positive culture fuelled by a commitment to winning is essential as it continues to grow.

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