What the Raptors can do this offseason to inch closer to contention

The Toronto Raptors are in an enviable position as far as NBA franchises go, built to have success both in the short and long term.

The Raptors will enter the 2022-23 season with an All-Star guard in Fred VanVleet, an All-NBA forward in Pascal Siakam, a Rookie of the Year in Scottie Barnes, and a lot of versatile young players who are still getting better. They project to have a good if not elite defence, improving on the 10th ranked defence from last season, which got better as the year went on but struggled against Joel Embiid in the playoffs. And they will hope to improve their offensive efficiency, where they ranked 14th in transition and 26th in the half court. Overall, the Raptors want to build off of a 48-34 record and first-round exit, ultimately bridging the gap between middle-of-the-pack playoff team and championship contender.

How they go about doing that will be interesting, as they have a few different options at their disposal including the recent draft, free agency, and the trade market. Short of a massive trade, the Raptors will look to supplement their roster in order to put their stars in better positions to succeed while building out the bench in part so that said stars can be more fresh come playoff time. Their most glaring need is shooting, but they could also use more offensive creation, athletes in the backcourt, and an elite centre.

With all the trade rumors floating around, upcoming free agents, and cap complications, the Raptors are in a confusing position, with seemingly unlimited options at their disposal. Let’s break down their offseason options, looking at realistic ways for the Raptors to improve this summer:

Current landscape

Before we go ahead, it’s worth clarifying where the Raptors are right now. They have 12 players signed through next season (assuming Christian Koloko signs), two free agents who they have bird rights on, and their non-taxpayer mid-level exception and bi-annual exceptions to spend in free agency. However, between Chris Boucher, Thad Young, Justin Champagnie and Yuta Watanabe, the Raptors will have to make some decisions on who they bring back this offseason in order to leave at least one roster spot open for their free agent signing.

Alternatively, the Raptors could try to sign Koloko to a two-way deal and open another roster spot, but that remains unlikely for someone picked so high in the second round and who could be able to contribute at the NBA level. Or they could waive Armoni Brooks to open another spot.

On the other side of things, the Raptors' two best players are both extension eligible this summer. Fred VanVleet could opt in to his 2023-24 salary at $22.8 million and then sign an extension for up to three years and up to $88.7 million. He could also decline that option, then sign an extension for up to four years and $114.2 million. Without an extension, he’ll likely opt out of his player option next summer and become a free agent.

Pascal Siakam can sign an extension for up to three years and $128.9 million. The Raptors are approaching a cap crunch in the coming years with VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. both potentially hitting free agency next summer and OG Anunoby, SIakam, and Precious Achiuwa all potentially hitting free agency the summer after that, so they could try to lock down VanVleet and Siakam on reasonable deals for years to come.

The draft

The Raptors began their offseason by drafting Koloko 33rd overall in the 2022 NBA Draft, a high-upside centre who fits a lot of needs for them in the medium to long term. At 7-foot-1, Koloko is more of a traditional rim-protecting, rim-running center than anyone the Raptors had on the roster last season, and his selection shows that the Raptors wanted to get more versatile in their defensive schemes, alluding to the possibility of them playing more drop coverage when their small-ball, switch-everything scheme isn’t getting the desired results.

Following the draft, the Raptors signed Ron Harper Jr. to a two-way contract and extended Summer League invites to Alex Barcello, Ryan Hawkings, Jaylen Sims, and Canadian Abu Kigab. They still need to find a new head coach for their G League affiliate, the Raptors 905, after Patrick Mutombo left the organization for an assistant coaching job with the Phoenix Suns.

Outside of Koloko, who could fill a specialist role for the Raptors as soon as next season playing 5-15 minutes a night and thriving against specific matchups that require a more traditional centre, it’s rare that rookies carve out roles on winning teams. Instead, Ron Harper Jr. and whoever wins the second two-way spot will primarily develop with the 905. So, while the Raptors elected to not trade up in the draft, they did select a player who addresses a need for them and bolsters their center depth, giving them more flexibility to address different needs in free agency.

Free agency

Free agency begins on June 30 at 6:00 pm ET, when we are sure to see a flurry of action. And while the Raptors have not had a lot of success in free agency in the past, they have turned themselves into a more attractive destination for potential free agents to join given their young core’s recent success, the available offensive roles, the city of Toronto, and the way that their reputation is changing within the youthful NBA.

