By Pete Baxter
The Toronto Raptors had four major question marks to address entering the 2021 NBA offseason:
- Are Kyle Lowry’s days as a Raptor numbered?
- What is the future of the center position?
- Will the franchise’s fearless leader Masai Ujiri leave town?
- Will the team be able to return to Toronto full-time in 2021/22?
Sleep soundly, Raptors fans. Over the past week, we have received answers for three of these critical questions. Things seem to be trending in the team’s favor on the fourth. We now have a much clearer picture of where this team is headed. Overall, the future looks bright.
Let’s briefly break down each of these questions and answers:
The Raptors’ GOAT Moves South
Despite a great deal of interest and several offers on the table from other teams, Kyle Lowry remained a Raptor at the trade deadline last season. On an expiring contract, his future remained one of the biggest question marks hanging over the franchise. Would he get an extension at age 35? Could he walk for nothing? Would he work with the franchise that made him a perennial All-Star and facilitate a sign-and-trade?
Fortunately for both sides, it was the latter option that prevailed. Although details had been widely reported for a week prior, the deal to send Lowry back to the contiguous United States was officially reported Friday. The Raptors would trade Lowry to the Miami, where he would sign a three-year, $85 million deal. In return, the Raptors would receive veteran Slovenian guard Goran Dragic and second-year big man Precious Achiuwa.
Kyle Lowry had a massive impact on the Raptors’ franchise since joining the squad in 2012. He made six All-Star games as a Raptor. He made them perennial playoff contenders throughout the 2010’s. The stocky guard helped lead the franchise to their first NBA title in 2019. Unsurprisingly, it has already been reported that Lowry will be the first Raptor player to have his jersey number retired.
Losing Lowry will be a heartbreaker to fans. However, they should not be disappointed with how this trade played out.
The Raptors’ beloved point guard was able to choose his own destiny. He agreed to head to Miami to join his good friend Jimmy Butler to chase a title. He also gets one last much-deserved massive payday.
Meanwhile, the Raptors receive a talented young big to fill a hole in the front court. We will discuss the center position for the team next. Needless to say, Achiuwa will play a key role off the bench.
The Raptors also receive a talented, veteran guard and former All-Star Goran Dragic. Dragic will add excellent depth to the backcourt as the Fred VanVleet/Gary Trent Jr. era is ushered in. Dragic, at 35 years old, averaged 13.4 points while shooting 37% from three last season.
With the Kyle Lowry era coming to an end, the Raptors’ backcourt is left in great hands. Fred VanVleet is ready to pick up where Lowry left off and is already playing at a borderline All Star level. Gary Trent Jr. was probably the biggest signing of the offseason, rejoining the team on a three-year, $54 million deal. He is just 22 years old and averaged 16.2 points for the Raptors after coming over at the trade deadline. He is the future of the shooting guard position.
First-round draft pick Scottie Barnes, despite his 6’9” frame, actually played point guard at Florida State. He is a developmental project for sure and is officially listed as a forward. Ultimately, he could play a big role in the future of the team’s backcourt.
Bittersweet but exciting times to be a Raptors fan, for sure.
The Raptors Have Their Big Men
One of the most glaring weaknesses of the 2020 season for the Raptors was their lack of a reliable starting center. After letting Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol walk in the offseason, the Raptors’ brass put their trust in free agent acquisitions Aron Baynes and Alex Len.
Len was a bad fit from the start and was waived in January after falling out of the rotation. Baynes survived the season, starting 31 games before falling out of the starting lineup in favor of mid-season acquisition Khem Birch.
The Raptors had hoped Baynes would build off his career year in Phoenix in 2019/20. That season Baynes had averaged a career high 11.5 points while becoming a reliable outside shooter, hitting 35% from three on four attempts per game. Unfortunately, he looked lost in Nick Nurse’s system and saw his numbers plummet to 6.1 points on 26% from three in 2021. Baynes has since been waived by the Raptors and is a currently a free agent. Tragically, Baynes is currently hospitalized with a neck injury after a freak off-court accident while playing in the Tokyo Olympics for Australia.
Enter Free Agency 2021. There was a sense of anxiety amongst Raptors fans as all the big names on the free agent market were snatched up without much noise from the front office in Toronto. Jarret Allen stayed in Cleveland. Nerlens Noel stayed in New York. Andre Drummond joined his twitter nemesis Joel Embiid in Philadelphia.
Khem Birch, a 6’9” forward/center, had joined Toronto in April after being waived by Orlando. He instantly took off in the Raptors’ system. He performed well from from the start and wound up taking over starting center duties for a shorthanded team. In 19 appearances for Toronto, he averaged 11.9 points, 1.2 blocks, 7.6 rebounds. He even began developing a three-point shot.
