As the eyes of many NBA fans shift towards the postseason, some front office executives are thinking about how they can improve the fates of their franchises that are not currently vying for postseason play. The pre-draft process is filled with tons of scouting, evaluation periods, internal discussion and workouts for some of the hopeful rookies that want a spot in the NBA.
Taking the drafting needs and picks into consideration, financial considerations can paint the biggest picture to what decisions will be made beyond the draft. Trading some players, utilizing cap space for taking on others, and preparing for free agency all are highly informed by the team's salary situations – after all, the NBA is a business.
After winning their first round series, both the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers bowed out of the playoffs in drastically different circumstances. While the Sixers are on the upswing and have both cap space and tons of potential, the Raptors are in the midst of a coaching change and perhaps the need for a change of direction:
2017-18 Record: 59-23
2018 Draft Picks: none
Restricted Free Agents: PG Fred VanVleet, C Lucas Nogueira, F Nigel Hayes
Unrestricted Free Agents: none
Other Players of Note: F Alfonzo McKinnie (non-guaranteed contract)
Committed Salary: $126,379,761
Luxury Tax Room: -$2,379,761
To say the Toronto Raptors season ended in disappointment would be a sever understatement. After winning 59 games and securing the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Raps were blown out in four games by the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers. The series cost Dwane Casey his job, prompting President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri to cut bait with the Coach of the Year frontrunner in favor of someone that could more tactically manage the rotation and end of game plays.
Yet the roster won't have a ton of turnover unless Ujiri wants to change things up from a talent perspective. The Raptors have two 20 point per game scorers, plenty of young assets, a stockpile of big men and a great deal of salary on the books. With no draft picks in the 2018 draft and only two free agents, we could see the Raptors bring the band back together for one more go-around, or we could see Ujiri start to shake things up.
Order of Operations
1. Decide if they'll tear-down or keep it together
In wrestling with the dilemma of when to hit the reset button, the answers for Ujiri lie not just in what this Raptors team is made of but the landscape of the Eastern Conference. Cleveland's status with LeBron James is still uncertain, and another superhuman performance might be necessary for the Cavs to get back to the Finals again next season. The impetus for making the coaching change was to get by Team LeBron again next year... we still don't even know if LeBron will be back in the Eastern Conference.
That doesn't mean the window is necessarily still wide open. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers both outperformed expectations this season, both teams doing so without being at full strength with their young cores. They could both rise past the Raptors in the Eastern Conference standings naturally. Other teams like the Indiana Pacers, flush with confidence after taking LeBron to the brink in the first round, and new-look Milwaukee Bucks could also push Toronto. The East figures to be much more difficult next season, meaning a path to the one-seed is less attainable.
So what do the Raptors do? Perhaps a look at these teams two years down the road provides more clarity. Boston and Philadelphia will only grow stronger; this could be the best chance to get them before those franchises morph into super teams. Cleveland will have a good deal of cap space in the summer of 2019, Milwaukee will be in the prime for Giannis and other rebuilding teams ready to jump up and compete.
The window for making an NBA Finals is closing, but that doesn't mean it's closed. The Raptors could be conservative through it and make some pretty strong changes to their roster, or they could stick with it, see if the coaching change is enough to propel them forward in the postseason and load up for one more shot at LeBron.
2. DeRozan and Lowry... are they the solution or the problem?
There's plenty of blame to go around for the lackluster performance against the Cavaliers this May. Dwane Casey has already shouldered his load, while the two best players in Toronto must bear their responsibility. At this point there's a large enough body of work in the postseason to really wonder if these players are able to lead a team to the Finals. Over the last three seasons, DeRozan has shot a combined 19 percent from three in the playoffs, seen a sharp decline from his regular season assist totals and been a target for players like LeBron to attack when he's on defense. Lowry played much better statistically during the 2017-18 playoffs, but failed to have a positive impact during the stretch runs of any tight games.
Whoever the Raptors hire as a head coach must find ways to bring out the best in both players simultaneously. The duo will make $58.7 million next year and a crazy $61 million in 2019-20. The issue with Toronto having supreme depth is that they stand to gain little from trading one of these players for a litany of rotation-ready guys. Swapping DeRozan straight up for another star likely won't net any significant return for Toronto to move the needle forward, though: his value on that contract is significantly low after the postseason performances he's turned in.
