Any questions of whether the Toronto Raptors would rebuild or not have been put to rest.
When Rudy Gay was shipped out to the Sacramento Kings for a haul consisting mostly of expiring contracts, you knew. Just as many suspected, Raptors GM Masai Ujiri didn't wait long to give the team a real direction and clean up some of his predecessors biggest mistakes.
Rebuilding was always the best option for the Raptors, and Ujiri was the right man to do it. Although trading Gay and dumping Andrea Bargnani on the New York Knicks will probably be the biggest moves made, there's still plenty of asset acquisition work to be done in Toronto.
Here's what might be next on Ujiri's list as he tears down the Raptors and builds them back up.
Trade Kyle Lowry
Dealing Lowry should be the biggest current priority for the Raptors, especially now that Greivis Vasquez is in the fold. Although it seems unlikely the Raptors will match any substantial offer on Vasquez this offseason in restricted free agency, it wouldn't hurt to get a good, long look at the 26-year-old point, who averaged nine assists a game last year.
Although there probably isn't a lot of damage that could be done at this point, getting Lowry out of the locker room and away from some of Toronto's younger players is probably a good idea. Lowry has a history of being a little volatile and moody, and he may not be overly happy about the direction of the franchise and the loss of Gay, who was one of his best friends on the team.
Lowry's expiring deal, worth $6.2 million, should be fairly easy to move, particularly after December 15, when free agents signed this offseason become eligible to be included in a trade.
While it's hard to find a match in Brooklyn and Golden State, dealing with the Knicks is always a pretty good idea. This is a team that doesn't value draft picks or players acquired via the draft.
The last Knicks 1st-rd pick to sign a second contract with the team was David Lee (who was traded a year later). Before that? Charlie Ward.— Adam Reisinger (@AdamReisinger) December 12, 2013
With Raymond Felton out with a hamstring injury for two-to-three weeks and Iman Shumpert banged up, the Knicks may be feeling a little desperation set in.
Whether it's New York or elsewhere, getting a draft pick and a rookie-scale player for Lowry, who will be gone next year anyway, makes a lot of sense.
Shop DeMar DeRozan
Perhaps, Ujiri's biggest decision in the Raptors rebuilding process will revolve around DeMar DeRozan.
DeRozan is having a career year this season, scoring 21.5 points a night and posting a PER of 17.4. Shooting guard is a surprising shallow position around the league, and DeRozan is still just 24 years old.
The problem is, DeRozan is already being paid. He'll make $9.5 million a year for the next four seasons, and the value of that deal depends on if he continues to improve.
The good news on that front is that DeRozan's work ethic is regularly referred to as one of the best in the entire league. Here's what Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had to say about him last season:
"I don't think people notice him—not because they are in Toronto, but because of their record," Rivers said. "I think people are sleeping on him a lot. I think he adds stuff every year. Early on, he was basically a kamikaze driver—that's what we labeled him as, early on. Now, he gets to the line. He makes jump shots. He defends. He's a total basketball player."
DeRozan is a fan favorite in Toronto, and that work ethic and character is something a young team can always use. He's a leader by example, and moving him isn't as much of a priority as you might think.
That said, Ujiri would be wise to at least shop him. DeRozan's stock is at an all-time high, and rebuilding teams need cheap talent and draft picks.
There are a lot of good reasons to keep DeRozan in Toronto, but he is also a little high-maintenance in that he's a post-oriented wing player. He needs very specific types of players around him to thrive, and that might be a problem for a franchise that will likely be looking to just acquire the "best player available" at any position.
The Raptors don't need to move DeRozan by any means, but the phone lines should stay open.
Clear Cap Space for 2015
Although former Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo did plenty of damage before he was cut loose, the books in the future were kept relatively clean. The Raptors only have four players on contract going into the 2015-16 season right now. Two of them aren't likely to go anywhere, and that's Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross.
Valanciunas may be the only truly untouchable player for Toronto. Although he hasn't made the leap some expected, he's already a very solid big man with a lot of room for growth. With Gay gone, maybe he'll actually get the ball every now and then.
Ross has a lot of natural ability as well, and he's a springy guy any coach would love to get his hands on. He should be sticking around for the future.
The other two players on salary for 2015-16 are Steve Novak and DeRozan. Shedding Novak's salary in a trade should be a priority, even if $3.7 million doesn't seem like a lot of money. With Novak gone, the Raptors could have only $17.6 million in salary on the books (for now, that is), which is enough room for two max contracts in a great free-agency class.
Toronto may not be a prime free-agent destination, but providing a home where superstars can team up is always a good idea. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol, Rajon Rondo, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert and a host of other impact free agents could all be on the market at the same time. The possibilities there are endless.
There will be plenty of opportunities to deal in the upcoming months, but the Raptors should be weary of any deal that jeopardizes cap space in 2015.
Tank Now and Tank Hard
Tanking is a necessary evil for rebuilding teams, no matter how dirty it feels to say that. Teams that don't tank end up being the Milwaukee Bucks.
Does tanking always work out? No. The lottery balls can be awfully fickle, but having a shot at one of the big stars of this great draft class shouldn't be taken lightly.
There are a million different ways to tank, and the Raptors should explore each one. This is a team that might be able to sneak into the playoffs, strange as that is, but going the other direction will likely pay bigger dividends in the long term.
This is just another reason to focus on acquiring draft picks in any trade for Lowry, Amir Johnson or anyone else. You don't want anyone jeopardizing the tank.
Take On a Terrible Contract Now
The Raptors are in an interesting place this season and next. This is a rebuilding team, and there are no illusions of having or using major cap space this offseason.
So, why not take on a ridiculously expensive short-term contract and get paid in draft picks to do it?
Here's an example. If the Raptors offered to take Carlos Boozer's salary worth $16.8 million off the hands of the Chicago Bulls, they'd obviously listen. The Bulls might want to clear cap space to make improvements this offseason, and Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic are waiting in the wings.
Toronto has no actual interest in Boozer, of course, but Chicago has two first-round picks (their own and Charlotte's) this season, as well as no future picks owed. Compared to teams like New York and Brooklyn, who don't have first-round picks available until 2019 and 2020, this would be a breath of fresh air.
If the Raptors came with a base offer of PG Kyle Lowry (1 year, $6.2 million), PF/C Amir Johnson (2 years, $13.5 million) and cap filler like Austin Daye in exchange for Boozer (2 years, $32.1 million) and two future first-round picks, maybe the Bulls hop on the chance to stay competitive this year, lessen the luxury tax payment a bit and clear nearly $10 million in salary for next season.
Those are the types of deals Toronto can consider making. This year and next season are shot from a competitive standpoint anyhow, so it's all about finding creative ways to nab future assets. That's what rebuilding is all about.