Even the most pessimistic projections suggest Serge Ibaka is a better player than Terrence Ross. And will be for the foreseeable future. But Ross comes with something that Ibaka (and Ross replacement P.J. Tucker) do not: cost certainty. He is going to make $21 million over the next two seasons. Ibaka will top that next year alone by himself.
Ibaka and Tucker aren’t the only significant free agents coming for Toronto. Kyle Lowry is a max-level player and Patrick Patterson is set for a big payday as well. The four are going to combine to make something like $90 million next season, and that’s before all of Toronto’s other cap commitments. Here’s what their cap sheet might look like if they keep the entire band together, using basketball-reference’s salaries for the players already under contract and projections for those who aren’t based on contracts signed in 2016.
Kyle Lowry: $35,700,000 (35 percent max on a $102,000,000 cap).
Serge Ibaka: $30,600,000 (30 percent max on a $102,000,000 cap).
DeMar DeRozan: $27,739,975.
Patrick Patterson: $18,989,362 (Kent Bazemore’s average annual salary multiplied by the projected increase in the cap).
Jonas Valančiūnas: $15,460,675.
DeMarre Carroll: $14,800,000.
P.J. Tucker: $13,563,830 (Courtney Lee’s average annual salary multiplied by the projected increase in the cap).
Cory Joseph: $7,660,000.
Bebe Nogueira: $2,947,305.
Jakob Poeltl: $2,825,640.
Bruno Caboclo: $2,451,225.
Delon Wright: $1,645,200.
Pascal Siakam: $1,249,920.
Norman Powell: $1,014,746.
Fred Van Vleet: $905,249.
A $177 million-plus payroll would be absolutely untenable. That’s almost $50 million more than Cleveland is paying this season, the highest team payroll in league history. And unlike Cleveland, Toronto wouldn’t be paying that much for a team widely considered to be a championship contender. In fact, the Raptors would have to drop over $55 million to drop below the projected tax line of $122 million next season.
The Raptors are not the Knicks or Lakers. They may play in a big market, but they do not print money like some teams do. They cannot afford such a hefty payroll and the tax penalties that would come with it. And they are going to have to make some very difficult roster choices to make their salary workable. But the Raptors probably aren’t going to get below the tax. The makeup of their roster is just too expensive.
Still, we can at least keep the Raptors under the tax apron, which is perpetually $4 million above the tax (so $126 million under current projections). The apron is where teams really need to start worrying about their finances. It prevents teams from using certain cap exceptions and can even create a hard cap under certain circumstances. So let’s build a Raptors roster that stays below that $126 million line.
Step 1: Find a taker for DeMarre Carroll
The Carroll who played for Atlanta would be an ideal fit as a three-and-D wing in Toronto’s “let Kyle and DeMar figure it out” system. He just hasn’t been the same player in Toronto. He played in only 26 regular season games last season and the injuries that caused those absences have turned Carroll into a mediocre defender at best. His 35.2 percent three-point percentage would be the lowest since his rookie season, in which he missed the only six three-pointers he took.
That weakened shooting combined with his lessened mobility probably makes Carroll a stretch-4 at this point, but Toronto wants to keep Ibaka and Patterson. That would make Carroll redundant. But finding a wing to fill Carroll’s planned role won’t be easy. Playing small forward in the East means guarding LeBron James.
Norman Powell is ready for more minutes on the wing, but at only 6’4” 215 pounds he’s only a small forward in that he’s too small to play forward. Delon Wright is taller but skinnier. The Raptors hoped Bruno Caboclo would eventually take Carroll’s place, but he has played only 89 NBA minutes.
That means trading Carroll essentially locks Toronto into keeping Tucker. Patrick Patterson and Serge Ibaka fall into the same trap Atlanta did with Paul Millsap and Al Horford last year: leave them at their traditional power forward and center spots maintains proper spacing, but it means playing a smaller wing against LeBron. (Or Kevin Love, or Tristan Thompson, so pick your poison.)
Toronto could conceivably move Patterson and Ibaka down a slot to combat James and insert a traditional center into the starting lineup, but that compromises spacing to a degree that simply isn’t offensively feasible against the Cavs. Tucker is the only wing who stands a chance against LeBron without crippling the offense.
Order of operations is important here. If Toronto trades Carroll too soon, Tucker gains leverage in contract negotiations. Wait too long and the league’s cap space dries up, making it infinitely harder to find a taker. Their plan would ideally be to get Tucker locked up as quickly as possible and then trade Carroll in the opening flurry of free agency.
