Kawhi Leonard is reportedly leaving the Toronto Raptors to sign with the LA Clippers.
Where do the Raptors go from here?
There's no way of replacing Leonard, who led the franchise to its first-ever championship with one of the most dominant postseason runs we've ever seen, but the Raptors are left with a number of options depending on what they believe is in the best interest of the team's future.
Let's take a look at their three biggest options, starting with...
Running it back
This would be the least complicated decision for the front office to make, as Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet are all under contract for one more season.
Pascal Siakam is as well, but he's eligible for a contract extension this summer that could keep him under team contract for another four seasons.
Without factoring Siakam's extension, which is expected to be for the max, this is what Toronto's payroll currently looks like for the next four seasons:
|Norman Powell||$10.1M||$10.9M||$11.6M (PO)||-|
|OG Anunoby||$2.3M||$3.9M (TO)||$5.6M (QO)||-|
PO = Player Option, TO = Team Option, QO = Qualifying Offer
That sets the Raptors up to be players in free agency in each of the next three offseasons. They would have a lot of spots to fill if Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka each decided to leave in free agency - VanVleet could join them as well, although it's hard to imagine the Raptors don't view him as Lowry's eventual replacement - but they would at least have a star on the rise to build around in Siakam, plus Anunoby, who is basically a ball of clay at this point, and Powell.
So in running it back, the Raptors would be looking to be competitive next season before likely rebuilding around Siakam and Anunoby in 2020-21.
The question then becomes how good this Raptors team would be without Leonard. While there's reason to believe they'd still make the playoffs - Toronto went 17-5 in games Leonard missed and had a positive net rating in the minutes he was on the bench this season - their odds of taking down the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers again aren't great considering how dominant Leonard was in both of those series. (He averaged 32.5 points per game and was Toronto's best perimeter defender, taking on the responsibility of guarding Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo).
There's also the likes of the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat, each of whom are expected to be better following the moves they've made this offseason. As of right now, there's no guarantee the Raptors would beat any of them in a series.
Without a clear path towards repeating, the other option for the Raptors is...
Blowing it up
Looking at a potential rebuild in 2020-21, the Raptors could kick start the process by blowing up their roster between now and next season's trade deadline.
The three players they'd likely be trying to move are Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka. They are each being paid over $20 million next season - a potential roadblock in finding a suitor - but they're still capable of making a difference on a team looking to compete for a title. Lowry is still playing at an All-Star level, Gasol is one of the best post defenders and shooters at the centre position and Ibaka is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career.
For teams in need of either a point guard or big man, the Raptors might be able to move them for a young prospect and/or draft compensation.
The key for the Raptors would be to not take on too much long-term salary in any deal for Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka. They'd have to take on a lot of short-term money to match salaries, but they would want to keep their books as clear as possible for free agency.
The reason why? In the summer of 2020, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green and Andre Drummond could be unrestricted free agents, while Jaylen Brown, Buddy Hield and Caris LeVert will be restricted free agents. Then there's the summer of 2021, when LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Paul George, Bradley Beal, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and Rudy Gobert could all be unrestricted free agents.
Even if the Raptors are unlikely to sign some of those bigger names, there's a deep enough pool of players for them to add someone who can help put them over the edge, whether it's an already established player or someone younger who better fits the timeline of Siakam and Anunoby.
If they swing and miss in free agency, the Raptors could focus on the 2022 NBA Draft, which could include high school players again for the first time since 2005. That alone gives it the potential to be one of the deepest drafts in recent memory with later picks holding far more value than typical.
Another option for the Raptors is to trade Lowry, Gasol and/or Ibaka not with the future in mind but the present.
Similar to how the Raptors got Leonard, they could wait for the possibility of a star requesting a trade, whether it's Kevin Love, Blake Griffin or Bradley Beal. Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka alone wouldn't get it done, but the Raptors could include draft picks - they control all of the future first-rounders - as well as Powell or Anunoby to sweeten any deal.
The benefit for the Raptors would be they'd be able to immediately pair Siakam with another All-Star calibre player, ideally one who still has at least a couple of years remaining on their current contract. The benefit for the team on the other side of the deal would be expiring contracts and future picks.
There's a possibility that one of those players don't become available or that a rival team beats Toronto's offer if they do, but that would leave them where all this began, with them running it back and focusing on free agency.
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