The Toronto Raptors made it look easy, trading for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, on their way to winning their first NBA championship. Masai Ujiri followed up the trade for Leonard with an in-season Ujiri deal for Marc Gasol to strengthen his frontcourt. Each move carried some risk even though they didn't mortgage their future with either move. Ultimately, Toronto doesn’t have a championship if Ujiri doesn’t make both moves.
After missing most of the 2018 season with a quad injury, Leonard benefited from Toronto’s progressive preventative maintenance plan and made it through 2019 healthy. This allowed Leonard to put together one of the all-time great playoff runs, capping it off with his second career NBA Finals MVP.
Now, the Raptors face a pivotal offseason that is entirely centered on Leonard. As was always expected, he opted out of his contract and became an unrestricted free agent. Despite his quick success with Toronto, Leonard is going to meet with other teams in free agency, including both the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. The pull to return home to Southern California seems to remain strong for Leonard. Just as importantly, the Lakers and Clippers are poised to be contenders this season.
The Raptors aren’t out of the running though. Leonard clearly enjoyed playing with veterans like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. In the span of one year, he became arguably the best player in Toronto history. And he'll be forever beloved by the fans for delivering them the championship.
But Leonard is a different sort of guy. He does things his own way. You don’t ask out of the NBA’s preeminent winning machine in the San Antonio Spurs if you aren’t wired a little bit differently. Leonard will make the decision that is best for him and his family. And he can do so with the clear conscience that he got Toronto the title they desperately desired.
If Leonard does leave, the Raptors have no way to replace him. Because Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka all make between $23 and $35 million, Toronto is capped out for at least another season. They have some wiggle room under the luxury tax line if Leonard leaves, but don’t have anything approaching the ability to add a player who has his impact. If Leonard goes elsewhere, the Raptors will still be good, just not NBA Finals good.
Leonard’s decision could have a trickle-down impact to the rest of the roster. If he stays, Toronto likely re-signs Green and runs it back to defend the title. If Leonard goes, the Raptors might choose to transition to featuring more of the younger players on their roster and may let Green walk as well.
If Toronto does go young, they have a lot interesting players to do it with. Pascal Siakam had a breakout season and looks like a budding All-Star. Siakam is due for a new contract as soon as the summer of 2020, but looks every bit the part of a franchise building block. Norman Powell finally found consistent minutes after Delon Wright was sent off in the trade for Marc Gasol, and was solid in the season’s second half. Fred VanVleet has become one of the better backup guards in the league. And the Raptors are still high on OG Anunoby, who suffered through an injury-plagued sophomore season.
That youth is a big part of the reason the depth is there for Toronto to sustain losing Leonard and Green and remain in the upper half of the Eastern Conference. And a year from now, Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka all come off the books, and Ujiri could be looking at a total rebuild around Siakam and the other young talent. That could make him reluctant to commit much money beyond just this next year, to allow for maximum flexibility in the summer of 2020.
It’s also fair to consider whether Ujiri could begin to rebuild on the fly if Leonard and Green are both gone. While the veterans all carry big contract numbers, they are still solid players who could fill vital rotation roles on any number of teams. Ujiri isn’t afraid to swing for the fences. He’ll do what he thinks is best for his team, both in the immediate future and further down the line.
In a world where Leonard and Green do return, Toronto will be deep into the luxury tax. They’ll really only have the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception to work with of about $5.7 million. The good news is that they don’t have a lot of holes in the rotation. They could use another big, especially since it would nice to spot Gasol and Ibaka the occasional rest day here and there. Ideally, someone with some range would nice. A player like Anthony Tolliver could fit in well in that role. The Raptors could also use a third point guard behind Lowry and VanVleet. For that role a younger, developmental player would fit in well and would probably come via a minimum contract signing.
The Raptors' summer isn’t really all that complex. If Leonard returns, they will contend for another title. If Leonard leaves, they’ll start to pivot towards youth and building for the future. Either way, don’t count out Ujiri doing something completely unexpected to keep Toronto competing for another title.
Guaranteed Contracts (8): OG Anunoby, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, Jordan Loyd (Two-Way), Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (2): Chris Boucher, Malcolm Miller
Potential Free Agents (6): Danny Green (UFA), Kawhi Leonard (UFA), Jeremy Lin, Patrick McCaw (RFA), Jodie Meeks (UFA), Eric Moreland (UFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($1,000,000): Justin Hamilton
First Round Draft Pick(s): None
Maximum Cap Space: None. $4.6 million over
Projected Cap Space: None. $69.5 million over