The anxiety amongst Raptors faithful began turning into full-blown panic as reports started emerging about Richaun Holmes, the last highly sought-after big on the market, staying in Sacremento. At the same time, their home-town safety net, Birch, was being connected with the Chicago Bulls.
Who would be the center in Jurassic Park next year? Lanky, extremely thin big Chris Boucher had a breakout campaign in 2020. However, at barely over 200 lbs., he could not be expected to contend with the true centers of the league. Boucher is naturally a forward. Beyond Boucher was essentially a black hole of despair at the center position.
Thankfully, as he had claimed he would all along, Khem Birch proved his loyalty to Toronto. The city had given him a second chance, and he ran with it. On Thursday, Birch agreed to a three-year, $20 million deal to stay in Toronto. While not the most exciting name on the market, the Raptors can confidently enter 2021 with a capable starting center to join emerging stars Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby in the front court.
At 28 years old, Birch fits the timeline of the VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby core perfectly. After his breakout performance last season, there is no reason to expect that he can’t take advantage of his starting role and post numbers similar to his per-36-minute stats from last season. Those numbers look like 14.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.
The New Guy
Additionally, the Raptors were able to add an intriguing young big to backup Birch at the five. Precious Achiuwa, the 20th pick in the 2020 draft, was acquired in the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade from Miami. At 6’8” and a strong 225 lbs, Achiuwa is undersized. However, his strength, athleticism and 7’2” wingspan make him a defensive force. He should be another great big to pair with Siakam underneath the hoop.
Achiuwa had limited opportunities during his rookie season in Miami, playing just 12 minutes per game over 61 games. However, he showed a great deal of potential in his limited playing time. Extrapolating his numbers to 36 minutes-per-game, and his averages jump to 14.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. It is no wonder he caught the eye of the Raptors’ front office. He should be a strong number two option at the center position.
The Raptors enter the 2021 season in a much better place at the center position than did in 2020.
Masai Ujiri is Staying Put
Even with all of the player movement, perhaps the most important move of all occurred in the front office. With team president Masai Ujiri’s contract set to expire after the season, there had been rumors for the past year or more that he would be on the move. He was linked to the Washington Wizards, who were thought to be prepared to offer him massive money and an ownership stake. He had even been linked to teams in different sports.
In what should be a gigantic relief to all Raptors fans, Ujiri, the architect of the 2019 championship squad, has signed on to stay with the team long-term. Ujiri joined the franchise in 2013 after being named Executive of the Year for the Denver Nuggets. In Denver, he orchestrated the blockbuster trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York for a massive haul.
Since arriving in Toronto, he quickly turned the core of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas into a perennial playoff squad. They peaked with an Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2015/16. After two years of falling in the second round to Lebron James’ Cavaliers, Ujiri pulled off a blockbuster move to acquire disgruntled Spurs star Kawhi Leonard in exchange for DeRozan. During Leonard’s one season with the team, the Raptors won their first and only NBA title.
Ujiri has signed on as vice chairman and president of the Toronto Raptors. Masai Ujiri is one of the most talented executives in all of sports. Raptors’ fans should be confident that their team is in good hands for the foreseeable future. Ujiri brings with him a roadmap to continued success and an ongoing upward trajectory for the NBA’s sole Canadian franchise.
The One Question Still Unanswered
The Raptors enter the 2021/22 season with much of the same core that came just one game short of the Eastern Conference Finals in the bubble. Their biggest departures since that season are Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, but Fred VanVleet, Goran Dragic and their long, lanky front court of Boucher, Siakam, Achiuwa and first-round pick Scottie Barnes should be able to fill that void.
Despite having an almost identical roster last season, however, the Raptors took a huge step back. They finished twelfth in the Eastern Conference with an abysmal 27-45 record. That said, they clearly spent that latter portion of the season focusing on development and player health over winning. They missed the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.
The team fought through injuries and Covid scares. However, the biggest disadvantage that led to the disappointing finish was the forced relocation of the team to Tampa, Florida. Due to border restrictions during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Raptors were forced to move their operations to and play their “home games” in Florida. The team was uprooted away from their family, friends, and fans. The impact that this situation had on the squad is immeasurable.
As of the writing of this article, we still don’t have a definitive answer as to whether the Raptors will be able to start the 2021/22 season in Canada. Vaccination rates are on the rise in both Canada and the United States. The Raptors’ governor and NBA chairman of the board Larry Tanenbaum is reportedly hopeful that the border to Ontario will be open by the start of the season. However, last month NBA commissioner Adam Silver stated that it is still “unclear” as to where the Raptors will be playing.
This remains the biggest question mark heading into the 2021/22 for the Raptors. Retaining Birch, getting a return haul for Lowry, bringing back Ujiri, and re-signing Trent Jr. were all big offseason wins. However, it is hard to imagine the Raptors returning to their winning ways if they are once again forced to play 1,000 miles from home. While it still seems safe to be optimistic, we will have to wait and see.
More to come from Toronto.