By Peter Baxter
The Toronto Raptors were among the most disappointing teams in the 2020/21 regular season. They struggled to maintain any consistency while playing their home games 1,300 miles from Toronto in Tampa, FL. They faced Covid-related challenges and injuries throughout their lineup. Ultimately, they finished the season a disappointing 27-45, losing nine of their last 10 games. They missed the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.
It is possible to chock some of this failure up to a “lost season” due to the aforementioned factors. However, clearly the Raptors’ lineup needs to be tweaked heading into next year. Toronto still has a solid young core in Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and company. With a few new faces to shore up the roster, it would be fair to expect the Raptors to climb back up near the top of the Eastern Conference next season.
For this exercise, we will not include players with pending team or player options. We will just look at restricted and unrestricted free agents.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the six players the Raptors should consider targeting in free agency this year:
Gary Trent Jr., Shooting Guard, RFA
Gary Trent Jr. was acquired by the Raptors at the trade deadline in exchange for Norman Powell. The trade seems to have been mutually beneficial for both squads. Since joining the Raptors, the 22-year-old shooting guard averaged 16.2 points, 3.6 boards and 1.1 steals per game. He averaged 2.6 made three-pointers per game, and his size and athleticism made him a notable improvement to Powell on the defensive end.
The future of fellow free agent Kyle Lowry is clouded. Lowry sold his home in Toronto this year and there are rumblings that Lowry has played his last game as a Raptor. Many believe Lowry is on his way to a contender (potentially Philadelphia or the LA Clippers) to chase a ring at age 35.
Should Kyle Lowry move on, Trent Jr. would make an ideal backcourt mate for Fred VanVleet moving forward. VanVleet would move to his natural position at point guard, and Trent, with his best basketball still ahead of him, could run away with the starting two-guard role.
Trent Jr. is a restricted free agent, so the Raptors can match any offer he receives from other teams. He has expressed a great deal of excitement around his role in Toronto and seems interested in staying and growing with the team’s young core. He is well worth the investment, and the Raptors should do what is necessary to keep him in town. This could potentially look like a three-year extension worth up to $20 million per year.
P.J. Tucker, Power Forward/Center, UFA
The Raptors’ most notable weakness this season was at the center position. After letting Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol walk in free agency, there was hope that newly signed Aron Baynes was the answer. Baynes was coming off a career season in Phoenix.
However, Baynes’ statistics fell off a cliff with the Raptors, and he often looked lost on the court. Baynes averaged just 6.1 points and 5.2 boards on the season while shooting just 26 percent from three-point range. Clearly, for the Raptors to climb back up the standings next year, they will need an upgrade at this position.
Enter P.J. Tucker. Tucker, a former Raptor himself, became a star in Houston playing alongside James Harden. He is undersized for a frontcourt player, but he makes up for his lack of size with tenacious defensive intensity and a consistent shooting touch that allows him to stretch the floor. His statistics do not tell a true story of his impact, with averages of just 7.1 points and 5.7 rebounds for his career. His impact is fell primarily away from the ball.
His defense and shooting would make him an outstanding front court fit next to Pascal Siakam. His veteran leadership would fill the void left if Kyle Lowry moves on. With his playing time having fallen off after essentially quitting on the Rockets and then backing up Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, he should be an affordable option at age 36.
If the Raptors could pick up Tucker on a two-year deal worth around $10 million per year, he could be a key piece for a playoff run in 2021/22.
Khem Birch, Power Forward/Center, UFA
Khem Birch’s massive improvement with the Raptors was one of the few bright spots for this team in 2020/21. Birch was waived by the Orlando Magic after the trade deadline. The Raptors picked him up and he ran with the opportunity.
Birch quickly gained a chance to start for the Raptors due to a combination of injuries, rest and (arguably) tanking. Birch took advantage, and put up 11.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game as a Raptor. He is in the process of developing a three-point shot. At 28 years old, the native Canadian is just hitting his stride.
Birch has expressed deep gratitude to the Raptors organization for the opportunity he was provided and seems open to sticking around.
The Raptors should be able to retain him on an affordable contract, perhaps three years at $8 million per year, and he could potentially be Pascal Siakam’s running mate in the frontcourt for the foreseeable future.