There's still hope that these players will be part of the solution and aren't the reason why Toronto can't advance very far in the postseason. That said, the duo is entering year number seven together, and at some point the organization may have to admit that their star pairing simply cannot get it done.
3. The Fred VanVleet Dilemma
The speedy scoring backup point guard out of Wichita State had a career year and was a huge part of Toronto's bench that was tops in the NBA. VanVleet posted some high-quality per 36 minute numbers: 15.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists and only 1.8 turnovers on 41 percent shooting from three. VanVleet certainly has his flaws; he only hit 43 percent of his two-pointers and is too small to be a high-end defensive player. Watching the playoffs should only reinforce how little guys like him play the game with a giant bullseye on their backs.
Determining the value for a restricted free agent like VanVleet isn't easy in the current NBA market. He's a guy that could procure the Mid-Level Exception to be a high-end scoring backup. VanVleet has already expressed his desire to return to Toronto, so he could be had at below market value as well. Cost is a huge part of the equation though, as the Raptors will look to drive that price as low as they can while other teams might swoop in and get him to an offer sheet. Is there a price point at which the Raptors don't match any offer for VanVleet? It would likely have to be on the high end of a Mid-Level Exception in order to scare the organization away.
4. Use the trade exceptions or let them expire?
As part of the trades the Raptors made last summer, they acquired two trade exceptions. One of them, from sending Cory Joseph to the Indiana Pacers, is for $7.63 million, and the other as part of the DeMarre Carroll trade, has an $11.8 million value. The way these exceptions work: they can be traded to another team, and in return the Raptors can absorb one player whose contract for that season does not exceed the maximum value of the exception. Because the trades took place last July, these exceptions expire on July 13th and July 14th, respectively.
With Toronto already above the luxury tax line, adding other salary without having to give any up is a risky proposition for the Raptors ownership group. The hallmark of this Toronto team is their depth, so what really would they gain by adding players through these trade exceptions? In order to justify the added tax costs, it would have to be considerable, which means likely parting from a first-round pick or a young depth piece as a result.
The cost of developing young talent so effectively is that sometimes it can prove other assets obsolete. That might be the case here with these two trade exceptions. If they do use them, look for Ujiri to target decently young players that are on expiring contracts but also would have their Bird rights attached in a deal. That could include names like Jeremy Lamb, JaMychal Green, Danny Green, Al-Farouq Aminu or Garrett Temple.
5. Avoiding the luxury tax
Factoring in the Raptors extension they gave to Norman Powell last fall, Toronto is already projecting to be more than $1 million over the luxury tax threshold next year. That's before filling out their two roster spots and not counting the non-guaranteed contract of Alfonzo McKinnie (which is guaranteed on the 20th of July). As discussed above, Ujiri has two basically valuable credits to acquire a player, and if they aren't used by the middle of July they go to waste. Combine all these factors and Toronto's ownership has to make an expensive decision: go into the luxury tax to load up their weapons further?
The tax is almost impossible to dodge next year for the organization, but how deep into tax waters they wade determines the severity of the tax penalty. Even if Ujiri chooses to use one of the trade exceptions, the Raptors still might need to get some of their larger salaries off the books. In order to unload a Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas type deal, Ujiri would likely have to pair one of his better young players with it. Would giving up Ibaka and Pascal Siakam or Delon Wright for more financial breathing room be a worthwhile endeavor?
Every piece of this puzzle for the Raptors is connected, but keep your eye on how much they spend... the more they spend, the more likely it is they shed some money and give up a young player in the process.
2017-18 Record: 52-30
2018 Draft Picks: 10th (from LAL), 26th, 38th (from BRK), 39th (from NYK), 56th, 60th (from HOU)
Restricted Free Agents: none
Unrestricted Free Agents: SG J.J. Redick, SG Marco Belinelli, F/C Ersan Ilyasova, C Amir Johnson
Other Players of Note: C Richaun Holmes ($1.6m team option), PG T.J. McConnell ($1.6m team option)
Committed Salary: $70,148,057
Cap Space: $30,851,943
After winning their final sixteen games of the regular season and breezing through the first round of the playoffs, the Philadelphia 76ers ran into a buzzsaw in the Boston Celtics. The series revealed a few flaws with the way the Sixers play, including their discipline with shot selection, Joel Embiid's perimeter defense and Ben Simmons' perimeter scoring. The good news for the Sixers, beyond just their young roster and the hopefully healthy return of Markelle Fultz: they will start the summer with nearly $31 million in cap space, two first round picks and four second-round selections. The possibilities for adding to their core are endless here.
