Toronto Raptors at Crossroads in Rapidly Evolving Atlantic Division

The landscape of the NBA is rapidly changing. With the exception of the New York Knicks, the Toronto Raptors are witnessing their division getting stronger and stronger. Through effective trade bargaining in the past and key moves, the Boston Celtics have rebuilt themselves into a powerhouse that isn’t yet complete. The Philadelphia 76ers decided to trust the process and it has resulted in a franchise cornerstone center in Joel Embiid, the 2016 first overall pick Ben Simmons, and presumably Markelle Fultz; a top 2017 NBA draft prospect. Even the Brooklyn Nets have made positive strides with their recent acquisition of D’Angelo Russell. With the Atlantic Division rapidly evolving, the Raptors must also continue to evolve or run the risk of becoming stagnant.

An Established Core

With the rest of the division growing at a rapid pace, the Toronto Raptors have seemingly plateaued with their current core of players. Granted, both Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker were midseason acquisitions and a full training camp could potentially yield massive gains for Toronto. However, for this Raptors squad, what you see is more than likely what you’re going to get.

Should the Raptors decide to commit to this core of players, it will essentially be going all-in in terms of their salary cap. Presently, the Raptors have DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll, and Cory Joseph combining for $65.6 million. Including the rest of the team’s guaranteed contracts, the Raptors are currently sitting at a total payroll of $76.8 million. Assuming the team intends to re-sign any combination of Lowry, Ibaka, Tucker, and Patterson, don’t expect any of them to sign for cheap.

Bringing back Lowry, Ibaka and one of Patterson or Tucker will have the Raptors in luxury tax territory. For Raptors ownership, this team has produced consistent improvement, multiple Atlantic division titles, and millions in financial revenue. With the Raptors struggles in the second half of last season and into the playoffs, one ponders if this group of players is worth the significant long-term financial investment.

Ultimately, to bring back everyone from last season is going to cost the Raptors big. In order for any team to justify spending this kind of money, they have to be in contention for a championship. All things considered, even if the Raptors empty their pockets for this core, a championship still isn’t likely.

The Lowry-DeRozan Situation

The pairing of both Lowry and DeRozan has been a fixture of Toronto sports for the last few years. The two have grown together and have shared the leadership role which has formed a rather strong bond. Furthermore, taking into account his age and injury history, the decision to re-sign Lowry long-term needs to be taken into deep consideration.

With DeRozan re-upping last offseason on a multiyear deal, one would believe he is satisfied playing alongside Lowry. However, should the Raptors and Lowry part ways, it would almost definitely symbolize a commitment to rebuilding. The idea of playing for a rebuilding team is something DeRozan has been very vocal against in the past. If the Toronto Raptors do not re-sign Lowry, expect the team to explore trading DeRozan as well.

The Toronto Raptors Going Forward

Looking to bring back Lowry and Ibaka, expect a combination of Valanciunas, Carroll, and Joseph to be on the move. In the case of Valanciunas and to a lesser extent Joseph, their value should absolutely not be overlooked. However, they may have to lose in a deal just to unload Carroll’s contract. Both of these players still have considerable value in the right system. Given President Masai Ujiri’s winning track record in trades, the Raptors will look to maximize their returns in any deal.

With the 2017 NBA draft approaching on June 22nd, the Toronto Raptors have the 23rd pick. Adding another prospect that late in the first round is probably not the difference-making addition the Raptors would benefit from. Looking past the draft, NBA free agency officially beings July 1st. For Ujiri and company, their decision as it pertains to re-signing Lowry will dictate the direction this team goes for the next several years.