Any NBA general manager worth his salt will tell you he has an offseason plan in place for once his team’s campaign comes to an end.
Actually seeing it through is the tricky part.
Kudos to Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors for pulling it off.
It’s what they do next, though, that will determine whether the Raptors reach higher heights or remain first-round outs.
On Tuesday, Toronto and backup point guard Greivis Vasquez came to terms on a two-year, $13 million deal, capping off a 10-day stretch that saw the Raptors reel both Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson back into the fold, while pulling off a minor coup in acquiring Lou Williams from the Atlanta Hawks.
Standing pat might not sound like the most exciting strategy.
However, Ujiri and the Raptors are banking on three things to help them take the next step up the Eastern Conference standings: chemistry, continuity and—perhaps most important of all—upside.
Based on their performance from a season ago, head coach Dwane Casey and company are closer than most would think.
Forty-eight wins, a division title, the conference’s No. 3 seed, a starting five all 28 years old or younger—Offer that quartet of factors up to 100 fans, and you wouldn’t find 10 to turn it down.
It starts with Lowry, Toronto’s mercurial journeyman point guard, who found himself courted by a number of contenders—including the Miami Heat and Houston Rockets, according to USA Today's Amick—before opting to return to Ontario.
After years of productive promise interspersed with instances of headstrong rancor, Lowry—welcome worn out in Houston—was dealt to the Raptors for Gary Forbes and a first-round pick following the 2011-12 season.
Forbes never played another minute in the NBA.
"I told him, 'If you squander this opportunity, this is it for you,'” Chauncey Billups told Lowry (per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski). "I kept telling him, 'You going to Toronto was like me going to Detroit.' That was my last real chance, and that was the case for him there now, too.”
A career year and one new long-term contract later, Lowry has emerged as one of the league’s steadiest, headiest point guards—a capable playmaker adept at both breaking down the defense and getting his own shot when necessary.
In Lowry and 24-year-old All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors now boast one of the East’s foremost backcourts.
While Lowry’s age (28) means his career trajectory is likely set, DeRozan—who tallied career highs in points, rebounds, assists, three-point percentage, true-shooting percentage and overall player efficiency last year—may have another level ahead of him yet.
Ditto for Jonas Valanciunas, the burly Lithuanian big who likewise enjoyed significant upticks almost across the board. And he just turned 22.
Even Terrence Ross (23) managed to rebound from a somewhat lackluster rookie year to become a solid three-and-V (for "vertical") contributor and near-full-time starter for last year’s Raps.
As of right now, the only real question mark for Toronto’s starting five is who will man the power forward slot.
The Raptors have yet to trigger Amir Johnson’s partially guaranteed $7 million salary, which would immediately put them over the salary cap. Should they opt not to buy him out, the 4-spot will likely belong to either him or Patterson.
Throw in Vasquez, Williams, Tyler Hansbrough, Landry Fields, Chuck Hayes and rookie Bruno Caboclo, and the Raptors—with a few fringe additions made by way of their mid-level and bi-annual exceptions—should wield a steady, balanced rotation heading into the 2014-15 season.
However, it also means Toronto stands to be slightly over the salary cap, suggesting it’ll only have access to veteran-minimum contracts until next year.
That’s where things get interesting.
Heading into next offseason, the Raptors stand to have somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million—Spotrac hasn't updated its figures to reflect Patterson's three-year, $18 million deal—committed, depending on how they approach the rest of this summer. That’s more than enough to go after a max- or near-max-level player.
When coupled with the Lowry-DeRozan-Ross-Valanciunas-Patterson core, that would make for a formidable team indeed.
Then again, Toronto may have different designs altogether:
A pure pipe dream? Probably, but if the Raptors can make good on their recent investments in the form of a deep playoff run or two, you can bet Ujiri will be pulling out every stop possible to get an audience with 2016 free agent Kevin Durant.
In fact, if you ask Nate Duncan of Basketball Insiders, landing someone of KD’s caliber—or close to it—might be Toronto’s only realistic chance of legitimately contending for a championship:
Yet despite their statistical success, it is hard to see this core competing for a championship sans superstar.* What’s worse, the Raptors’ success this year hurt their chances of acquiring such a player in the draft. In this context, identifying the keepers on the Raptors is especially difficult. Despite their success this year, they are in some ways closer to a lottery team in terms of the timeline for the keepers on their roster.
In a league where eight teams have accounted for the last 31 NBA championships—most of them superstar-driven—it’s hard to refute Duncan’s argument.
This is why Ujiri has done what so few general managers seem willing or able to do: foster a team good enough to exist on the outer limits of contention, but flexible enough to cleave open cap space at the right time in hopes that said superstar might decide to take his talents to Toronto.
In the meantime, Raptors fans will have to settle for something else: a young, promising team that was good enough to be one of only three teams in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
That recipe might not produce a champion—or even a contender. It does, however, guarantee Toronto will continue cooking something well worth tasting.