Nerlens Noel, Center, UFA
Nerlens Noel, the sixth pick in the 2013 draft, has been somewhat of a journeyman since coming to the league. He has yet to develop a consistent offensive game. However, this year he found his groove with the New York Knicks.
His primary responsibility next to Julius Randle is to protect the rim, and he has excelled in this role. He averaged 2.2 blocks per game on the season. His defensive prowess has been an excellent fit in Tom Thibodeau’s scheme, and Noel has proven himself to be a solid starting center.
Noel could be another affordable option to fill the void at center for the Raptors. Pascal Siakam is an effective scorer at the power forward position, not unlike Julius Randle, and Noel could be just as great a fit in the Raptors’ lineup as he has been with the Knicks. With considerably better size and strength to Chris Boucher, he could be used situationally against the bigger, stronger fives in the league.
He is also still just 27 years old. If the Raptors could lock up Noel on a three-year deal worth $10 million per year, particularly if Khem Birch walks, they would still have their center position locked up for the foreseeable future.
Jarrett Allen, Center, RFA
Jarrett Allen is perhaps the most intriguing big man on the free agent market this offseason. Allen is just 23 years old and is becoming one of the league’s premier rim protectors. Allen spent most of the season with the Cleveland Cavaliers after being dealt from Brooklyn. He averaged 12.8 points, 10 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game on the season.
Allen is big, long, and athletic. Of the big men discussed on this list, he would have the highest upside and long-term potential. It is safe to say he would be the ideal choice to fix the center position in Toronto. A front court trio of Anunoby, Siakam, and Allen would be extremely intimidating for opposing squads.
However, Allen is a restricted free agent. The rebuilding Cavaliers are fully expected to make resigning Allen their own top priority during the offseason. With his productivity and his young age, Cleveland is rumored to be considering bringing Allen back on a $100 million contract worth around $25 million per year. With the money already locked up in their young core, it is doubtful the Raptors would be able to compete with this type of money.
Unfortunately, Allen is probably the most intriguing but least likely free agent acquisition for the Raptors on this list.
Kyle Lowry, Point Guard, UFA
Kyle Lowry is considered by many to be the greatest Raptor of all time. He is a champion. He is a six-time All Star. He has been the motor and vocal leader of this team for the past decade.
However, he is 35 years old. While he is still playing at a very high level, it is very difficult to gauge the Raptors’ interest in resigning him. His own interest in returning is also currently unknown.. If Lowry believes he has a better chance of contending for a second ring elsewhere, whether it be in Philadelphia, New York or Los Angeles, it may not be the Raptors’ decision to make.
There are three ways this can go:
The Raptors can let him walk, creating some cap flexibility but letting their star go with nothing in return.
The Raptors can work out a new contract and keep him in town, running back the dual point guard backcourt of Lowry and VanVleet for another season. This would likely make any of the previously discussed signings financially impossible.
The Raptors could work out a sign-and-trade deal with another team. This could get Lowry his money, move him to a contender, and allow the Raptors to get building blocks back in return, whether it be young players or draft picks. I believe this is the most likely scenario.
However, for the sake of argument, let us say the Raptors keep their star in town. The Raptors would essentially be running it back with much the same squad that fell just a game short of making the Eastern Conference Finals in the bubble. It would essentially ensure the Raptors return to the playoff hunt next year. It would keep a great influence in house to help continue the development of the team’s young core.
If the Raptors could work out a contract in the area of $20 million per year for two years, they could keep their star while acquiring at least a slight upgrade at center (even if that is bringing back Khem Birch). However, it would greatly limit any other potential moves to upgrade the roster.
Have we already seen the ceiling that a Lowry/VanVleet/Siakam-led squad can achieve? If the Raptors’ brass (as well as Lowry) believe this, it is highly unlikely we ever see Lowry in a Raptors jersey again.
This will be a pivotal offseason for the Raptors. They are at a fork in the road, with their star player in Lowry and their highly respected President and CEO Masai Ujiri both reaching the end of their contracts.
Whether or not any of the above free agents come aboard or stay put, it is safe to say some level of change is on the horizon.
More to come from Toronto.