The Toronto Raptors Have Officially Arrived at a Fork in the Road

There’s no shame in losing to LeBron James. The four-time MVP has eliminated each and every Eastern Conference squad from their postseason adventures at some point in his career, only failing to take down, strangely enough, the Orlando Magic.

It’s how the Toronto Raptors went about doing so that left a sour taste in just about every basketball aficionado’s mouth—especially to close a year in which they legitimately believed they had a chance to make a push for the Eastern Conference crown. They traded a rotation piece for Serge Ibaka. They dealt draft picks for P.J. Tucker. The Cleveland Cavaliers were supposedly vulnerable after a rather weak regular season. DeMar DeRozan shattered his previous career high in points scored nightly. Kyle Lowry was hitting the three-ball better than ever.

This was the year. And then…it wasn’t.

In actuality, it was the same old Toronto suffering utter humiliation while being ousted from the postseason. The only way to script a more horrific ending to the Raptors’ year would have involved James sending DeRozan a box containing Lowry’s head after Game 4. (Ankle injury? No, no, no. Lowry missed the series’ final two games because James paid him a little visit the morning before Game 3. Allegedly.)

And thus the Raptors—specifically, general manager Masai Ujiri—head into the offseason with plenty of questions and zero answers.

Is it time to blow it up, as Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer suggested back in March? Would it be more prudent to accept the status quo, be a 50-win team for the next few years and operate with full realization they’ll never make much noise in the playoffs with the current core? Sometimes, that’s okay too.

Blow it Up With Dynamite!

Heading into the summer of 2017, Ujiri has his work cut out for him if he wants to run back the current core.

Lowry has already stated he’s opting out of his contract this offseason to test free agency. Newly acquired bigs Ibaka and Tucker will also be unrestricted free agents. Oh, and for good measure, so will backup stretch-4 Patrick Patterson. In sum, four of their key rotation members have the option to sign elsewhere.

Lowry is a lock to receive a max contract. The All-Star point guard averaged 22.4 points, 4.8 boards and 7.0 assists while hitting 41.2 percent of his threes in 2016-17. Considering Ibaka’s ability to block shots and space the floor, he’ll command a deal near the max. Tucker and Patterson aren’t quite on that level, but both are elite role players: The former can defend just about anyone not named LeBron, and the latter spaces the floor from the frontcourt while also functioning as a positive on defense. They’ll each have a multitude of suitors.

According to What’s the Cap, Toronto already has $50.7 million tied up in guaranteed salaries for 2017-18, accounting for nearly half of next year’s estimated salary cap ($102 million). If we modestly predict Lowry gets $30 million from the Raptors to re-sign and Ibaka gets $20 million (which is probably low-balling it), all their cap space will have been spent on two players.

Sure, they can use exceptions, Bird Rights and other means to bring back Patterson and Tucker, or they can pursue lower-level free agents. But is paying a high luxury-tax bill really worth it just to give this team more continuity?

An argument against doing so centers around Lowry’s age. The floor general will be 31 by the time next season rolls around, putting him on the precipice of the drop-off so many guards experience in their 30s. Over the last 10 years, here’s the age (at the time the relevant season tipped off) of every single guard to earn All-NBA recognition. Do note that results are not yet available for the 2016-17 campaign: 

Guys who were at least 31 years old took just 11 of 60 potential spots (18.3 percent). Kobe Bryant, a pantheon-level shooting guard, accounted for four of those instances. And of the six relevant players, four either have an MVP trophy, a Finals MVP trophy or both to their name, with future Hall of Famers Chris Paul and Manu Ginobili serving as the final two. 

Lowry, no matter how fun he is to watch or how much he’s improved later in his career, is simply nowhere near that level. Just look at how he stacks up against those six guards in Basketball-Reference’s Hall of Fame Probability model:

  1. Kobe Bryant, 100 percent
  2. Chris Paul, 99.99 percent
  3. Steve Nash, 98.29 percent
  4. Tony Parker, 93.86 percent
  5. Chauncey Billups, 84.4 percent
  6. Manu Ginobili, 20.05 percent
  7. Kyle Lowry, 9.58 percent

Toronto should be extremely wary of bringing him back under the CBA’s new monster extension; it’s five years long and would keep the two parties married to each other until Lowry’s 36. Though it could work out, it’s a terrifying proposition.

And unfortunately, that decision is far from the only daunting question the Raptors must answer this offseason.

The Raptors’ Mess in the Frontcourt

They must also come to terms with Ibaka’s future north of the border.  