Brooklyn or Philadelphia would probably take his contract with a first-round pick attached (and the Raptors have some to spare). Maybe some team who misses out on their true targets would take a flyer on him. Atlanta might be interested in a reunion if they lose Millsap. Denver is in a similar boat with Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari.
Carroll is the most obvious piece Toronto has to move. And dumping his salary would take the projected cap sheet down to $162,753,127. That gives us about $40 million left to shave.
Step 2: Convince Lowry and Ibaka to take discounts
DeMar DeRozan set a precedent for Toronto last season. Rather than taking his maximum of $153 million over five seasons, he accepted $139 million over the life of his deal. That may not seem like a huge difference, but considering how important every dollar is in avoiding the tax combined with the precedent it ideally set for Lowry and Ibaka, it might end up saving Toronto’s chance at keeping their roster together.
Lowry’s contract is much easier to figure out. He’s a max player, no questions asked. He could command his full max of five years, $209 million, and if push came to shove the Raptors would pay it. But, in the spirit of camaraderie, let’s say he takes the same percentage discount DeRozan did. DeRozan took around nine percent less than he could have.
Let’s say Lowry does the same, dropping his total contract down to $190 million. Given the max raises he’d get every year of the deal, that would bring his first-year salary down to around $33 million rather than $35.7 million. That’s a decent chunk of change to save on a player who would easily get the max from 10 other suitors if he chose to pursue it.
Ibaka’s situation is much harder to figure out. As much as his defense has slipped, teams tend to pay big men for past performance more than future expectation. (See Joakim Noah and Timofey Mozgov as recent examples.) He still has the reputation of an elite rim protector, and he’s one of the only ones in the league who can also shoot three-pointers. There is a very good chance someone eventually offers him the max.
There just isn’t an obvious candidate. Most of the teams with major cap space don’t need big men. Dallas was one of the few who did, but they just added Nerlens Noel. Miami showed interest at the trade deadline, but they tend to shop at the very top (see James, LeBron) and bottom (see Williams, Derrick) of the market. If they’re signing a power forward this summer, it’s probably Blake Griffin. Maybe Paul Millsap.
You can never predict what teams like the Nets or Kings might do, but neither seem like an immediate fit. The Rockets, Blazers and Pacers make varying degrees of sense, but none have max cap space at this moment.
The Raptors could wait Ibaka out and hope to get him at something of a discount. It won’t be massive, but a first-year salary of $23 million is much easier to swallow than one that tops $30 million. Let’s slide him in at that number for our overall calculations. That drops us down to $152,453,127 with only Carroll gone. Unfortunately, now we need to start making the real decisions.
Step 3: Cut ties with a few young players:
Toronto has been hoarding youngsters at the end of their bench for years now. There simply hasn’t been a reason not to, as it’s never impacted their spending power in a meaningful way. But now they have to make decisions on which of those young players they’re going to keep, especially since some of them are going to have to play meaningful roles next season.
Powell is staying. His cap number is too small to be moved and he’s a real contributor. Caboclo is going. He’s simply shown no ability to play NBA-level basketball and the luxury of keeping an athlete of his caliber around is no longer one the Raptors can afford. Knock off his number and we’re down to $152,001,902.
The three real decisions involve Delon Wright, Bebe Nogueira and Pascal Siakam. Bebe is the most important of the three. He has evolved into a key part of Toronto’s devastating Lowry plus bench lineups. And sure enough, the Raptors are nearly eight points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor. But energy and defense can be found on the fringes, and those are the things that make Bebe worth keeping around.
The same can be said for Siakam, just to a lesser extent. Neither has developed skills that are particularly hard to find on the open market. Given the cap crunch involved here, they can be replaced by minimum salaries. Especially since so many minutes are likely to be gobbled up by Ibaka, Patterson and Poeltl (a lottery pick who isn’t getting dumped after one year).
Wright is the most interesting case of them all. He’s played fewer minutes in his career than LeBron played in last year’s Finals alone. But that’s not exactly his fault. He didn’t choose to join a team with an All-Star point guard and one of the best backups at the position in basketball.
