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What the Toronto Raptors Need to Do Before the 2021 NBA Season Starts
Most people expected problems for the Toronto Raptors after Kawhi Leonard left to join the Clippers, but the team had a strong 2019-20 campaign. The Canadian franchise lost after seven games in the second round of the playoffs and looked close to the East’s best teams.
The question is if the Raptors can improve in the upcoming season and challenge for the Conference in 2021, which could open the door to the NBA Championship too.
I share my thoughts on the Raptors’ biggest needs in this post, as well as the potential solutions before the start of the season that is likely going to be on December 22.
Decide If VanVleet Is Worth a Star Salary
A quick look at Toronto’s payroll for the upcoming 2020-21 season shows that the organization will have to make some big decisions. Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet are all free agents, and they’ve been important for the franchise.
I will talk about the big men later, so let’s focus on the guard for now. VanVleet was awesome last year and is a part of a strong backcourt presence alongside Kyle Lowry. He’s an intelligent playmaker who provides shooting and solid defense, despite his small size for the position.
VanVleet’s chemistry with the rest of the team is obvious. I think he has room for further improvement, too. The problem is that he’s one of the best free agents this season, and plenty of other organizations will be happy to pay him handsomely.
His salary was $9 million last season, but I believe we could see offers higher than $20 million for the upcoming campaign. That would put the Raptors in a tough spot because they already have $86 million committed in wages.
If they pay something like $22-23 million to VanVleet, that would put them very close to the reported cap of $109 for 2021. Bringing back Gasol and Ibaka would be hard under such circumstances, and I’m not sure that VanVleet is worth so much money.
The fair value for the player is probably around $20 million, so the Raptors have a decision on their hands. I’m sure that the player wants to stay, his teammates and the fans love him, and the emotional decision would be to keep him.
And yet, staying pragmatic is what brought the Raptors a title in 2019, so Masai Ujiri might decide against it.
Keep at Least One Big Man
Losing both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka could turn into a disaster for the Raptors. That would leave the team in desperate need of a big man, so I believe that at least one of them should be kept in Toronto.
There are plenty of rumors surrounding both, and the reports suggest that Ibaka could get high offers for next season. I’m not sure that the Raptors will have the salary cap to match them, and the optimal approach would be to try and keep the Spaniard.
Gasol is 35 nowadays, and I don’t think he expects a big payday. The opportunity to stay and compete in a place where he’s respected might be enough to convince him to remain a part of the roster for a small salary.
The other option would be to let VanVleet go and pay both big men. That might be the better approach after all, so it’s another decision that depends on what the Raptors do with the guard.
Decide If Pascal Siakam Is Their Number One
It’s time to address the elephant in the room and talk about Pascal Siakam. He was awesome as Toronto’s second choice when the Raptors won the NBA Championship in 2019 and even became the Most Improved Player for that season.
After Kawhi Leonard left, there were plenty of question marks over Siakam. He passed the regular season tests with flying colors, scoring almost 23 points per game and leading the team offensively. It looked good, but the playoffs came, and the situation changed dramatically.
Siakam was a shadow of himself and didn’t look like a player that can be the first option for a championship team. He’s been paid like a superstar, and the Raptors have a decision on their hands.
Should they try to change their offense to get more from other players or even look to trade for another star that could lead them? Or should they keep faith in Siakam and rely on him to rise to the occasion?
According to Nick Nurse, the global pandemic and the atmosphere around the NBA Bubble were the reasons why Siakam struggled. Toronto’s head coach seems determined to trust his player, and that could make or break the Raptors in 2020-21.
Unlike most NBA teams who are poised to look for external solutions, it seems that the Raptors need to make decisions about their own players first. Keeping the right free agents and paying them a reasonable salary could be crucial, but the key seems to be related to Pascal Siakam.
The forward will have to make another leap if the Raptors are going to challenge for the Eastern Conference title.
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