The Raptors will have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception to spend, which starts at about $10.34 million and can last up to four years with five percent raises on the first-year salary, for a total of about $45 million. It can be split between players. They also have the bi-annual exception, which is around $4.05 million over two years for a total of just over $8 million, but if used, it becomes unavailable for 2023-24. Plus, they can go over the cap to retain their existing free agents Boucher and Young.

They will need to spend that money wisely, as the mid-level exception is rarely enough money to get a high-impact, starter-level player, especially considering the Raptors hesitancy to give out long-term contracts to anyone other than their core pieces. However, depending on the Raptors willingness to spend into the luxury tax in the coming years — they are owned by two of the richest corporations in Canada, so no excuses there in my humble opinion — they may be more willing to hand out a long-term mid-level in order to go after the best free agents available. Sometimes a mid-level with term can be enough to add the final piece to the roster, as was the case with Jae Crowder in Phoenix (3 years, $29 million) and P.J. Tucker in Miami (2 years, $14 million).

So, who should the Raptors target in free agency? We know that they need shooting in order to open up more space for Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes to work with inside, improving on their 34.9 percent mark from three last season, which ranked 20th in the league. They could also use more athleticism in the backcourt, giving them someone who could punch gaps and get to the rim in a way that Norman Powell used to do. And while they could also use a centre and a backup point guard, that’s not where I would look to spend given that Siakam and Barnes seem capable of running point when VanVleet is sitting and that Koloko can be a specialist for them in spot minutes without spending big on a traditional center, with Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa also needing minutes. Plus, youth is probably going to be a factor for a Raptors team that wants to take a step forward but is being patient with their youth movement.

When it comes to shooters, Bobby Portis, Gary Harris, Malik Monk, Tyus Jones, TJ Warren, Taurean Prince, and Pat Connaughton all make varying levels of sense. When it comes to speedy and athletic guards, Collin Sexton, Lonnie Walker IV, and Victor Oladipo make sense. And if the Raptors do want to target a more traditional center and potentially move off of Birch, Nic Claxton, Mo Bamba, Isaiah Hartenstein, Kevon Looney, and Jusuf Nurkic could all be in their price range. I think it makes the most sense to target a certified shooter (one less player who you have to worry about teaching them how to shoot) and go from there, but I also wouldn’t be upset if the Raptors took a short-term gamble on someone like Oladipo or Warren, who are coming back from injuries but who, when healthy, have showcased exactly the type of offensive juice that the Raptors need.

Who should the Raptors hone in on this offseason? (Getty)
Who should the Raptors hone in on this offseason? (Getty)

Trade market

This is where things get interesting if you’re a Raptors fan, if not somewhat convoluted as well. There are a number of frameworks that the Raptors can work with within the trade market, including straight-up deals, multi-team deals, and sign-and-trades. With all of the Anunoby rumors floating around and all the big names reported to be on the trade market, including guys like Rudy Gobert, Dejounte Murray, and DeAndre Ayton — plus the fact that the Raptors own all of their second-round picks moving forward except 2024, along with all of their first-round picks — it makes sense that the Raptors would look towards the trade market in order to improve and/or balance the roster.

However, it still feels like the Raptors are a year away from making a blockbuster trade. After all, if you take the Kawhi Leonard trade as precedent, the Raptors waited until they were ousted from the playoffs year-after-year before making a change, allowing their core group to grow together and giving them multiple chances before taking a swing for the fences. It doesn’t make sense to trade future assets for a star player if the supporting cast isn’t ready to play for a championship around said star, and Barnes and Achiuwa need more time to grow before the Raptors can be confident in making that type of swing. Plus, if they wait a few months or a full year, different stars could be on the market, including guys like Bradley Beal or Donovan Mitchell.

Still, the Raptors could make minor deals around the edges in hopes of balancing their roster, especially depending on what happens in free agency. If, for example, they are unable to land a perimeter player in free agency, they could look to sign-and-trade one of Boucher or Young for one. Or, say they do land a centre in free agency, they might look to get off Birch’s contract in order to free up potential minutes for Koloko. If down the line Trent Jr. or Anunoby becomes unhappy with their roles, the Raptors could look to package one of them for a star, but it doesn’t make sense to trade players that talented just to balance the roster.

As I noted at the top, between the draft, free agency, and trades, there are seemingly infinite possibilities at the Raptors disposal.

Overall, it feels likely that the Raptors will run it back next season with a similar group, albeit one that is slightly more versatile and with slightly more shooting, relying on internal growth from their youngsters to take a step forward. With the Eastern Conference being as wide open as ever, that’s not a bad place to be.

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