The Raptors know more about Wright than we do, and at a certain point you have to trust your own scouting. If the Raptors thought Wright was worth the 20th pick less than two years ago, than they probably still think he can be a worthwhile backup point guard. That’s going to be critical, because Cory Joseph is making $6 million more than Wright next season. Expensive backup point guards are yet another luxury the Raptors can no longer afford. Considering how Toronto staggers Lowry and DeRozan, the standard for backing up either is lower than it would be for any other team anyway.
Toronto still has time to see what they have in Wright this season before they make such a decision over the summer. Ideally, they’ll find minutes for him between now and the playoffs to at least give themselves a bigger sample to judge from. But the Raptors just got deeper at the deadline, and playoff minutes are too precious to be wasted on experimentation. That probably means this is going to be a gamble. But they can’t afford to keep Joseph around at his salary number when they’ve invested a first-round pick in Wright. And he’s been caddying for two years already. They don’t have any choice other than to see what they have in him.
So let’s lop off Siakam and Bebe. That brings us to $145,804,677. We’re getting closer.
Step 4: Trade Cory Joseph and Jonas Valančiūnas
Joseph is going to be a tough pill to swallow. He’s another mainstay of Toronto’s bench mobs, giving the Raptors the flexibility to go small with three ball-handlers late in games if the matchup permits it. But there will be no shortage of suitors for Joseph at his salary, and someone will give up a future asset to get him as a starter.
Orlando is in play. So are the Knicks and Nets. The Kings loom as a wildcard, and Joseph did break into the league with the Spurs, who might lose Patty Mills to another team seeking a starter. And, they themselves need a long-term answer to replace Tony Parker. Someone will give up a pick for Joseph. It’s just a matter of who.
Valančiūnas is another matter. As we discussed with Ibaka, there aren’t any looming spenders looking for big men. It seems like half the league is trying to move someone from the all offense, no defense Valančiūnas archetype. Philadelphia with Jahlil Okafor. Brooklyn with Brook Lopez. Indiana with Al Jefferson. Milwaukee with Greg Monroe… The list goes on and on and on, and none come with the long-term salary commitment Jonas does.
The Raptors have almost universally been better without Jonas on the floor. This year, it’s by four points per 100 possessions. Last year, Bismack Biyombo lit the internet on fire in his place. Their investment in him wasn’t misplaced; you just don’t cut ties with high lottery picks who put up numbers after only one contract. But it’s become abundantly clear that he isn’t a starting NBA center anymore. The league just doesn’t value his type of player.
So the Raptors are probably going to have to bite the bullet and give him away for free. Or worse, attach an asset to dump him. Philly and Brooklyn will almost always accept picks if it means taking on salary, but Raptors will already likely need one of them for Carroll. They could refuse to attach a pick unless either accepts both, but there’s no real precedent for a team taking on $30 million in multi-year salary for one pick. The bounty might have to get even bigger.
Plus, Toronto doesn’t really have a choice in the matter. Their only alternative for either Carroll or Valančiūnas is the stretch provision, which would save them only a fraction as much under the cap. And, force them to pay the actual cash attached to the contracts. Toronto doesn’t seem primed to do that in a world where they’re already approaching the tax.
So realistically, this cash-cutting extravaganza is probably going to cost the Raptors several meaningful picks. That’s damaging. They’re going to need picks to replenish their bench in the years to come. After all, we’re only talking about 2017-18 salaries. The contracts Toronto is about to commit to are going to increase year-by-year. Without selections in the first round that means they’ll likely have to go the Clippers route and hope to hit on several minimum guys. How well has that worked for them so far?
But with Valančiūnas and Joseph gone, the Raptors are down to $122,684,002. We’re within a stone’s throw of the tax line and below the apron. Add in three minimum cap holds of $543,071 and you get $124,313,215. In reality, the Raptors will likely handle the bottom of their roster differently, keeping a spot or two open for ten-day contracts and general financial savings. But the crux of it is a Toronto roster below the tax apron. There’s just one last step.
Step 5: Stash any draft picks in Europe
Bringing players over immediately costs money the Raptors don’t have right now. They’ll need to stash their players abroad and figure out when to bring them to the NBA later.
Once they do that, we’re looking at a Raptors team that likely starts Lowry, DeRozan, Tucker, Ibaka and Poeltl with Patterson, Powell and Wright serving as the main bench pieces. That team is obviously worse than the one they have right now, but it’s still competitive. It also doesn’t solve the longer-term cap issues the Raptors are set to have, but that’s a problem for another day.