Order of Operations
1. Exercise team options on McConnell and Holmes
Philadelphia's roster has the potential to be a little bit crowded next year. Only four free agents to retain, with likely at least three of them they'd like to bring back. Combine that with two first-round picks and last year's second-round selection Jonah Bolden planning on joining the club and it's almost a challenge to get down to 15 players.
That said, the need to exercise deals on McConnell and Holmes still exists. They both provide great value on their contracts and McConnell proved he has a role in the NBA during the series against the Celtics. If the Sixers want to create roster space elsewhere, they can attach some of their second-round draft picks with a contract like Jerryd Bayless.
2. Make the plan for their cap space (and don't undervalue Redick)
Before heading into the NBA draft, Philadelphia should have an idea about what they're trying to construct with their roster. Having their two best shooters around Embiid and Simmons, who require teammates that provide fantastic spacing to be at their best, means guys like JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova are all candidates to return. Long-term the Sixers should want some players to replace them at those spots, but with the short-term goal of competing for a championship in mind, those players cannot be overlooked.
Still, $30 million to spend on free agency is enough to go after a max contract player like Paul George or LeBron James. The unknown value of a guy like Markelle Fultz, plus their litany of current and future draft picks, could swing a guy like George, Kawhi Leonard or CJ McCollum in a trade. Going big-game hunting is an option for President Bryan Colangelo and would certainly expedite the process for Philadelphia to become a top-tiered team in the entire league.
Hopefully Colangelo doesn't underrate just the effect Redick has on the team. Because Redick was signed to a one-year deal last summer, Philadelphia doesn't hold any Bird rights. What does that mean? That $30 million in free agency has to factor in their desires to retain him, and if they spend too much of it elsewhere, Redick might not return. If you'd ask me, the Sixers are better off keeping costs low -- locking up JJ to a three-year deal worth around $13 million annually, and spending the remaining amount of their free agent budget on either Belinelli/ Ilyasova or upgrades.
3. Continue to draft with their versatility in mind
It's easy to see the type of star power these Sixers have built through the draft in recent years. Embiid, Simmons and Fultz are all ball-dominant players that are the futures for carrying the Philadelphia offense. What the Sixers really need is more players like Robert Covington or JJ Redick; the excellent role players that make their team better on both ends of the floor.
Simmons is their most unique player, a nearly seven-foot point guard that can guard almost any position imaginable. Length and defensive versatility fit the profile for what the Sixers look for, as well as a shot-maker and floor spacer on the offensive end. Guys like Mikal Bridges from Villanova, Lonnie Walker from Miami, Zhaire Smith from Texas Tech or Miles Bridges of Michigan State all make sense here based on their versatility. There's also the slim shot that the Sixers could package some of their picks together to trade up for one of the big names in the draft, but that doesn't seem to make sense in a draft that's top-heavy with post players.
4. What's going on with Fultz?
You'll notice that I still mention Markelle Fultz as one of the franchise cornerstones for Philadelphia. The 2017 first overall pick has wads of potential and could become one of the better backcourt scorers in the Eastern Conference rather quickly. At this point, the shoulder injury, strange shooting mechanics and sudden disappearance of his ability to hit a jump shot have been largely documented, as have the circumstances surrounding the organization refusing to accept responsibility for those developments.
We saw flashes of great play later in the season when Fultz finally suited up and returned, but he was run off the floor in the playoffs and watched the Celtics series from the sideline. His trade value isn't likely the same as a first overall pick usually is after their first season, and the team's success without him this season might lead to a desire to cash out and get a more win-ready partner for Simmons and Embiid. Of course, we've seen that communication issues are par for the course within this Sixers organization, so it could very well be the case that the organization botches trying to include him in one of those aforementioned trades for a guy like Kawhi or McCollum.
5. Rounding out the bench targets
If Ilyasova or Belinelli end up with costs that are too high for the remaining budget in Philadelphia, they should work hard to find immediate replacements to their roles. Mainly, a more mobile stretch-5 and another shooting wing are huge needs. Here's a list of a couple names that could be decent fits that are seeking around $5-8 million a year, if not cheaper:
Bigs: Noah Vonleh, Anthony Tolliver, Dewayne Dedmon, Kevon Looney or Channing Frye
Wings: Joe Harris, Wayne Ellington (a Philadelphia native), or Danny Green.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).