The defending champion Toronto Raptors have exited the bubble after being eliminated by the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Raptors pushed the Celtics to a full seven games, showing that championship mettle until the very end.
To credit the Raptors, they were never favored to repeat for the title, let alone make it to the NBA Finals. This season was more so about this team proving their ability to succeed without a legitimate superstar. They were a few rim bounces away from not surviving the Philadelphia 76ers last season in the playoffs even with the presence of Kawhi Leonard. To assume they’d repeat the same greatness this season was a bit far-fetched.
The Celtics ended up being a little too much for the Raptors to combat, and now Toronto has some big decisions to make this offseason. There are numerous key players hitting free agency, while a 34-year-old Kyle Lowry is set to become an expiring contract next season.
Roster changes for this team are inevitable given the state of pending free agents currently on the roster. Fred VanVleet is a critical component of the style of play Nick Nurse coaches. VanVleet and Lowry both have been successful in coming off screens and successfully shooting the 3-pointer, as well as penetrating the paint despite their size.
That luxury may change soon, however, as VanVleet is up for a big payday. If Toronto deems that VanVleet isn’t worth the huge long-term contract he may get, a replacement will be needed. Tim Hardaway Jr. could be an intriguing backcourt option, but he does have a player option worth nearly $19 million. Avery Bradley would be a cheaper option if he opts out of his $5 million deal.
The Raptors may wind up choosing to pay VanVleet because of Lowry’s situation as an aging guard, but there are no guarantees. VanVleet was instrumental in Toronto’s championship run, so his free agency will be fascinating to watch play out.
Toronto could also potentially explore Lowry’s trade market. While he’s the heart and soul of the franchise, nothing can be ruled out given his age and the makeup of the roster. A trade is unlikely, but it’s at least something to think about.
During the regular season, the Raptors didn’t show much need for improvement in any aspects of the game. That much could even be said about the first series of the playoffs going against a depleted Brooklyn Nets squad that barely made the cut. Against the Celtics, however, one glare became obvious: the need for a legitimate scoring wing.
Toronto was able to mask the loss of Kawhi Leonard during the season thanks to Pascal Siakam’s rising stardom along with the continued development of OG Anunoby. The absence of Leonard was felt in the second round, though, when points often became hard to come by in half-court situations. Siakam’s production declined throughout the restart before cratering against Boston.
Toronto should be scouting a veteran wing who can generate shots without assistance while also transitioning back on defense effectively. One who ironically could fit that situation would be current Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, who was absent from the series due to an ankle injury.
Hayward could provide another scoring option alongside Lowry and Siakam, as well as a playmaking option. The issue, of course, is that Hayward has a $34.2 million player option for next season. While the 30-year-old has had a nice season, it seems crazy to think he would turn that down.
Another option, albeit possibly awkward, would be the return of four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan could decline his $27.7 million player option for the 2020-21 season and welcome the return to a place he had called home for all of his career before being shipped off to San Antonio for Leonard.
Cap space could be an issue for any of these types of big moves, though, with other roster decisions having an impact.
Finding (or keeping) a center
Along with Fred VanVleet being on deck to possibly exit Toronto, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are also set to be free agents. Ibaka provided a much-needed boost in 3-point shooting this season at 38.5 percent, while Gasol is still a crafty defensive player in the middle.
Both Ibaka and Gasol made big money this season, and it will be interesting to see what kind of deals they’re looking for this offseason. The Raptors could look to bring one or both of the veterans back for less money, or they could look for other options.
Centers like Hassan Whiteside, Dwight Howard, and Mason Plumlee are all about to hit the market, and they wouldn’t break the bank. Andre Drummond could hit free agency, but he’s expected to exercise his $28.8 million player option. The Raptors could also seek out even cheaper options in order to look for more help elsewhere on the roster.
When it comes down to it, the Raptors could look a lot different next season as they transition to their future. However, don’t rule out them mostly running it back with just some tweaks around the edges. We know this group is tough and can compete with anybody, and even just a little more development from Siakam and Anunoby could help get them over the hump again.