October 3, 2022

As usual before the inflection points of the NBA schedule — the trade deadline, the draft and now with the free agency opening looming — the Toronto Raptors are keeping their plans close to their chests.

But just because their vision isn’t consistently reflected on social media and NBA news cycles doesn’t mean we have to guess their intentions.

Quite often, what they have in mind is hidden in plain sight.

For where the Raptors could be leaning as the free agent negotiation window opens at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, reference should be made to Raptors vice president Masai Ujiri’s season-ending remarks at the following his club having their surprisingly strong end to the season of 48 wins in a six-game first-round playoff loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

He preached optimism, he preached patience and he preached continuity.

“I think they’re still a team of the future,” he said. “We still have the patience here to build this team and whatever it takes to grow these guys, we’ll see and that doesn’t mean things don’t turn up because it’s just the NBA, but we have always preached growth here and development and young players and I think we did.

So the kernel remains intact?

“To correct.”

As we saw throughout the draft process, efforts by other clubs to convince the Raptors it was time to sell low on OG Anunoby and add another lottery pick alongside Scottie Barnes turned out to be a lot of lost breath.

And probably now in free agency, the wait is for a rather routine few days. There will be adjustments, but no big changes.

Some of them are circumstantial:

As my colleague Blake Murphy previously explained, the Raptors will operate as an ‘over-the-cap’ team, which means they won’t have room under the salary cap to chase the handful of shiny pennies. in what is a slim class of free agency. .

Instead, they have the Mid-Level (“MLE”) Full Exception to offer — which ends in a four-year deal worth around $44 million — and the Half-Year Exception (“ BAE”), a two-year contract starting at $4.05 million.

Additionally, the Raptors own “bird rights” to their own top free agents — Chris Boucher and Thad Young — so they can sign them even if they go over the cap.

In theory, they can offer Boucher and Young offers of five years at the NBA’s maximum salary, while using their two exceptions, but in reality, the Raptors will want to stay under the league’s luxury tax threshold of 149. millions of dollars, both avoiding the financial penalties imposed on “tax teams” while being able to share the distribution of luxury tax penalties from the teams that pay them to the teams that remain below the threshold.

All that to say, the Raptors have a total of about $30 million to spend on salaries for Boucher, Young and anyone they sign using their exceptions.

Is it sufficient?

It should be. The wild card is Boucher, an extremely productive but unconventional player under the right circumstances who seems to have been focused on how he can stay in an NBA rotation for the rest of his late career: use his long, strong and nervous and seemingly tireless motor to chase offensive rebounds, sprint in transition, cut hard on the weak side and spot the odd threes on offense, all while firing charges and otherwise throwing himself at opposing shooters on defense.

The Raptors will have played the market to make a competitive offer from Boucher’s perspective, but one that won’t hamper their spending in other areas.

Consider: It’s hard to see how Boucher’s skill set and his age — he’ll turn 30 in January — make him a good candidate for the handful of teams that have a cap this season. It doesn’t make much sense in Orlando, San Antonio or Indiana, all of which are rebuilding with youth or – in the case of the Knicks and Detroit – already seem to have their cap space used for different trades.

It follows that the biggest threat to someone removing Boucher from Toronto is one of about eight other teams that are over the cap, but under the luxury tax threshold another team is using their tier exception intermediary on him.

In that case, you can convince yourself that Boucher is a good fit for Charlotte or maybe Portland, but the Raptors are convinced that unless someone signs the Montrealer to a four-year contract, Toronto can compete in dollars and term with just about anyone.

And there is also a matter of fit. Boucher went from an end-of-the-roster curiosity to part of the fabric of the team, embracing the role Raptors head coach Nick Nurse envisioned for him and earning respect in the locker room and front office for his fearless and fiery game. style.

Boucher spends his summers in Toronto and uses the OVO Sports Center more than anyone off-season, training regularly in the wee hours of the morning and returning in the morning to start again. Also, given that the Raptors are still set to play an exhibition game in Montreal (according to sources) this season, won’t everyone be better served to hear the crowd chanting Boucher’s name at Center? Bell as she did in the fall of 2018?

I’m saying it’s a deal that’s done with a two-year contract for $24 million, with a team option and some kind of light guarantee for a third season.

