The Toronto Raptors have overachieved this season. What’s next?
By Jed Mabazza, Staff Writer
The Toronto Raptors have many decisions to make this upcoming offseason if they want to have another shot at winning a title within the next three years. Let’s take a look at how this season may influence the kinds of moves that the front office might make in the offseason.
Prior to this season, many predicted that the Raptors would be a fringe play-in team since they were retooling. But at the time of writing, the Raptors are tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference at 41-32. At the very minimum, the Raptors have secured a spot in the play-in tournament.
This team is definitely ahead of schedule, not because of one particular player but because of the team’s growth as a whole. Fred VanVleet is now officially an NBA all-star. Pascal Siakam is back in his all-star form and a candidate for all NBA. Scottie Barnes is in the top three for Rookie of the Year. Gary Trent Jr. is a walking bucket and is proving to be a great two-way player. OG Anunoby continues to be a lockdown defender and an offensive threat from the three-point line. Chris Boucher is definitely a dark horse candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. Precious Achiuwa has blossomed since the all-star break. Need I go further? The Raptors development team is delivering as always.
As great as it’s been to watch this team, it has also been frustrating at times. Most of the time, the Raptors are on a winning trajectory as long as their starters are rolling. But when the starters are in a slump, it suddenly becomes very difficult for the team to sneak a win. Why? Bench depth.
Aside from Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa, the Toronto Raptors lack a formidable bench. According to NBA.com, the Raptors are dead last, 30th, in bench scoring at 24.8 points per game. Because of this, the starting lineup is relegated to long nights, logging the most minutes in the league according to NBA.com at 34.3 minutes.
This offseason is solely dependent on whether or not the front office wants to win now or play the waiting game. Here’s my take: the Raptors need to address glaring holes in their roster while it’s still early. It’s clear that the team favored financial flexibility with the Goran Dragic trade, which gave the team a veteran in Thaddeus Young while putting the team approximately $3 million below the luxury tax. This gives the team flexibility in preparation for the 2022 free agency and for any possible trades that the team might make.
The 2022 free agency class has the potential to be decently strong, with notable players including Zach Lavine (UFA), Bradley Beal (PO), John Wall (PO) and Colin Sexton (RFA) among many others. These players are all formidable scorers that the Raptors could definitely be interested in. Granted, these are all elite starting-level players, but there are plenty of other free agents that the Raptors could look into for bench scoring including Malik Monk (UFA), Joe Ingles (UFA), Anfernee Simmons (RFA) and Victor Oladipo (UFA) among others.
However, the Raptors do not have the luxury of signing whomever they please this coming offseason due to the salary cap. According to Sportsnet.ca, the Raptors “already have $110.6 million committed in salary to eight players. The cap is projected to be $121 million.” This means that the Raptors have approximately $10 million to use in any free agent signing or trade. If the Raptors are looking for bench depth, it’s quite clear that they won’t get it via free agency. Instead, the Raptors might be forced into making a blockbuster trade. This is where things can get tricky for the front office. Do they want to break up the core in order to solidify the bench? I think it’s a risk worth taking.
It’s all a matter of who the sacrificial lamb will be. The Raptors could go any direction with this as all of their starters would certainly attract attention from multiple contending and rebuilding teams. But I’d like to think the Raptors could get the most value out of either a Fred VanVleet or OG Anunoby trade. Of course, these are tough pills to swallow as I’d still be heartbroken if either one of their eras came to an end in the six. But the team has enough scoring and leadership from Siakam and Trent. To add to that, Scottie Barnes plays well ahead of his years and can facilitate the ball seamlessly. Regardless, I think the Raptors could land some quality bench pieces in any trade involving the current core.
Alternatively, the Raptors could opt for organic growth and play the waiting game with this core and second unit. This is clearly the direction that the front office took at this year’s trade deadline. The addition of Thaddeus Young did not resolve their need for shooting depth but it did give the Raptors a veteran presence for the bench to take advantage of to help in their development. To their credit, some bench players have shown improvement in the scoring column since Young joined the team, especially Precious Achiuwa who has been averaging 12.9 points per game since All-Star Weekend according to NBA.com. This is an improvement from his scoring pre-All-Star Weekend, when he only averaged 7.5 points per game.
Needless to say, the bench can definitely improve with time and they certainly have some great projects in Achiuwa, Malachi Flynn, Yuta Watanabe, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Dalano Banton. The core already has great chemistry on and off the floor as well.
Organically developing seems like a safe and sustainable option. My only concern with organic growth is that it’s time-consuming and it might waste the window of their players who are entering or already in their primes. Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. are at the very minimum, entering their primes. Now is not the time to waste them. The window to build a championship team is this offseason, because the East will only continue to get more competitive.
One thing is for certain: if and when the time comes for the team to pivot to championship contention, the Raptors can be confident that they have one of the best, if not the best, league executives at the helm of the front office in Masai Ujiri. In Masai we trust.