VanVleet, Ibaka free agency looms

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The championship defence is over. 

This season started with two preseason games in Japan, championship banner night without Kawhi Leonard, an all-time never underestimate the heart of a champion season where the Raptors went 53-19, including a 15-game win streak, while battling injuries all season and dealing with a four-month midseason layoff because of a global pandemic. 

The Raptors had a legitimate chance to defend their title in the playoffs, but the Boston Celtics proved to be too much for the defending champs in the second round. Friday’s Game 7 loss felt like the end of a seven-year run, where the franchise soared to new heights after Masai Ujiri returned to the organization as general manager, taking over for Bryan Colangelo and building this team into a perennial contender, and eventually winning it all last season. 

The Raptors will still be really good next season, but depending on how the offseason shakes out, it might be a slightly different looking group next year. Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are the key free agents on this team. We also don’t know when the free agency period will begin or when (and where) the 2020-21 season will start, or what the salary cap will look like moving forward. 

The Raptors have enjoyed remarkable stability within their organization even as players and coaches have turned over during this run. Next year feels like a transitional year for the franchise. Here’s an early look at the offseason ahead:

Kyle Lowry. Even though the Raptors came up short, this seven-game series against the Celtics was a defining moment in Lowry’s career. He was the best player on the floor in all three Raptors wins, and helped author two of the greatest playoff victories in franchise history in Games 3 and 6. Lowry will always be underappreciated outside of Toronto, but what he did this season at the age of 34 was remarkable. Lowry has one year, $33 million left on his contract, and while a cynic might argue that his trade value has never been higher especially for teams with championship aspirations (I don’t want to picture Lowry in a Sixers or Bucks jersey), he’s also the greatest Raptor of all-time and if he is amicable to finishing his career in Toronto, you have to believe Ujiri and the front office will find a way to make that happen beyond next season. 

Pascal Siakam. Siakam’s first season as the guy started out incredibly and ended terribly. He was an All-Star starter and exceeded everyone’s expectations during the regular season, but never rediscovered that magic at the Disney World bubble, culminating in a seven-game series against the Celtics where he averaged 14.9 points and shot 38.2 percent from the field, including 4-of-32 from 3. It wasn’t just the raw numbers. Siakam’s decision making on the offensive end deteriorated as the series went on. You could almost see him overthinking every single time the ball was in his hands. There’s understandable frustration from the fanbase, but this is part of the learning curve for the 26-year-old forward. Even with the shortened offseason, Siakam will need to find a way to add more versatility to his offensive game. He is an all-world talent on defence, and that’s why he was still on the floor in crunch time of Game 7. There’s no guarantee Siakam will end up meeting all of the expectations placed on him, but it is also fair to give him a few more seasons to show exactly what his ceiling is.  

Fred VanVleet. The biggest question heading into the offseason for the Raptors. VanVleet is such an important part of what the team does on the floor, but also as a leader off the court. VanVleet already commands the respect of the younger players in the locker room and can help bridge the Raptors from from their current iteration to whatever they are in five years. VanVleet will be a coveted free agent. Teams like the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons will probably make sizeable offers to lure him away, likely in the $20 million per year range. If the Raptors are willing to match the highest bidder on the market, VanVleet will be back. 

Fred VanVleet is the biggest question heading into the offseason. (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)

OG Anunoby. Forget about the absolutely iconic game-winning 3 in Game 3 against the Celtics for a second. Anunoby was a revelation throughout the entire playoffs. He played defence at an absolutely elite level this season, but what should make Raptors fans excited moving forward are the flashes Anunoby showed on the offensive end. It’s not a stretch to say Anunoby is just as important as Siakam when it comes to the future of this franchise. Expect the 23-year-old forward to take on a bigger role on offence, and don’t be surprised when Anunoby ends up on the All-Defensive team next year. 

Marc Gasol. Nobody is a bigger critic of Gasol than himself. We saw how distraught he was after the Raptors fell behind 2-0 to the Milwaukee Bucks last season. We saw something similar in Game 6 against the Celtics, when Gasol had to literally go for a walk after subbing out in the first quarter. He did rebound with a strong second half in an elimination game, and his defence remained integral to Toronto’s chances of winning the series, but the offence is slipping and at age 35, you have to wonder whether Gasol and the Raptors are still a fit, especially if Ujiri wants to redistribute some of Gasol’s minutes to younger guys. 

Serge Ibaka. If VanVleet is the biggest offseason question, then Ibaka is the most intriguing. At age 30, Ibaka continues to evolve, especially on the offensive end. You can always count on Ibaka to show up in shape and ready to contribute, which isn’t a guarantee for every single player in this league. He has gone from an irrationally confident 3-point shooter to a reliable one, and even though he returned to his bench role when Gasol was healthy this season, Ibaka is clearly still a starting-calibre player and will be paid as such in free agency. Can the Raptors bring back both VanVleet and Ibaka? In an ideal world, that would be the preferred scenario, but Toronto also has to manage its salary cap for the summer of 2021. At some point, the number might get too high to retain Ibaka, who has earned himself a huge payday after his last two seasons with the Raptors. 

Norman Powell. Powell played like a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate before the season was suspended in March. In the playoffs, he was inconsistent and didn’t really become a factor in the Celtics series until Game 6. Still, Powell seems to have finally settled into a role that suits him, as a game-changing scorer off the bench. He is under contract for next season with a $11.6 million player option for the 2021-2022 season and should continue to fill the sixth man role next season. 

Matt Thomas. Thomas played himself into Nurse’s eight-man playoff rotation against the Celtics and was a team-high plus-20 in 42 minutes in the series. His 3-point shooting was as advertised, and while he started the season as a defensive liability, Thomas worked to become a capable defender and earned the trust of the coaching staff in the postseason. Thomas should see a more consistent role on the team next season. His 3-point shooting is such an elite skill and should be used to the team’s advantage. 

Terence Davis. The undrafted rookie exceeded all expectations during the regular season, but fell out of the playoff rotation in the second round. There’s already an outline of an above average offensive player here, but Davis will need to improve his discipline and attention to detail on the defensive end. If he can improve in those areas, the Raptors will have found another rotation player outside of the draft. 

Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse. Ujiri and Nurse will both be entering the final year of their contracts next season, and it should be the organization’s No. 1 priority to sign both of them to long-term contracts this offseason. MLSE should pay whatever amount Ujiri wants, while Nurse will be in line for a hefty raise after winning the championship in his first season and following that up with a Coach of the Year award this season. Both are integral to the culture and foundation that has been built within this organization. Losing one or both of them would be a huge setback for this franchise. 

The rest of the team. Chris Boucher, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Malcolm Miller, Paul Watson and Oshae Brissett are all heading to free agency. Boucher is a restricted free agent and the most intriguing of the bunch. While still an unfinished product, Boucher showed a lot of potential on both ends of the floor this season. Stanley Johnson has a $3.8 million player option for next season and will likely exercise it and be back on the team. Dewan Hernandez might get some bench minutes next season if Ibaka and Gasol sign elsewhere. Pat McCaw will be entering the second year of his two-year, $8 million deal with the team.

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