Following the Toronto Raptors’ second round capitulation to the Cleveland Cavaliers, some serious questions need to be raised in regards to their future.
With their inglorious recent playoff exit now behind them, the Toronto Raptors must now decide on the future direction of the franchise.
Despite playing in his third straight All-Star game, point guard Kyle Lowry was again banged up in the postseason, and played in just 60 games during the regular season. Although he has played in 79, 70 and 77 regular season games prior to this season, his health has been the subject of much conjecture, particularly due to his play in the postseason. With Lowry planning to opt out his current contract, this represents one of a number of pivotal decisions for the Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri.
Another dilemma is the future of newly acquired forward/center Serge Ibaka. Having forgone a first round pick and young swingman Terrence Ross to acquire his services, Ibaka is a free agent this summer and, like Lowry, will be demanding a substantial contract extension.
Furthermore, the future of young center Jonas Valanciunas in the modern-day small-ball era will also require some serious discussion. Still just 25 and under contract for two more seasons, Ujiri and his staff need to ascertain if he is the type of player the franchise wishes to build around for the coming years.
Having said all this, here are five solid reasons why the Raptors would be advised to blow it all up and start anew.
Never has the diminishing value of the traditional big man been more evident than the 2016-17 season. In the Raptors’ case, fifth-year center Jonas Valanciunas was the poster child for this movement. The former No. 5 overall pick averaged 25.8 minutes per game this season, the lowest number since his rookie season. In the playoffs, this number dropped even further to 22.6 per game.
Still just 25, Valanciunas’ present contract runs until the end of the 2018-19 season, with a player option for the following a season. His numbers this season of 12.0 points and 9.5 rebounds on 55.7 percent shooting are quite solid on paper. On a per-36 minute basis, this equates to 13.2 rebounds per game, which is quite impressive.
But the basic on/off numbers tell another story. Here is how the Raptors’ output compares when Valanciunas was on and off the court this season.
On court: 109.6
Off court: 110.0
On court: 107.2
Off court: 102.4
Despite Valanciunas being a solid and efficient low post scorer, it’s the other areas of his game that come back to hurt the Raptors. With the rapid rise of the three-point shot as a weapon on the offensive end, Valanciunas’ lack of quickness and mobility makes it increasingly difficult for both himself and the team to cover the increasing numbers of stretch-5’s throughout the league.
For instance in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ recent playoff sweep of the Raptors, the Cavs’ ability to play either Kevin Love or Channing Frye at the center position makes Valanciunas’ role on the floor close to untenable.
Although this is the case, Valanciunas has undeniable talent. Still young and with a team friendly contract locked down, it wouldn’t surprise if some teams around the league expressed their interest in the Lithuanian native.
The Celtics’ struggles on the boards this season has been well documented, ranking 27th this regular season. Valanciuinas would provide a great option for Boston, with his age (25) and contract ($15.4 million next season) very team friendly. Meanwhile Gordon Hayward could fill the gap on the wing as a free agency signing this summer.
After arriving midseason via trade, Ibaka still produced the sort of numbers that we have been accustomed to seeing over the course of his career. In 23 regular season games, Ibaka averaged 14.2 points and 6.8 rebounds, which included shooting 39.8 percent from three-point range on 4.5 attempts per game. While he has continued to be solid on the offensive end, it ‘s on the other end of the court where Ibaka’s impact has taken a hit.
Starting with the 2011-12 season, Ibaka was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive first team in three consecutive seasons. Over these seasons, he averaged 3.7, 3.0 and 2.7 blocks per game. In his short stint with the Raptors, he registered just 1.4 per game. Considering his previous defensive prowess, his on/off court numbers have some cause for concern.
On court: 107.6
Off court: 109.6
On court: 105.4
Off court: 101.8
Overall, the Raptors were 5.6 points per 100 possessions better off when Ibaka was not on the floor. In the playoffs, the Raptors were 5.1 points per 100 possessions worse off on the defensive end alone with Ibaka on the court.
The dilemma facing the Raptors is the fact that they relinquished the rights to their first round pick this year, on top of Terrence Ross, to acquire Ibaka’s services. But considering the team’s flameout in the playoffs, this decision may not be so difficult for Ujiri and his front office.
Like Holiday, Griffin has had his history of injury concerns. But when healthy, he is still an elite talent, as evidenced by his season averages of 21.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. Still just 28, a change of scenery could very well bring out the best in the four-time All-Star.
However, it’s worth noting the Raptors would have to shed considerable salary to make room for a max deal for Griffin, especially if they try to re-sign Kyle Lowry.
When healthy, Kyle Lowry has been super over the last four regular season’s in Toronto, as evidenced by three straight All-Star appearances. This season, he averaged 22.4 points and 7.0 assists per game, including a career-best 41.2 from three-point range on 7.8 attempts per game. Furthermore, he compiled an outstanding net rating of +8.2 over 60 games.
