This summer is going to be very important for the Toronto Raptors as general manager Masai Ujiri has some tough decisions to make. The Raps have several key contributors that are set to become free agents and, with very little cap space to work with, Ujiri will need to make some carefully calculated moves to ensure that he keeps the team’s young nucleus together.
Before we dig into each free agent’s future, let’s go through a little rundown of the Raptors’ current situation.
Coming into the 2013-14 season, many people shared the same thought: The Toronto Raptors are not very good. That same thought still resonated throughout the beginning of the season until Ujiri decided to make a move and trade Toronto’s best player in Rudy Gay.
Once Gay was traded, I think it is safe to say that most Raptors fans assumed that the tank was on for the rest of the season, but to the surprise of many, things actually got a whole lot better.
It was like finally being able to put together a whole puzzle; Gay was just an odd piece that didn’t fit. After the trade, Toronto played with better energy, greater chemistry and was carried by its leader at the point in Kyle Lowry and first time All-Star DeMar DeRozan.
Along with those two, the likes of Terrance Ross, Jonas Valanciunas, Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez all stepped up at different parts of the season and proved that together, they could have something special brewing in Toronto.
However, there is just one problem: Lowry, Patterson, Vasquez and intriguing point guard Nando de Colo will all be free agents on July 1. They are all restricted free agents except for Lowry, who will be free to test the open market on his own.
It is pretty clear that Masai Ujiri wants to keep the current team intact as best as he can. When asked about keeping the nucleus together on the radio show, Sportsnet 590 The Fan, he stated:
“We have to use our instincts now to grow our roster and add pieces that are somehow not going to stop other guys from progressing. Players progress with playing time, with experience. We have to get them to keep growing. I think staying together and consistency are very important for our program now.”
I personally like this strategy, except it’s not going to be an easy task with the lack of salary cap space.
Frankly, Toronto is going to need a combination of some luck and a little help and cooperation from the players in order to put together the roster that they want.
According to Basketball Insiders, the Raptors have six players on fully guaranteed contracts for the next season at an estimated $31.7 million: DeMar DeRozan, Landry Fields, Chuck Hayes, Steve Novak, Terrance Ross and Jonas Valanciunas.
All in all, the Raptors have approximately $18 million to dish out to their free agents, and if they want to try and keep all of them, they’re going to have to spend it all.
This leaves no room for additional signings. Alternatively, if they decide to let one of their own go, they could have a little room to bring in a veteran to help in a position of need.
How should they handle this situation? Let’s play a little keep or sell with the Toronto Raptors’ free agents.
Patterson had a great year for the Raptors in 2013-14, averaging 8.5 points and 5.3 rebounds in only 23.6 minutes per game during the regular season.
He was even more impressive in the postseason against the Brooklyn Nets, where he upped his numbers to 10.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
At 6’9” and 235 pounds, the fourth-year man out of Kentucky made big strides this year and has a lot of fans excited about his future in Toronto.
Although he hasn’t put up crazy numbers, he oozes potential as a stretch 4. With his improved play this past season, a good argument could be made to put him into the starting lineup and bring Amir Johnson off of the bench.
His improved play should also earn him a pay raise. The Raptors have placed a qualifying offer on the table for $4.3 million, a raise from his $3.1 million salary last season.
However, it is reasonable to think that other teams could present offer sheets for Patterson for more money, probably topping out between $5 and $6 million annually for four years. Regardless of the other offer sheets, as long the price stays reasonable, Patterson is too valuable for the Raptors’ future to let him go.
Final Verdict: Keep
There is no doubt that Greivis Vasquez was a big part of Toronto’s run this past season, and he definitely deserves a raise and a home in Toronto, but the question is will that happen?
In the unfortunate case that Kyle Lowry doesn’t sign with Toronto, the Raptors will need to lock in a point guard or two to fill the void and Vasquez fits the bill perfectly.
Even if Lowry stays, Vasquez is the ideal backup point guard in Toronto’s system and is a part of the young nucleus that Ujiri wants to keep together.