Similarly, the Raptors believe they are in a good position to bring back veteran Thad Young. They not only see him as a useful rotation piece as he enters his 16e season, but an investment in the mentorship he can provide to Precious Achiuwa and Scottie Barnes while also acting as a resource for the team’s young leaders: Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby.

That said, the market for a 34-year-old who has been on the fringes of rotation for the past two seasons shouldn’t be that competitive. It’s possible some of the league’s tax-strapped elite teams could use their ‘taxpayer mid-tier’ to hunt Young, offering him a deal starting at $6.5m, but if that happens product, the Raptors can go higher if necessary, but again with an eye on limiting the term to one year and some sort of limited warranty in the second.

Young was enthusiastic about his experience in Toronto after frustrating seasons in Chicago and San Antonio. Sounds like a deal the Raptors will get through without too much trouble, likely for something in the range of $5-7 million on a one-year deal with a team option.

Which brings us to the players the Raptors could be looking to acquire. Toronto has multiple needs for its roster – waist and rim protection, extra three-point shooting and secondary play leader among them.

It will be difficult to treat more than one using MLE or BAL. The most likely scenario? The Raptors are taking advantage of what is a big-man buyer’s market to hold the fort while second-round pick Christian Koloko develops at his own pace.

The market is such that the Raptors might even be able to get a quality player without using the full MLE. The exceptions to that — Bobby Portis of the Milwaukee Bucks, Jusef Nurkic of Portland, Kevon Looney of the Golden State Warriors and Mitchell Robinson of the Knicks — are all expected to re-sign with their existing teams.

Two players to watch?

The Los Angeles Clippers probably won’t be able to keep Isaiah Hartenstein after agreeing to use their mid-level taxpayer on John Wall and signing Ivica Zubac to a three-year, $33 million extension.

Hartenstein is a 24-year-old former second-round pick who had a stellar season off the Clippers bench. On a 36-minute base, he averaged 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.3 blocks while shooting 62.6 percent from the floor.

Even more remarkable from a Raptors perspective? The 7-footer led the NBA in defensive goal percentage on the rim with a 47.5 rating, edging out some of the league’s most recognized defensemen: Rudy Gobert (49.3), Jaren Jackson Jr. ( 49.3) and Jarrett Allen (50.9). Considering his age, playing skill – his assist-to-spin ratio is a regular 2:1— and his ability to defend the paint, you can see the Raptors put on a serious run in Year 5.

Another option the Raptors will consider is Washington Wizards big man Thomas Bryant, who has been somewhat off the radar after missing nearly a full year with a torn ACL suffered early in the 2020-21 season. . But consider that in the bubble in 2019-20, he averaged 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.4 steals and blocks combined while shooting 40.5% from three and 53.2% from the floor. . In the first nine games of 2020-21 – before his injury– Bryant picked up where he left off, averaging 15.9 points and 6.8 rebounds, and shooting 42.9 percent on three.

His production dropped in the 27 games he played last season, which is hardly surprising considering he was out for a calendar year. He may not be the rim presence that Hartenstein represents, but he has shown he can spread the floor well for a big, which has its own advantages. He is a former teammate of Anunoby at Indiana and shares an agent with Pascal Siakam, which is also worth noting.

Given his injury history, Bryant would seem like a more affordable option — some projections make him worthy of the veteran minimum, which seems slight, but reflects that he’s missed most of the two seasons. The Raptors should have good information on him and could probably find a deal that works well for both parties and only uses some of their MLE, giving them the chance to see if there is another need they have. can fill in with the rest.

There are other names on the market, Orlando Magic’s Mo Bamba perhaps the most interesting, but given the Magic – led by former Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman–should make him an unrestricted free agent by refusing to make him a qualifying offer, the Raptors will likely proceed with caution on the former lottery pick who doesn’t have the engine to go with his seven-foot-four frame , weighing more his demonstrated ability to shoot deep and change shots in the paint.

There’s always the possibility that the Raptors will also opt for a more temporary option and do something short-term and affordable with old friend Bismack Biyombo who finished his season well in Phoenix last year, or JaVale McGee.

Whichever direction the Raptors take, however, it’s unlikely to be an out-of-this-world pick or one that forces Toronto to disrupt the fabric of the existing team.

They have already said it.