However, the postseason’s arrival is when things have gone awry.
Over the last three seasons, Lowry has played in 32 playoff games, averaging 17.4 points and 5.8 assists per game. This includes shooting 40.0 percent from the field and 30.2 percent from three-point range.
Lowry recently turned 31 and has now completed 11 seasons in the league. While Lowry has never suffered any long-term injuries, investing in a point guard who is entering the latter stages of his career, and has shown a propensity to break down late in the season, is clearly a huge risk.
Sources have said the North Philly native has been interested in playing for the Sixers for some time. The speculation only heightened once Bryan Colangelo became the president of basketball operations in April 2016. As the Raptors general manager, Colangelo acquired Lowry in a trade from the Houston Rockets on July 11, 2012. The two have remained good friends since then.
And sources have always said that the Sixers planned to offer Lowry a lucrative contract this summer.
As impressively as Lowry has performed since arriving in Toronto, the Raptors’ postseason record during this time is now at 17-24. As the team’s leader and best player, having such a record under his watch is bound to cause concern for the front office.
Let Lowry walk via free agency and target free agent point guard Jrue Holiday.
Although he has been injury-prone, Holiday will be just 27 at the beginning of next season. Notably, Holiday played the final 58 games of this season without taking a game off.
Overall, Holiday averaged 15.4 points and 7.3 assists per game. With eight seasons under his belt and entering the prime of his career, Holiday represents a great option moving forward.
DeMar DeRozan followed up his offseason $145 million contract signing with the best season of his eight-year career. In 74 games, DeRozan averaged 27.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.1 steals per game. His usage rate of 34.2 was comfortably the highest of his career, despite the presence of Lowry. Furthermore, he competed in his third All-Star game, his first time as a starter.
But as impressive as these numbers are, DeRozan’s game doesn’t resonate with the modern-day push toward pace and space that embraces the three-point line. Despite DeRozan ranking second in the league with 20.9 field-goal attempts per game, just 1.7 of these per game were from three-point range. This certainly helps to explain the incredibly high usage rate DeRozan possessed this season.
The problem with such an approach is when the playoffs arrive. For the second straight year, DeRozan’s postseason numbers took a noticeable hit. As talented as DeRozan is on the offensive end, when teams have the time to zero in and focus on the one opponent, the lack of a three-point shot to spread the floor is detrimental for both DeRozan and the Raptors as a team.
Despite having $110 million owing over the next four seasons, DeRozan is still just 27 and will still have plenty of currency on the open market. Considering the doubt surrounding Lowry’s return, and the decisions to be made on midseason arrivals in Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, Ujiri would be negligent not to test the waters and ascertain what the Raptors could possibly obtain in a potential deal.
One target the Raptors could have for a possible DeRozan trade is the New York Knicks. With Knicks team president Phil Jackson still in love with the triangle offense, DeRozan would be a terrific fit in such as a system. But aside from Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks have little in the way of assets at their disposal to satisfy the Raptors.
Hence, a third team would need to be included to facilitate a deal. With Carmelo Anthony most likely heading out the door, the Los Angeles Clippers have rumored to be a strong chance of pulling off a deal. A potential deal could consist of the following:
There would need to be a number of other inclusions to make the deal work, but these would be the essentials of such a deal. Jackson has proven to be crazy and desperate enough to make this work, which means it’d remiss of Ujiri not to pick up the phone and get the ball rolling.
“They’ve got LeBron James. Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him. “I don’t know when his prime is going to stop. I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time.
“He seems a lot faster and quicker this year from last year. That extra hop step, everything out there on the court. You look on the scoresheet after the game and he’s still playing 42 minutes a game. It’s incredible for somebody with that amount of mileage on him to be able to come back and seem faster and quicker that next year. “
Considering the situation facing the Raptors, hearing this from your two All-Star players does not bode well if the front office is thinking of reloading with their core group as currently constituted.
Instead, Ujiri and his staff should be emphasizing that the time is right to blow things up. James isn’t going away any time soon. Teams such as the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers could be juggernauts in the coming seasons with the young talent at their disposal. Also, the Boston Celtics look set to not only compete in the Eastern Conference Finals, but also possibly draw the No.1 overall pick in this year’s draft.
The easy decision would be to re-sign Lowry, Ibaka, Tucker and co. and simply think that by showing up that anything could happen.
But taking two steps back in order three steps forward should be firmly at the top of the Raptors’ line of thinking.
A suggested core of Griffin, Holiday, Crowder and Rivers would be a very good starting point for a rebuild. A stretch-5 would naturally be the next important target. The Raptors would also now possess two first round picks in a loaded 2017 draft.