Where do the Toronto Raptors go from here?

There aren’t many places as special as NBA basketball in Toronto, Canada. Where else on this continent will you find thousands of people standing outside an arena in the freezing cold watching the broadcast of their favorite team playing right next door? For a city that lives and breathes the few sports that the nation has to offer, one could only imagine the feeling in the air during that that NBA Championship run the Raptors went on in the 2018-2019 season. After nearly a decade of Toronto scrapping its way to the mere 1st or second round of the playoffs every year, and even the conference finals in 2016, Kawhi Leonard came in and took the franchise to the long-awaited promised land.

Since that championship, however, the Raptors have progressively entered a questionable state in their franchise. Kawhi Leonard was acquired via trade ahead of their championship season, but was essentially a rental superstar in the last year of his contract. Following their Finals victory, the question arose as to whether Kawhi would look to “run it back” with that Toronto squad and sign an extension, or look to start a new chapter in Los Angeles with either the bonafide Lakers, or developing Clippers. The free agency period began on July 1st, 2019, and Kawhi wouldn’t budge. With hopes that they had a chance to resign their Finals MVP, Toronto stayed put, holding onto the salary cap they had available to make a potential max-extension possible.

Days went by as we watched elite players sign contracts around the league. Jimmy Butler went to Miami, Tobias Harris stayed with Philadelphia, Julius Randle went to the Knicks, and market dried up only for Kawhi to ultimately join forces with Paul George on the Clippers. The Raptors thus wasted precious time waiting Kawhi’s decision, and were left with no replacement. Marc Gasol exercised his massive player option, which filled up the rest of their salary table, but the Raptors were now a roster with a gaping hole at small forward.

But the Toronto squad carried on. With a lineup still holding Raptors legend Kyle Lowry, playoff-favorite Fred VanVleet, defensive glue Serge Ibaka, and their new max-contract extension recipient in Pascal Siakam, the squad played as well-respected defending champions. Sure, late game situations were confusing as to who would be the consistent closing option, but that didn’t stop Nick Nurse from coaching his squad to 2nd in the Eastern Conference at 53-19 on the season. In the NBA bubble, the (still temporarily Tampa Bay) Raptors swept a depleted Brooklyn Nets team in the first round, but then it all came crumbling down.

Toronto lost in the conference semifinals to Boston Celtics in seven games. In a series that looked like it would end up in a Boston sweep if it weren’t for a clutch game 3 heroic play on a Kyle Lowry inbound, the Raptors simply didn’t perform well. $140 million extended Pascal Siakam was only the team’s 3rd leading scorer, shooting a measly 12.5% from the 3-point-line, and below 40% from the field. Lowry and VanVleet tried their best to pull their offensive weight, but the Celtics defense got the better of them, ending their incredible regular season campaign.

The offseason came and the Raptors had nowhere near the same fortune as the previous year. They resigned Fred VanVleet to a 4 year, $85 million deal, but watched Serge Ibaka leave for the Clippers to join Kawhi, and Marc Gasol chase a ring with the Lakers. This left the team with now three borderline franchise players in Lowry, Vanvleet, and Siakam, but now no big men.

Today, we see that the Raptors have practically fallen apart, as they currently sit at the 12th seed with a record of 27-41; their worst record since their 2011-2012 season, and have now been eliminated from playoff contention.

So I ask the question: Where do the Raptors go from here?

Their long-time GM Masai Ujiri has an expiring contract at the end of this season, with plenty of teams interested in bringing him in to try and turn their franchise around. Ujiri could very easily leave Toronto with his championship ring, and the franchise could bring in a new GM with a different philosophy to build this team up again. Or, Ujiri could continue what he’s built and turn the franchise around like he’s done before. The other expiring deal is with Kyle Lowry. He’s been the franchise point guard since 2012, with 6 all-star appearances during that time, but was linked to several teams at the trade deadline before a decision was made to keep him for the rest of the season. It could make sense for Lowry to move on in this latter portion of his career to a team that isn’t about to be on the rebuild like Toronto likely is. Or we could watch him sign another extension with intentions to retire a Raptor.

Certainly the idea of trading Pascal Siakam must be explored. He’s being payed franchise-player figures, but putting up 2nd-option numbers like he was when Kawhi was there. Siakim is still only 26 years old, with the ability to drop more than 20 points per game and play respectable defense against the league’s elite forwards. But he’s still shooting below 30% from beyond the arc, and has a limited offensive repertoire. He’s a talent that can definitely be worked around, but would the Raptors consider entering a full rebuild and trading him this offseason for draft capital and assets? That remains to be seen.

It’s also not like this Raptors squad is filled with no talent, as there are plenty of players to still work around if the Raptors choose to remain competitive and build through free agency. The midseason acquisition of Gary Trent has proven to be fruitful with his scoring and defensive abilities, Norman Powell continues to develop as a serviceable option, and Chris Boucher prior to his injury had slowly become an interesting power forward option for the squad. However, when the team goes from 53 wins to practically half as many at the end of the following year, one has to expect some major changes on the horizon.