The following is a guest post from Jai Guruprasad
It has now officially been two years since the Toronto Raptors lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy in the Bay Area. Wow. How times have changed. On the final day of the 2020-21 regular season, only five players from the championship roster were still on the team. Of those five, only three seem to be locks to be back on the team next year – Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam. So where do they look for championship inspiration now? As Masai himself said, “This is a copycat league and we’re not trying to be copycats.” Well then Masai, how about you copy yourself. As the team now turns towards the future, they can look to their own past for help on how to build themselves back up into a championship contender.
Flexibility. That is the most important word to describe the last seven to eight years for the Raptors. Throughout the We The North era, flexibility had been at the forefront of the minds of the front office, coaching staff, and players. Masai Ujiri and his staff excelled with late draft picks and undrafted players, including Siakam, VanVleet, Norman Powell and Delon Wright. These selections formed a large part of the “Bench Mob” in the 2017-18 season and helped lead to a franchise record 59-win season. In the same season, the coaching staff began focusing on spacing, pace, and many more threes. This was evident in small changes like DeMar DeRozan’s sudden uptick in three point attempts — he averaged 3.6 per game that season, which were by far his career high. This became known as the “Culture Reset” season, and although it ended in yet another sweep at the hands of LeBron James, it was undeniably important to what would follow.
The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio provided the Raptors with a unique opportunity to snag an arguably, when healthy, top-three player in the league. The ambiguity surrounding Leonard’s health, his well-known desire to return to his home state of California, and his impending free agency made it difficult for teams to offer too much in a trade package. The Spurs did not want to trade him in-conference, so Masai and the Raptors swooped in. What Toronto gave up for a true number-one option in Leonard will no doubt go down in history as a mind-boggling trade. Perennial All-Star and franchise icon Demar DeRozan was a beloved player, but he was flawed in the playoffs. Jakob Poetl, Bench Mob center, was a valuable young player but certainly worth giving up in this scenario. A late first-round pick that turned into Keldon Johnson is similarly worth sacrificing for a shot at a championship. Compared to the current market in which Jrue Holiday commanded three first-round picks and two additional pick swaps, Leonard was a steal.
The Raptors know that it is next to impossible for this team to sign a number-one guy in free agency. Those players haven’t come to Toronto, regardless of the top-notch quality of the organization. Their only options are hitting on that guy in the draft, which requires time and fortune, or acquiring that guy via trade. With the state of the modern NBA and the player empowerment era, there is a good chance that top players will become available on the trade market more regularly. There is more pressure than ever on front offices to appease their star players, or they will face the issue of them forcing their way out. If you go back only two years to the 2019 All-Star game, you can see how much player movement there has been. Of the 27 players selected to be in that game, 13 have played for at least one new team since then. Masai Ujiri has a great knack for pouncing on the best opportunities for the team, and he will continue to do so (assuming, of course, that he is back with the team).
The Raptors’ draft excellence allowed them to acquire enough assets that they could make the Kawhi trade without losing too many role pieces. Keeping Siakam and Anunoby out of that deal was immense. Later on in the year we saw Wright, Jonas Valanciunas, and C.J. Miles, all rotation players, get shipped to Memphis for Marc Gasol, who was the final piece of the puzzle. As the Raptors look at their roster right now, they don’t have anything close to the bench and depth that they did a few years ago. The 2017-18 Raptors had a rotation of eleven players with Powell being eleventh in terms of minutes per game. That’s how deep the team was. Returning to Toronto’s form of contention means returning to that level of depth.
The “Culture” already exists. It is rooted in players like VanVleet, the heir apparent to Kyle Lowry, not necessarily on the court but even more importantly off the court as the vocal leader of the team. VanVleet, Siakam, and Anunoby may serve as the new version of Lowry, DeRozan, and Valanciunas, except this time they already have championship experience and pedigree. The Raptors have three very important draft picks in the 2021 draft that, if they hit, can fill out this roster and add more depth. Then they let their renowned development team do their work.
On June 22, the Raptors received some good karma after playing in Tampa Bay for a year and moved up from seventh to fourth in the upcoming draft. This opens up a plethora of options for the offseason, whether it is trading up, down, out, or picking a generational young talent that could well be available at that spot. Most mock drafts have Jalen Suggs coming to the Raptors at number four, who would be an amazing fit in the backcourt next to VanVleet. This also would make it easier to stomach Lowry potentially leaving as the team shifts to Suggs, who exemplifies some Lowry traits; he’s a gritty player who defends and excels in transition. Some may hope that versatile big man Evan Mobley falls to number four and can fill an obvious hole as the center of the future. A third option is Jalen Green, a certified bucket getter that already showcased his skills against NBA level players in the G-League bubble this past season. Any of those players could develop into a franchise-altering player — the equivalent of Leonard for Toronto’s championship squad. Picking a player like that at the end of the draft, where Toronto traditionally has resided, is extraordinarily more difficult.
Of course, all of this is much easier said than done. It will take time and likely won’t happen in the next year or two, just as the We The North era took seven years to finally build into a championship. The team should be ruthless in how it evaluates the value of those already on the roster. For example, Chris Boucher, who is deceivingly old and will be 29 years of age six months from now, could be a very intriguing piece on the trade market as he brings bench scoring and a unique shot blocking ability with his rangy arms. Not to mention he is on an expiring deal this year at a very friendly $7 million. He should be able to yield a young prospect or maybe a late first round pick. Addressing the center position in the coming months is also key. Is Richaun Holmes, the best center on the free agent market, the right move for the Raptors? He provides great rebounding, something that the team has desperately needed for a couple years, but his price range may be too high. At what point might the Raptors explore a Siakam trade if he can’t improve upon his 2019 self? If they decide they can’t be a championship team with him as the first option, many teams would salivate at the chance to acquire a scoring forward who can guard one through five and has already proven to be a second option on a championship level team. If Toronto decides that the road back to championship contention is longer than a few years, it’s possible trading Siakam away will bring a player who can be that guy several years down the road. Toronto should aim for wings and bigs with their two second round picks, emphasizing versatile defense and the ability to play in a switching system. Prioritizing defense has always been the way for players to get into Nick Nurse’s rotation, and the Raptors’ developmental staff has shown that they can improve an individual’s shot on offense (see Anunoby and Siakam).
A core of VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam being supported by a top-four pick and potentially Trent Jr is already a head start. Now it is about creating depth and acquiring assets while continuing to develop the young players. That’s how they succeeded over the last decade, and that’s how they can do it again. The team must already be in a position to succeed when that guy becomes available again and it all starts with flexibility.