By Pete Baxter
The Raptors have officially been eliminated from playoff eligibility for the first time in eight seasons. After a tough season filled with adversity ranging from Covid scares to injuries to playing home games 1,000 miles from Toronto, we can close this chapter and look on with hope for a fresh start in the 2021/22 season.
With the disappointment of this year’s team, there are some difficult decisions to be made this offseason. What caused the drop from just missing the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2019/20 bubble to failing to even qualify for a play-in series this year? What can Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster do to get the Raptors back to contender status?
Here is one potential path that they could take.
The Lowry Dilemma
The biggest name Raptor heading into free agency this offseason is Kyle Lowry. Lowry is considered by many to be the Raptor’s GOAT, as the driving force behind a decade of playoff runs and the vocal leader on the 2019/20 championship squad.
At 35 years old, the end is on the horizon for Lowry as an All-Star level point guard, but he is still playing at a very high level. Lowry averaged 17.2 points, 5.4 boards and 7.3 assists per game on the season.
The Raptors have considerable depth at the point guard position. Fred VanVleet, who typical starts at the two, is a natural point guard. Malachi Flynn, this year’s first-round pick, showed a great deal of potential in his limited play.
So, what to do with Kyle Lowry?
Bring him back one more time.
I would propose bringing Lowry back on a two-year deal. It is difficult to determine exactly what Lowry’s value will be on the open market, but it is entirely possible he would be willing to take a minor hometown discount to retire in the city that made him champion and a legend.
A two-year deal worth $20 million per season would be a reduction from the $30 million he made this past season. It is a still a very generous deal for a player who will be 36 years old next season on the back nine of his career.
Lowry is still a borderline All Star and one of the great leaders in the league today. If the Raptors want to truly contend next year, his leadership will be critical. He has a reputation for getting the best out of the Raptor’s “bench mob,” and should Nick Nurse hand the reigns the Fred VanVleet as the full-time starter, Kyle Lowry would instantly be the front runner for Sixth Man of The Year.
Best case scenario, Lowry plays out his two-year deal at a high level, and rides into the sunset of retirement as a Raptor at its conclusion.
Fixing the Front Court
The biggest weakness for the Raptors this season was at the center position. Letting both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka walk in the previous offseason was a mistake. Aron Baynes was not the answer, as his play fell off across the board, and Alex Len was cut a few months into the season.
Chris Boucher broke out this year, but his frail frame is a bad match up against the Joel Embiids of the world. The Raptors need a big, strong, skilled body to get them back into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.
So, who is the best fit to fix this front court?
How about a familiar face?
Serge Ibaka has a player option in his Clippers contract this offseason. Scheduled to make just over $9 million next season if he opts in, Ibaka would be doing himself a disservice not to opt out and test the market.
If he opts out, I recommend the Raptors give him the deal they should have last season. The Raptors should offer Ibaka a nice raise with a contract in the area of two-years, worth $14 million per season.
Ibaka is still just 31-years old and has only gotten better as he entered his early thirties. He is a staunch defender, a solid rebounder, and while not the dominant shot blocker he was early in his career, he is still an intimidating rim protector. He was a great leader and mentor for the Pascal Siakams and OG Anunobys on this squad and would bring back more of the championship culture of the 2019/20 Raptors team.
Bringing back Ibaka, of course, makes Aron Baynes expendable. Decline his team option and let him walk.
Retaining Free Agents
The Raptors have three other pending free agents this offseason aside from Kyle Lowry and Baynes.
Stanley Johnson is a defensive specialist who has still never developed any form of an offensive identity. While he has had a handful of impactful moments over the past two seasons, we have seen his ceiling, and it is time to move on.
Khem Birch had a breakout season for the Raptors this year. He averaged 11.6 points and 7.2 boards per game and showed that he has the ability to be a starting big in the league. Unfortunately, he likely outplayed what the Raptors can afford to retain him. Unfortunately, we have to let him walk.
Most importantly, we have Gary Trent Jr. At just 22 years old, Trent averaged 16.2 points per game since joining the Raptors at the deadline. He is developing into a star and could be a part of the backcourt of the future along with Fred VanVleet. He is a restricted free agent, so the Raptors should look to do whatever it takes to match any offer sheets he receives and keep him in town. He has been quoted expressing his love for the Raptors organization and the city of Toronto and is an ideal fit for the organization. Bring him back.
At the time of writing this article, the Raptors are favored to land the eighth pick in the NBA draft. If that’s where they land, the Raptors should look to draft Florida State Freshman Scottie Barnes. Barnes is an athletic power forward with a 7’2” wingspan who can defend, pass, and is developing a shot.
He would add to the depth behind Ibaka, Siakam, and Boucher, and would be in a great position to continue his development and eventually become a starting big man.
The Lineup for 2021/22
Let’s take a look at where these moves would leave the Raptor’s lineup to start the 2021/22 season:
PG: Kyle Lowry, Malachi Flynn
SG: Fred VanVleet, Jalen Harris
SF: OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Deandre Bembry
PF: Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, Yuta Watanabe
C: Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher
This lineup is very similar to the one that took Toronto within a game of the Eastern Conference Championship just one season ago in the bubble. The primary differences are the addition of Trent Jr., who appears to be an upgrade over Powell since the trade. Chris Boucher has developed into a starting-caliber big. Also, the team’s young core of Siakam, Anunoby, and VanVleet has only further developed and grown since.
They have a great blend of veteran leadership (Ibaka, Lowry) and young talent and athleticism. They have excellent depth with Boucher, Trent Jr., Flynn, Harris, and Bembry all showing great potential in their appearances this year, and a high potential rookie in Barnes.
Some may be disappointed if the Raptors don’t make any major splashes in free agency. However, looking at this year’s crop, outside of Ibaka there just isn’t a big name on the list that is either affordable, interested in coming North of the border (sorry Kawhi hopefuls), or a true difference maker.
Running it back with the core that had success in the bubble and is chocked full of NBA champions is the best bet at this point.
Defensively, they are stocked with stoppers. Offensively, they have three talented point guards and entire team of three-point shooters.
Unlike this past disappointment of a season, they should be able to play their home games back in Toronto as the Covid crises seems (hopefully) getting under control and the world is opening back up. The home court advantage in Jurassic Park cannot be underestimated.
There is no reason why this team can’t, at the very least, duplicate the success they had in 2020/21. I believe they can do even better. The Celtics took a step back, the Sixers have historically struggled against this Raptors group. The Raptors could and should jump back into a top four position in the East.
Bring Back Masai Ujiri
The most important move to be made for the Raptors ownership group is to retain their President of Basketball Operations, Masai Ujiri. Ujiri is, without question, one of the most talented and successful executives in the league. He has built the Raptors into champions, perennial contenders, and a place where star players develop and stay for the long term.
For the Raptors to maintain their place as a preeminent franchise in the league, it is imperative they find a way to keep Ujiri in-house and leading the team into the future. Whatever the price, make it happen.