I don’t really know how I’d be feeling if I were a Raptors fan. On June 13, they finally elevated to the top of the basketball world, toppling the Goliath Warriors in the process, and experienced the sheer joy of an NBA championship for the first time. Only two and a half weeks later, they watched as the man responsible departed for the warmer pastures of Southern California, bringing all hopes of defending the title with him.
Kawhi Leonard brought Canada a championship, and left before they finished saying good-bye. The emotions are conflicting, the highest of highs followed by the lowest of lows. None of that changes the fact that the Raptors find themselves at a crossroads, and which path they choose will define the next five years of the franchise.
The first path, and they’ll most likely take for the next few months, is running it back with the rest of the championship core and see what happens. Josh Lewenberg from Toronto Sports Network reports Toronto doesn’t plan on having a fire sale, and Masai Ujiri wants to see what he has before doing anything drastic.
Pascal Siakam’s emergence last year was sudden, and there’s a chance he was a one-hit wonder. But it’s a small chance; given his rise to prominence came on the back of his ability to get to the basket, it’s reasonable to think he’ll be able to produce at a similar level next season, even if Kawhi isn’t there to act as the center of attention for opposing defenses. Marc Gasol is still an elite defender and an invaluable floor general on that end, while Kyle Lowry has “Raptor for Life” written on his forehead.
That’s a feel-good option, one that allows fans to appreciate the guys who all helped bring them a championship. Unfortunately, it won’t end the same way. Unless another forgotten player explodes like Siakam, their current roster has a hard ceiling of the fifth seed and a second-round exit in an Eastern Conference as open as its ever been. Ujiri ensured Toronto would no longer run the treadmill of mediocrity for one year, and moving forward without any more moves would simply ensure their place on that treadmill. It’s a path without a clear way to contend in the near or far future, too good to land an elite player in the draft but not good enough to make any noise come playoff time.
The other option, the one Ujiri reportedly isn’t interested in pursuing at this time, is selling everyone other than Siakam and embracing a plummet to the bottom of the standings only months after ruling at the top. Trading Lowry would hurt Toronto in every sense of the word, but he’s making $33 million this season. Same goes for Gasol and Serge Ibaka, who will make $25 million and $23 million next year, respectively. That’s a trio of veterans making a combined $81 million who can lead your team to 45 wins and a respectable playoff performance. Not really the payout you’re looking for with that kind of money.
All three are expiring contracts, so it won’t be terribly difficult to find trade partners. Gasol is a known defensive commodity, Ibaka still has his uses, and Lowry was the second-best player on their championship team. It’s not the path Toronto wanted to take, but it’s the smartest one, and the only feasible path back to championship contention, even if it will take a while. The quickest way to the top in the NBA is through a dramatic slide to the bottom. It’s time the Raptors got started.