Sports

The Raptors may be active in free agency — but not at the cost of the team’s fabric

As usual in advance of the inflection points on the NBA calendar – the trade deadline, the draft and now with the opening of free agency looming – the Toronto Raptors keep their plans close to their chest.

But just because their vision isn’t routinely fodder for the NBA social media and news cycles, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to guess at their intentions.

Often enough what they have in mind is hiding in plain sight.

For some guidance about where the Raptors might be leaning as the window to negotiate with free agents opens at 6 pm ET on Thursday, it’s worth referring back to Raptors vice-chairman Masai Ujiri’s end-of-season remarks in the aftermath of his club having their surprisingly strong 48-win season end in a six-game first-round playoff loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

He preached optimism, he preached patience and he preached continuity.

“I think it’s still a team of the future,” he said. “We still have the patience here to build this team and whatever it takes to get these guys to grow, we’ll see and that doesn’t mean things don’t come up as this is just the NBA, but we’ve always preached growth here and development and young players and think we’ve done that.”

So the core remains intact?

“Correct.”

As we’ve seen through the draft process, efforts by other clubs to convince the Raptors it was time to sell low on OG Anunoby and add another lottery pick alongside Scottie Barnes turned out to be a lot of wasted breath.

And likely now in free agency, the expectation is for another rather routine few days. There will be tweaks, but no wholesale changes.

Some of that is circumstantial:

As my colleague Blake Murphy laid out previously, the Raptors will operate as an ‘over-the-cap’ team, meaning they won’t have room under the salary cap to pursue the handful of shiny pennies in what is a thin free agency class .

Instead, they have the full mid-level exception (‘MLE’) to offer – which tops out at a four-year deal worth roughly $44 million – and the bi-annual exception (‘BAE’), a two-year deal beginning at $4.05 million.

As well, the Raptors own ‘Bird Rights’ on their own most significant free agents — Chris Boucher and Thad Young — so they can sign them even if they are over the cap.

In theory, they can offer Boucher and Young five-year deals at the NBA’s maximum salary, and still use both their exceptions, but in reality the Raptors will want to stay under the league’s luxury tax threshold of $149 million, avoiding both the financial penalties levied against ‘tax teams’ while also being in position to share in the distribution of luxury tax penalties from the teams that pay them to the teams that remain under the threshold.

All of which to say the Raptors have a total of about $30 million to spend on salaries for Boucher, Young and anyone they sign using their exceptions.

Is that enough?

It should be. The wild card is Boucher, a hugely productive if unconventional player in the right circumstances who seems to have zeroed in on how he can remain in an NBA rotation for the rest of his late-blooming career: use his long, strong, wiry frame and seemingly tireless motor to chase down offensive rebounds, sprint in transition, cut hard from the weak side and spot up for the odd three on offense, while drawing charges and otherwise hurling himself at opposing shooters on defence.

The Raptors will have gamed out the marketplace to point where they can make an offer that is competitive from Boucher’s point of view but won’t hamstring their spending in other areas.

Consider: it’s hard to see how Boucher’s skill set and his age – he’ll turn 30 in January – make him a good fit for the handful of teams that do have cap space this off-season. He doesn’t make a ton of obvious sense in Orlando, San Antonio, or Indiana, all of whom are rebuilding with youth or – in the case of the Knicks and Detroit – already seem to have their cap space used for different transactions.

It follows that the biggest threat to someone to sign Boucher away from Toronto is one of the other eight or so teams that are over the cap but under the luxury tax threshold another team using their mid-level exception on him.

In that case, you can talk yourself into Boucher being a fit in Charlotte or maybe Portland, but the Raptors have confidence that unless someone throws a four-year deal at the Montrealer, Toronto can compete on dollars and term with just about anyone.

And there is a matter of fit as well. Boucher has evolved from being an end-of-the-roster curiosity to part of the team’s fabric, embracing the role that Raptors head coach Nick Nurse envisioned for him and winning respect within the locker room and the front office for his fearless, feisty playing style.

Boucher spends his summers in Toronto and makes more off-season use of the OVO Athletic Center than almost anyone, regularly working out in the wee hours and coming back in the morning to start again. Besides, given the Raptors are expected to play an exhibition game in Montreal (per sources) again this season, won’t everyone be best served to hear the crowd chanting Boucher’s name at the Bell Center as they did back in the Fall of 2018?

