Sports

WOLSTAT: Expect busy Raptors off-season

More shooting, help for VanVleet and a 7-footer would be useful

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It was a season of unexpected highs. By the end, the home side was playing with house money, but fell short. Yet optimism was in the air as the Toronto crowd stood and applauded. The familiar “Let’s go Raptors” chant rang out. The Raptors franchise has been here before. Like in 2014, when a raucous arena expressed its support for a group of young overachievers, following a seventh game loss against an aging title favourite, Thursday night’s crowd got behind the 2021-22 Raptors.

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As they should have.

The year was a success. Pascal Siakam returned to an All-NBA level of play, Scottie Barnes won rookie of the year and has the looks of a potential franchise player, Fred VanVleet made his first all-star appearance and Precious Achiuwa took major strides forward, as did Gary Trent Jr. OG Anunoby looked excellent too when he was healthy, with advancements made on the offensive side of the ball.

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The question now is what comes next?

How does this group of veterans in their prime years (Siakam, VanVleet, Chris Boucher, all at least 28) and emerging, but already good players (Barnes, 20, Achiuwa, 22, Trent, 23 and Anunoby, 24) take the steps forward to make winning a couple of rounds of the playoffs and maybe more beyond that a reality?

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The good news is Barnes and Achiuwa are on rookie deals and under team control for a long time. Siakam and Anunoby have two years left on their current deals (Anunoby has three, but will likely opt out after two) and the team is well under next year’s projected $149 million luxury tax, meaning Boucher and possibly Thaddeus Young could be brought back via Bird Rights, and much-needed pieces could be added via the available cap exceptions (non-taxpayer mid-level and bi-annual).

The not-as-great news is both VanVleet and Trent can (and, assuming they stay healthy almost assuredly will) opt out after next season and become unrestricted free agents.

It is possible that either VanVleet or Siakam ink extensions this off-season. VanVleet would probably be more likely to lock in a huge payday knowing that injuries could risk his future earnings. Siakam is going to get another big deal whether it’s this year, next, or in unrestricted free agency, so there might not be much urgency to get anything done now.

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Assuming neither sign extensions, keep in mind that it’s harder to build long-term teams in today’s NBA with contracts being shorter than they were under previous collective bargaining agreements and it’s also challenging to construct when the young starters aren’t necessarily on the same timelines as Siakam and VanVleet. But these Raptors have great chemistry, which should help.

What they don’t have is great shooting. Hideous work from outside helped sink them in Game 6 against the Sixers. VanVleet’s absence would have been massive regardless in that regard, but it was especially apparent how much work needs to be done without VanVleet. Today’s NBA is all about spreading the floor with shot-makers and Toronto is several players short there. That’s the greatest need.

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Getting VanVleet some help at guard should also be a priority. He once looked great alongside Kyle Lowry (and vice versa) and even if getting a comparable player to Lowry is not an option, at the least, he needs a viable backup to ease his load. Otherwise he’ll break down again, just as Lowry used to when he was tasked with doing everything during a long season despite being the smallest player on the floor.

The Raptors also bizarrely tried to reinvent the wheel in another way by not rostering a true centre all season. They don’t have to get a star 7-footer (though that would be nice), but they at least need one for the bench to match up at least a bit to bang with the league’s great behemoths like Joel Embiid.

All of this should be doable. The 20th pick of the draft is heading to Detroit through the Thaddeus Young trade, but the team will have the 33rd selection, doesn’t owe any other future first-rounders and could offer one up after the draft for an upgrade.

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Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes at locker cleanout day.
Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes at locker cleanout day. Jack Boland/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

And, knowing the ambitions of this front office, long regarded as one of the best and most creative in the NBA, the Raptors could also go after a big-name target. Utah and defensive maestro Rudy Gobert seem poised for a breakup. Indiana is rebuilding and might trade Myles Turner before he leaves for nothing as a free agent. Atlanta will be looking to shake things up, as will other teams. Last year’s potential Raptors free agency target Richaun Holmes, though not as good as Gobert or Turner, is no longer the starter in Sacramento thanks to the arrival of Domantas Sabonis.

Other names will pop up too. The NBA’s off-season action, like the old commercial used to tell us about the games, is fantastic after all.

The 2021-22 Raptors got the franchise back on track after the most challenging year since the 16-win 1997-98 disaster.

But Masai Ujiri will never be satisfied with simply being a playoff team. The work begins to get back into the mix.

Expect a busy off-season.

@WolstatSun

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