It has been quite the rollercoaster 2022-23 season for the Toronto Raptors. They began the season as a discombobulated unit, their lack of a true center proving costly en route to a below .500 start. This uninspiring start was disappointing, especially for a team that won 48 games last season and played a competitive series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
This led to plenty of rumors that the Raptors would decide to sell some of their best players, essentially punting on the 2022-23 season in an effort to gear up for their Scottie Barnes-led future. Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Gary Trent Jr. found themselves in plenty of trade rumors, while Pascal Siakam, the Raptors' best player, wasn't immune to trade talk either.
But in the end, the Raptors decided to take one last swing and remain competitive by trading for Jakob Poeltl, one of the pieces they dealt in the Kawhi Leonard trade back in 2018. And it worked to some degree; the Raptors went 15-10 since trading for the 27-year old center, and they ended up making the play-in tournament as the ninth seed.
However, their playoff hopes came to a screeching halt… literally. Seemingly unable to shake off the yelling of Diar DeRozan, DeMar DeRozan's daughter, the Raptors' suffered a season-ending loss to the Chicago Bulls, thanks in large part to their 18 missed free throws on the night.
As a result, the Raptors are now at a crossroads. Not only have they failed to make the playoffs, they also failed to cash in on some of their trade chips while their values, particularly OG Anunoby's, were at an all-time high. And they could very well lose some of them in free agency, which would be a disastrous outcome.
Thus, these are two players the Raptors must re-sign in the 2023 NBA free agency to avoid total disaster.
Fred VanVleet is a talented floor general, someone whose three-point bombing ways make him a perfect fit for today's three-point centric NBA. And he fits well alongside the Raptors' best players, such as Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes, two players who prefer to do their damage in the paint and from midrange. Keeping him for basketball reasons, however, won't be the problem.
It's VanVleet's potential demands in free agency that might give the Raptors front office some pause. VanVleet will be looking for a sizable raise from his $22.8 million player option for next season, which could mean an annual salary starting in the $28-$30 million range.
Fred VanVleet is only 29 years old, so it's not like he's in danger of a steep decline. But will the Raptors pony up that kind of money to keep a borderline All-Star player on a 41-win team?
However, the Raptors may have no choice but to re-sign VanVleet, given the dearth of realistic, quality replacements they could pursue in the event that he leaves.
The Raptors' roster, as it is, is already starved of quality guards. VanVleet has to shoulder such a heavy workload every night because of the Raptors' lack of guard depth. His potential departure would only make that problem worse for Toronto.
The undrafted guard out of Wichita State has said that he's willing to re-sign with the Raptors anyway, so it will be up to them to match his demands in free agency.
The Raptors gave up a top-six protected for Jakob Poeltl in the hopes of bringing more balance to their wing-heavy roster. And the Raptors looked more like a functional NBA team with Poeltl in town. However, it was very risky of them to trade away a first-rounder, top-six protected it may be, for a player who can sign with any team he pleases a in few months' time.
But for the Raptors' sake, they will be hoping that Poeltl wants to stay in the North, if only to protect their investment. Poeltl, back in January, reportedly wants an average annual value of around $20 million for his next contract, so it will not be a cheap signing by any means for Toronto.
But they knew what they would be in for when they traded for the Austrian center, so they will have to open up the coffers to avoid losing a first-rounder for a two-month rental.
It's unclear yet if Gary Trent Jr. decides to decline his player option for next season after his poor end to the 2022-23 campaign. Trent will be making $18.6 million next season if he opts in, which could very well be a higher amount than what teams would be willing to pay for him free agency.
Meanwhile, there's no way that Otto Porter Jr. opts out of his $6.3 million option for next season, given his current injury status.
Dalano Banton and Will Barton are also free agents, but it's hard to envision a scenario where the Raptors prioritize these two, especially the latter.