He’s still just 27, so he should theoretically be hitting his athletic peak. In 2016-17, he averaged 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while hitting a career-high 39.1 percent of his threes. His ability to protect the paint and knock down shots from beyond the arc is nearly unparalleled. But he’s an abysmal distributor and is much more effective as a center at this point in his career. And that would be fine if Toronto wasn’t already paying Jonas Valanciunas $34.1 million over the next two seasons.

The Raptors could try making them work together, with Ibaka at the 4 and Valanciunas at the 5. But this season, they were outscored by 8.8 points per 100 possession with that lineup, per nbawowy.com. Clearly, this pairing doesn’t work all that well. At least not yet.

And though it may be easy to say they should re-sign Ibaka and trade Valanciunas to a team starved for size, it’s doubtful Toronto could deal him without getting fleeced in return. 

What’s the market like for a big who doesn’t space the floor and has seemingly forgotten how to post up? In the playoffs, the Lithuanian center posted up 24 times and scored 23 total points,. What’s more, he turned it over on 20.8 percent of those possessions. And considering a decent amount of those looks came against Channing Frye, who couldn’t defend a ficus tree on the blocks, those marks look even more bleak.

The Valanciunas market probably isn’t great.

It’s a messy situation, and I don’t envy Ujiri as he tries to figure everything out. (Then I realize he’s paid millions to trade basketball players, and I feel a little less bad for him.)

All these factors—Lowry’s age, the frontcourt fits, etc.—must be considered, as does the overwhelming amount of talent that should lead off the 2018 NBA draft. The top two players (Michael Porter and Luka Doncic) are supersized guards who can do a bit of everything. The latter even ran the point at 6’8″, which could potentially serve as a major area of need if the Raptors do opt for the dynamite.

Maybe letting Lowry, Ibaka and Patterson walk to lead off a one-year, explosive rebuild wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. If things break right in next year’s draft and free agency, it’s possible they’re back to winning 50 games by 2019 without having to shell out millions upon millions of American currency to bring back their current core. (I said it’s possible, not that it’s likely. Sometimes it’s nice to be hopeful.)

So They Should Blow it Up?

Some, of course, are firmly opposed to hitting such a drastic reset button. It makes sense, too; watching a team purposefully throw away a year for tanking purposes isn’t exactly fun. Just ask any New York Knicks fan.

Lowry and DeRozan are still excellent basketball players. Maybe they find a home for Valanciunas (I’d be nervous reading that, Sacramento Kings fans) and make Ibaka the full-time starting center in the process. If they do, they can let Patterson walk and have Tucker function as the starting 4. 

There’s untapped potential in a lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, Norman Powell, Tucker and Ibaka, especially after Powell averaged 11.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists on 42.7/44.1/83.3 shooting splits in the playoffs. At the very least, he profiles as a solid three-and-D guy. Heck, it’s possible Valanciunas isn’t a total lost cause, either. Toronto’s second-best lineup (among those that participated in at least 20 minutes of postseason action) featured the Lithuanian big, Powell, Lowry, DeRozan and Tucker. They played 23 minutes together over four games and boasted a plus-19.9 net rating.

Of course, the Raptors could also let Ibaka walk and use his money to bring back Tucker and Patterson for about the same cost. Ujiri doesn’t have to go nuclear.   

Ben Falk of Clean The Glass had a fantastic thread about the topic just after the Raptors were eliminated. In particular, the following tweet stood out:

Nothing in life is ever black and white. Every team’s situation is different and must be looked at through an adaptive lens. Averaging 50 wins over the past four seasons is something the Canadian franchise can hang its hat on, especially considering it averaged just over 30 wins during the five years prior to 2013-14. 

Plus, who knows? Maybe James sprains an ankle this time next year, and Toronto can steal a series with the exact same rotation that just got swept.

If we’re looking for more potential solutions in the macro sense, perhaps the answer rests on the bench. Could a new head coach solve Toronto’s consistent postseason malaise?

That’s not a knock on Dwane Casey’s abilities. He’s a good head coach, and one who helped the franchise reach heights it never had before. Still, sometimes a new voice leading the locker-room discourse gives a group the necessary jolt. And after being left for dead at the hands of LeBron and Co., this pack of Raptors is needs exactly that.

No one knows what the future holds in the 6. The franchise is at a crossroads and needs to make a decision about what it wants to be: a fun team without much in the way of title aspirations, or the next rendition of Sam Hinkie’s Philadelphia 76ers teams from yesteryear. I’d probably lean towards taking the Hinkie route, but it’s okay to just want to be okay, too.

 

Follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.

Follow NBA Math on Twitter @NBA_Math and on Facebook.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math, Basketball Reference or NBA.com and are accurate as of May 14. 

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