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The Toronto Raptors must reconcile their present and future amid looming transition

Photo creds: Toronto Raptors Media (2020)

If there’s one thing Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have made abundantly clear over the last several months, it’s that the Toronto Raptors will not find themselves stuck in a state of NBA purgatory under any circumstances.

Ujiri’s philosophy as President of the Raptors has always been patience and evaluation, while committing to the process as a whole. The dreaded “no man’s land” – not quite bad enough to sell for future assets, never good enough to make a deep playoff run – is a treacherous zone, and the organization emphasizes avoiding it at all costs.

NBA Media (2019)

The team bottomed out last season after a flurry of things went the wrong way, and they started to take a serious look at replenishing their future stocks. Starting with the trade deadline, when they dealt Norman Powell to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Rodney Hood and Gary Trent Jr.

That has continued into the summer, with the Raptors picking up forward Precious Achiuwa in a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry once he made his intent to join the Miami Heat clear. Toronto also acquired guard Goran Dragic in the trade, and it’s possible they could look to flip him for more young assets or draft capital as well.

There’s a clear trend with some moves the Raptors have made lately: collect young, controllable assets and think towards the future. While Bobby Webster and Masai Ujiri have refused to concede that this is the start of the rebuild, it sure feels like it.

It’s almost as if the Raptors are carrying two separate cores with the team: there is the “present” core of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Gary Trent Jr. Then, you have the “future” core of Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa, and Malachi Flynn. There is also the possibility that Barnes’ fellow rookies Dalano Banton, David Johnson, and Justin Champagnie exceed expectations and become part of the long-term fold as well.

This strategy isn’t new to the Raptors, however. They’ve done this before, and it landed them a championship. Throughout the We The North era, the Raptors built themselves into a sustainable winner by going with the two-core approach, and it appears as though they are keen to replicate the formula.

On the “present” side, you had Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Jonas Valanciunas as the three key foundational pieces that kept the Raptors a playoff contender year in and year out. In the background, there was a future core developing that consisted of Siakam, Anunoby, VanVleet, and also the now-departed Delon Wright, Norman Powell, and Jakob Poeltl.

RAPTORS BENCH MOB MIXTAPE | CABBIE PRESENTS - YouTube
TSN (2018)

2018 was the year that the future became the present for Toronto. They inserted the young group into full-time rotational minutes, and formed the infamous Bench Mob that performed so well. After yet another early playoff exit, they moved several of those future pieces to bolster their present over the course of the next eight months. Finding the exact right time to balance the present and future is how the Toronto Raptors captured their first championship.

So, here they are again, at the very start of this process. It does beg the question: If there is indeed a rebuild coming over the next year or two, what’s to be done with the remnants of the current core?

In order to avoid no man’s land in the near future, the Raptors do have some tough decisions to make. Over the next several months, the Raptors will need to carefully examine their two-core approach and reconcile the present and future in order to ensure the trajectory of the organization continues to move forward, rather than being stuck in between.

Indiana Basketball: Why this is the most important year for OG Anunoby
Harry How, Getty Images (2019)

Players such as Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby are being paid big money to impact winning now; yet, the remainder of the roster is probably not quite fully developed and ready for a playoff push yet, with the exception of a couple of minor pieces. If the Raptors are not going to be competing for a championship right away, the value of the assets they have to win now will only dwindle as their age goes up and contract term goes down.

Say, for example, the team is looking to begin to be highly competitive once again in 2023-24 – two seasons from now. Siakam and VanVleet will both be entering their age-30 seasons in the final year of their contracts. Trent could opt out and become an unrestricted free agent. Anunoby will be due for another extension, and assuming his growth continues, it will be for a lot more than the $72 million he signed for last autumn.

Short of becoming a deep luxury tax team, there is simply no way to pay everybody, and the only improvements would have to stem from internal growth. This is also not withstanding the fact that the Raptors will need money to pay their young talent; Flynn, Achiuwa, and Barnes will all eventually need extensions on top of that money.

gary-trent-jr
Julio Aguilar, Getty Images (2021)

Anunoby is distinguished as the outlier here: he’s only 24 years old and has made some large strides over the past few seasons that have cemented him as a key piece going forward. While he is part of the present, it is safe to assume that the Raptors intend to keep him for the long-term as a critical component of the team.

This puts the spotlight on what the Raptors intend to do with Siakam, VanVleet, and Trent. They’re difficult decisions, because the future is so hard to tell. Does it make more sense to deal them while their value is high and shift the focus to Scottie Barnes and his timeline? Will they stick around to accelerate the development? Are they even here for the long haul after all?

There’s lots up in the air, and that’s what makes the Raptors’ situation so particularly interesting right now. The Raptors have long operated on the premise of flexibility, and being adaptable to any situation that presents itself to them. It’s what allowed them to take advantage of Kawhi Leonard’s trade situation and capture a championship, and conversely, also pivot mid-season when things went off the rails to a full tank and land a player of Scottie Barnes’ caliber.

Nothing is ever predetermined, and the what-if game is impossible to play, particularly in a dynamic NBA that changes by the day. Trent is only 22 and oozing with potential; if he develops into that go-to scorer the team sorely needs, they should absolutely do everything to keep him around for the future. Webster could decide that VanVleet’s leadership is necessary and keep him for both the short and long term. If Siakam returns from his injury without missing a beat and regains the All-NBA form he’s capable of showing, it could vault the Raptors back into playoff contention and warrant keeping the two-core approach intact.

Whatever the Raptors decide to do, it will make for an intriguing year in terms of how they want to shape the team going forward. The two-core approach has gotten them this far, and how it will play out certainly makes for an interesting time to come.

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