He averaged 9.6 points and 4.1 assists this past season and although he needs to work on taking care of the ball (evident in the playoffs), he has great value as a backup point guard in the NBA.
He currently has a $3.2 million qualifying offer sitting on the table from the Raps, but other teams could come in with offer sheets between $4 and $5 million annually for three or four years. If this were the case, Ujiri would have to think long and hard about matching an offer like that.
If the Raptors let Vasquez walk, they’d free up some money to go after another free agent or to make a move to go up in the draft. They have the No. 20 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft and could very likely take a point guard like Elfrid Payton or could try to move up and snag Canadian native Tyler Ennis.
It would be great if Vasquez stays, but if he goes, there are still other good options to look at.
Final Verdict: Keep (but only at the right price)
Nando de Colo
Nando de Colo is a very interesting player. He hasn’t played too much, but when he has, he has shown serious flashes of potential.
For Toronto in 2013-14, he averaged 3.8 points and 1.4 assists in only 10.5 minutes per game.
At 6’5” he brings great size to the point guard spot. The 26-year-old Frenchman won’t ever be a starting point guard in the NBA, but if given the chance, he could prove to be a very solid backup.
Colo’s salary in 2013-14 was slotted at $1.4 million. Without a ton of playing experience in the NBA, it shouldn’t take much more than that to keep him on the roster if that’s what the Raptors decide.
With Lowry and Vasquez’s futures both uncertain, signing de Colo could be a smart move as a just-in-case option that won’t be a big hit on the salary cap. However, he is also expendable if both Lowry and Vasquez re-sign.
Final Verdict: Keep (but not 100 percent necessary if Lowry and Vasquez re-sign)
If you were to ask just about any Toronto Raptors fan about Mr. Lowry, they would tell you that he should have been an All-Star this season and they would be absolutely right.
Lowry had an outstanding 2013-14 campaign where he averaged 17.9 points, 7.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game.
He led the team as the floor general on both sides of the floor and earned the love and support of all of Raptor nation.
Keeping Lowry needs to be Masai Ujiri’s number one priority this offseason and he should do whatever is necessary to accomplish this goal.
Lowry is the key to Toronto’s current and future success and can even help draw in big-name players in the summer of 2015.
In 2013-14 Lowry’s salary was set at $6.2 million. With the phenomenal year he just had, he is set to make up to nearly double that in the upcoming seasons.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, they don’t have a whole lot to work with. They'd love to have Lowry sign for a reasonable market price and not be forced to overpay for his services, but it's tough to say if they'll get that luxury.
Looking at all of the top point guards in the league and where Lowry stacks up on the ladder, it is logical to think that he will be able to demand anywhere between $9.5 and $12 million per year over the course of four years.
The Raptors of course are hoping that number is closer to $9.5 than $12 million, but regardless, they need to do everything they can to keep Lowry, even if that means compromising their other possible signings.
Lowry ideally would love to stay in Toronto, it is just up to the Raptors’ front office to make that happen.
Final Verdict: Keep (at all costs)
At the end of the day, the Toronto Raptors’ ideal situation would be to keep all of their free agents, but if it must come down to it, the two biggest priorities should be Lowry and Patterson.
Masai Ujiri’s plan is to keep the current team all together as best as possible, develop the players and wait till next summer to make a splash with a big free-agent signing.
As Ujiri also said in his interview with Sportsnet 590 The Fan:
“We’re not a team that is going to say that we are going to win a championship next year. Obviously we want to win a championship — that’s our goal — but we’re not just going to swing (for it) unnecessarily. We’re going to grow this team where these players make a lot of progress, even if it’s steadily.”
Obviously he’s not in a big hurry, but for the fans’ sake, after the upcoming season, the Raptors will be able to get rid of the ridiculous contracts of the likes of Landry Fields and Chuck Hayes.
If they play their cards right, they should be able to go after a big-time player in the 2015 free-agent market to add to the already strong nucleus that hopefully is able to stay together, setting up a very bright future in Toronto.