The Toronto Raptors, currently the defending NBA champions, never planned to lose Kawhi Leonard this summer, but knew it was a scenario that could unfold. As such, they made sure to avoid locking themselves into long-term expensive contracts with players who wouldn’t move the needle as aggressively as Leonard did.
Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka all expire next summer, which presents Toronto with a lot of options, albeit not ones that will bring them back into championship contention anytime soon. The 2020 free agency market is bleak. But as it stands, that could actually be a good thing for the Raptors.
If a team at February’s trade deadline believe they’re an upgrade or two away from placing a bid on the Finals, all three of those players could become interesting as a type of pre-agency acquisition, not unlike how Gasol got acquired by Toronto initially. Given that so few players of value will be available next July, it would make sense to trade for one early on, and sell him on the culture, potentially providing the trading team with an advantage when free agency hits.
For the Raptors, despite the presumed continued brilliance of Pascal Siakam, it seems unlikely they will make a strong push for another title until the roster has been upgraded. Making Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka available in trades would only be logical as a means of acquiring long-term assets in return. Teams on the verge of being a Finals contender are more inclined to relinquish draft pick compensation, or sacrifice a young player, for a shot at the title which the Raptors should take advantage of.
If no deal materialize, the club still have options. It’s reasonable to believe that, despite no longer being a championship contender, the Raptors will be a playoff team if they retain all three players. Toronto could choose to ride their deals out and make a post-season appearance, which surely will fall into the good graces of fans, and avoid the blow of going from champions to lottery participants in just a year.
In fact, the Raptors could potentially extend their playoff window even further by offering all three players large one-year contracts to remain relevant for the 2020/2021 season as well, after which they go all-in at the free agency market in 2021, projected to be loaded. This would be a smooth option for a franchise, that by then could still sell themselves as being a competitive team, who are simply looking to get younger and start a new era.
This of course all hinges of Siakam, who coincidentally is also a free agent next summer like his teammates. It seems likely he will receive a full maximum contract given his improvements this year, which becomes a major asset in Toronto’s 2021 star search. General Manager Masai Ujiri’s pitch could write itself, detailing Siakam’s unselfish nature which would allow for stars to flourish alongside him, Toronto’s recent title, their continued competitiveness despite losing Leonard, and of course being able to offer max money, given that Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka would be off the books. To boot, Ujiri can offer any free agent to become part of an organization that is run well, which has a respected culture in place, and would be free of drama, compared to other markets like Los Angeles and New York.
(The owners of the Raptors, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, are known to compensate their personnel in both basketball and hockey very well, creating monetary satisfaction within their ranks.)
Any player would find that appealing. Money, a talented co-star, established culture, winning ways, and drama-free. Those are the buzzwords that gets you meetings with the game’s elites, and a large part of that reputation can be based on the continued presence of those three players on the roster.
There is also the option of simply letting all three of Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka walk next summer, and only retaining Siakam. This has to be one of the least desirable outcomes given that Toronto receives no compensation, and will likely suffer through a losing season in 2020/2021, leading right into their most important summer since 2018 where they traded for Leonard.
While there’s no major downside to clearing their cap sheet, their financial flexibility likely won’t do them much good, as it’s unlikely that teams will be interested in clearing cap space for 2020 anyway, given the lack of stars. It also wouldn’t help the Raptors get better, as having money that summer is a moot point.
Toronto could rent out their cap space at a tremendous price if they’re willing to sit out 2021 free agency and take on contracts that extend beyond that summer, but that really doesn’t do them any good and would force them into building through the draft, which doesn’t quite align with Siakam’s age.
Of course, there’s always the possibility of moving on from Siakam by trading him, but that would be ill-advised unless a Godfather offer made its way to their table which, given his impending restricted free agency status, it likely won’t. In many respects, this is the nuclear option if all else fails. It’s not necessarily a bad road to go down, but it’ll take years to get back to where they want to be, and that’s never an easy decision. But trading Siakam is a card that can be played if absolutely necessary.
In conclusion, there are plenty of paths the Raptors can walk. Some are considerably more advisable than others, but they do have options regardless of what happens, in major part due to their financial flexibility and expiring contracts. Not having multiple contracts locked up long-term, like Charlotte and Miami, is becoming an increasingly bigger advantage given how the NBA landscape can change year-to-year. The Raptors have all their bases covered. Now it’s time to get to work, and figure out what path fits them the best.