Raptors continue to move on from 2019

Former Raptors Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka
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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Raptors felt like a mercenary team while winning the 2019 NBA championship.

That label fits even better now – with one big, undersized exception.

As they carefully craft a bridge between eras, the Raptors watched Serge Ibaka (Clippers) and Marc Gasol (Lakers) follow Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Los Angeles… and re-signed Fred VanVleet to lucrative new contract.

Toronto is preserving cap space to make a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021 free agency. That’s clearly a central goal, one that might have cost the Raptors Ibaka and Gasol.

But VanVleet – a 6-foot-1 undrafted guard – has made himself into such a cornerstone, Toronto rewarded him with a well-deserved four-year, $85 million contract, anyway. VanVleet is tough and fearless, and the 26-year-old is so important to this team’s future.

Ibaka (31) and Gasol (35)? Not so much.

Though Toronto wanted to keep both veterans bigs, there was a clear spending limit. The Raptors seemingly wouldn’t go multiple years, and cramming compensation into a single season brought luxury-tax concerns. Ownership could have paid the tax, though, and this grade suffers accordingly.

Still, it’s understandable. Even if Ibaka and Gasol would have been better options for next season, they’re at an age where they can’t be counted on for much longer. Toronto isn’t getting caught up in sentimentality.

The Raptors are willing to distance themselves from the 2019 championship roster and take a step back in an attempt to build something greater.

Toronto’s 2019 squad already came together quickly. So, players leaving in short order creates a rare dynamic.

The average player on the 2019 Raptors (weighted for playing time that postseason) has played just 220 career games for the Raptors. Though that number will increase, it could easily wind up the lowest among NBA champions.

Here are the NBA champions whose players (weighted for playing time in the championship postseason) averaged the fewest career games for the franchise:

Obviously, this measure disfavors recent champions. Members of the 2020 Lakers have had no future seasons to add to their games played with the franchise. Members of the 2019 Raptors have had only one future season. Etc.

But Toronto is already down to just two starters (Lowry and Siakam), two rotation backups (VanVleet and Powell) and two deep reserves (Patrick McCaw and Patrick Boucher) from the 2019 postseason active roster. Even if all six play every game for the Raptors the next four seasons, the Raptors would still rank third-lowest by this measure.

Needless to say, all six won’t play every game for Toronto the next four seasons.

Lowry will be an unrestricted free agent next offseason. Though he’s the greatest Raptor in franchise history, he isn’t shy about looking beyond Toronto. Last year, he reportedly planned to demand a trade if the Raptors didn’t extend his contract. They did, for one year, which brings the 34-year-old into this anything-could-happen contract year.

Unloading Powell ($11,615,328player option for 2021-22) is Toronto’s most obvious path to max cap space in 2021.

Siakam and VanVleet are long-term core players, though. So is OG Anunoby (who missed the 2019 postseason due to injury). The Raptors hope to add to that foundation with their 2021 cap space.

In the meantime, they want to remain competitive.

So, Toronto signed Aron Baynes ($7 million salary next season with an unguaranteed salary the following year) and Alex Len (one year, about $2,258,000) and re-signed Chris Boucher (about $6.5 million salary next season with an unguaranteed salary the following year). That big-man trio offers flexibility both with the salary cap and on the floor. Baynes is beefier, Boucher lankier and Len between. Raptors coach Nick Nurse can remain versatile and play to matchups, sometimes even use small lineups without one of those centers.

But this is a step back, as evidenced by the Toronto’s desire to re-sign Gasol and Ibaka. The Raptors lose basketball intelligence/chemistry, which was so important to their highly connected team defense. Baynes will look like a great fallback at times, but durability is a concern. He has never played even 1,500 minutes in a season (which would translate to 21 minutes per game over 72 games).

No. 29 pick Malachi Flynn is the other big addition. I like the pick. He appears underrated for similar reasons to why teams missed on VanVleet. But a late first-rounder can’t be expected to dictate Toronto’s future.

Kawhi Leonard did that when he became the first star to leave a title team for another team. The Raptors never had the option of maintaining their championship group.

So, Toronto continues to straddle the line between competing and tearing down.

This offseason represents another small step back in pursuit of something greater. That could easily pay off in 2021 free agency.

But even if it doesn’t, the Raptors can continue to take solace in this: They’re falling so much only because they first reached the greatest height.

Offseason grade: C-