It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The most successful season in Toronto Raptors history ended the way it seemingly always has the past few years—a playoff run culminating in an evisceration by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. Dwane Casey, who oversaw a complete transformation in the Toronto offense this past season en route to 59 wins, was summarily fired and questions arose almost immediately about where the Raptors go from here. Last summer, they decided to run it back again with Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka signing massive new contracts to keep them in Toronto until 2020, but after another playoff exit, Masai Ujiri and his staff will be limited in how they can upgrade the roster in addition to replacing Casey’s voice on the bench.
The biggest limitation Ujiri will face this summer is the deals he’s made so far in his tenure; the Raptors begin the summer with $127.8 million in salary and dead money already committed for 2018 and have no selections in this year’s draft to add young talent to the roster. Toronto is already about $4.9 million into the tax before making any acquisitions or re-signing their incumbent free agents, led by Fred VanVleet, who will be a restricted free agent this summer and could cost the Raptors a pretty penny to retain. How far is ownership willing to go into the tax to bring VanVleet back or make other additions, especially after what they just saw from the team in these playoffs? Every dollar for VanVleet could end up costing ownership an additional two or three dollars in luxury tax penalties, depending on what other moves Ujiri makes between now and June 2019.
VanVleet is the only incumbent free agent that moves the needle one way or the other—Lucas Nogueira and Lorenzo Brown can be restricted free agents if the Raptors decide to tender qualifying offers to those guys, but it’s unlikely that they will. Nogueira in particular is a strong candidate to become an unrestricted free agent, since his qualifying offer would be higher than Toronto would want to pay him for next season, especially when considering the luxury tax implications of his salary. Toronto could tender the $4.1 million qualifying offer to Nogueira and pull it before July 13, but they run the risk that he and his agent see the writing on the wall and sign it before they do so.
Outside additions to the Raptors are likely to come in one of three ways: trading for a draft pick, using their $5.3 million Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception to sign a free agent, or using one of their two big trade exceptions generated last summer on a player currently under contract. Obtaining a first-round pick in this year’s draft will be difficult unless they’re willing to part with one (or more) of the members of their phenomenal bench unit but buying back into the second round might be doable if ownership is willing to part with some cash. Depending on who’s available, the $5.3 million mini mid-level might be enough to bring in a solid contributor, as would one of their two larger trade exceptions: $11.8 million from the DeMarre Carroll trade and $7.6 million from the Cory Joseph trade. Both expire in mid-July and can be used to acquire players up to those amounts without sending any salary back, though certainly adding another 8-figure player to the Raptors cap sheet would send their luxury tax bill through the roof.
Note: teams cannot combine trade exceptions with other salary or exceptions to acquire a bigger-salaried player. Toronto is not allowed to use both of these trade exceptions to trade for a player making $19 million, for example. Additionally, teams can use trade exceptions to acquire a player via sign-and-trade but doing so hard caps them at the apron and the Raptors would be hard-pressed to sign-and-trade for someone without blowing past the apron, which is projected at $129.1 million this year.
Evaluating the players on the roster and their value around the league is a key component of every team’s offseason, but figuring out which guys are long-term pieces and which are expendable will be even more important to Ujiri and the Raptors this summer. Of their four 8-figure players, only Jonas Valanciunas could possibly draw significant trade interest—getting off of the Valanciunas deal would certainly open up a lot more options for the Raptors, from getting the full Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception to using those trade exceptions to land a bigger fish. With Jakob Poeltl waiting in the wings, a more prudent use of resources might be to find a trade for Valanciunas and bring in a much cheaper center who doesn’t command as much playing time, but that trade may not be out there for them. The center market is heavily bloated right now and the league is in a spot where traditional pick-and-roll, defend-the-rim centers aren’t as useful as they once were, unless they’re at an elite level in both of those areas.
In all likelihood, the 2018-19 Raptors will look very similar to the 2017-18 version, with some small additions on the margins and VanVleet back at a much higher salary. Despite the disappointing results in the playoffs, Toronto is still enjoying its most successful run since joining the NBA in the mid-90s and has a clear long-term plan: Lowry, Ibaka, and Valanciunas all come off the books in 2020, at which point the franchise will be turned over to the kids: VanVleet, Poeltl, Delon Wright, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Norman Powell are the future in Toronto. Building to maintain the present without sacrificing their future is the most important thing Ujiri can accomplish this summer, despite the limited resources available to him.
30 Teams in 30 Days takes you through every team’s thinking heading into the offseason, from evaluating their own personnel to dealing with their cap situation. This is the first installment, covering the Toronto Raptors. You can find Toronto’s full cap sheet here.