I say this is a deal that gets done with a two-year deal for $24 million, with a team option and some kind of light guarantee for a third season.

Similarly, the Raptors believe they’re in a good position to bring veteran Thad Young back. They see him as not only a useful rotation piece as he enters his 16th season, but an investment in the mentorship he can provide the likes of Precious Achiuwa and Scottie Barnes while acting as a resource for the team’s young leaders: Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby.

That said, the market for a 34-year-old who has been on the fringes of the rotation for the past two seasons shouldn’t be all that competitive. There is the possibility some of the league’s tax-strapped elite teams could use their ‘taxpayer mid-level’ to chase Young, offering him a deal beginning at $6.5-million, but if that comes to pass the Raptors can go higher if necessary, though again with an eye towards limiting term to one-year and some kind of limited guarantee in the second.

Young was effusive about his experience in Toronto after frustrating seasons in Chicago and San Antonio. This feels like a deal the Raptors will get done without much trouble, likely for something in the range of $5-7 million on a one-year deal with a team option.

Which brings us to players the Raptors might be looking to acquire. Toronto has multiple needs for its roster – size and rim protection, additional three-point shooting and secondary play-making chief among them.

It will be hard to address more than one of them using the MLE or the BAL. The most likely scenario? The Raptors take advantage of what is a buyer’s market for big men to hold the fort while second-round pick Christian Koloko develops at his own pace.

The market is such that the Raptors might even be able to secure a quality player without using the full MLE. The exceptions to that – the Milwaukee Bucks’ Bobby Portis, Portland’s Jusef Nurkic, Golden State Warriors’ Kevon Looney and the Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson – are all expected to re-sign with their existing teams.

Two players to watch?

The Los Angeles Clippers won’t likely be able to keep Isaiah Hartenstein after agreeing to use their tax payer mid-level on John Wall and signing Ivica Zubac to a three-year, $33-million extension.

Hartenstein is a 24-year-old former second-round pick who had a breakout season off the bench for the Clippers. On a per 36 minutes basis he averaged 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.3 blocks while shooting 62.6 per cent from the floor.

Even more noteworthy from the Raptors point of view? The 7-footer led the NBA in defensive field goal percentage allowed at the rim with a mark of 47.5, out-pacing some of the league’s most recognized defenders: Rudy Gobert (49.3), Jaren Jackson Jr. (49.3) and Jarrett Allen ( 50.9). Given his age, his playmaking skill – his assist-to-turnover ratio is routinely 2:1 – and his ability to defend the paint, you can see the Raptors making a serious run at the fifth-year big.

Another option the Raptors will be considering is Washington Wizards big man Thomas Bryant, who has been off-the-radar somewhat after missing nearly a full year with a torn ACL suffered early in the 2020-21 season. But consider that in the bubble in 2019-20 he averaged 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.4 steals and blocks combined while shooting 40.5 per cent from three and 53.2 per cent from the floor. In the first nine games of 2020-21 – prior to his injury – Bryant picked up where he left off, averaging 15.9 points and 6.8 rebounds, and shooting 42.9 per cent from three.

His production fell off in the 27 games he did play this past season, which is hardly surprising given he was out for a calendar year. He may not be the rim presence that Hartenstein represents but has shown he can spread the floor well for a big, which has its own benefits. He is a former college teammate of Anunoby’s at Indiana, and shares an agent with Pascal Siakam, which is also worth noting.

Given his injury history, Bryant would seem a more affordable option – some projections have him worthy of just the veteran minimum, which seems light, but reflects him missing most of two seasons. The Raptors should have good intel on him and could likely find a deal that works well for both sides and uses only some of their MLE, giving them an option to see if there is another need they can fill with the rest.

There are other names on the market, the Orlando Magic’s Mo Bamba perhaps the most interesting, but given the Magic – run by former Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman – are are expected to make him an unrestricted free agent by refusing to make him a qualifying offer, the Raptors will likely proceed with caution on the former lottery pick who lacks the motor to go with his seven-foot-four frame, out-weighing his demonstrated ability to shoot from deep and change shots in the paint.

There is always the possibility the Raptors flip to a more temporary option also and do something short-term and affordable with old friend Bismack Biyombo who had a nice finish to his season in Phoenix last year, or JaVale McGee.

Whatever direction the Raptors go, however, it’s unlikely to be an off-the-board choice or one that requires Toronto to disrupt the existing team’s fabric.

They’ve said so already.

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