What the Raptors can do now that the Giannis dream is over


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The Raptors need a new plan

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s decision this week to sign a five-year contract extension with Milwaukee was, obviously, great news for the Bucks. It’s also great for the back-to-back NBA MVP. Thanks to the incentives in place for stars who re-sign with their original team, he’s guaranteed to make more than $176 million US in the first four years of the deal and can push it to $228 million if he picks up his fifth-year option for just a shade under $52 million. Generational wealth for a generational talent.

But the Greek Freak’s decision also blindsided several teams who were laying the groundwork to make a run at him in free agency this summer — including the Toronto Raptors.

With no title to defend this season and still no superstar on the roster since Kawhi Leonard left, this was to be a sort of gap year for the Raptors. They would play hard and have a solid season because that’s what they always do. But they’d save the real full-court press for the summer, where they’d have a rare shot at signing a true superstar — a prerequisite for winning a championship in the NBA.

You could see this strategy at work over the off-season. The Raptors re-signed star guard Fred VanVleet (a good supporting cast is key to landing a superstar) while also carving out salary-cap space by letting popular veterans Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol walk and not breaking the bank on anyone to replace them. Toronto is fully committed to only four players beyond this season: Pascal Siakam (due to make $33 million in 2021-22), VanVleet ($19.7M), Norman Powell ($11.6M) and rookie first-round draft pick Malachi Flynn ($2M). By Spotrac’s figures, they currently have $38.7M in practical cap space for next season — sixth-most in the league.

So even though Giannis is off the market now, the Raptors can still be players in free agency. Here are some of the more intriguing players who could be available, along with some other Plan B options to zero in on:

Kyle Lowry: Beloved by Raptors fans and basketball nerds for the many things (some still mysterious) he does to help his team win, Lowry remains Toronto’s best player and the heart and soul of the team. But he turns 35 in March, will make $30 million this season and can become a free agent this summer. It was just kind of assumed the Raptors would let him go to free up cap space for a run at Giannis. But now, maybe he stays? Or does Toronto deal him to a contender mid-season?

Rudy Gobert: Fairly or not, he’s now best known as Patient Zero in the NBA’s (and all of sports’) coronavirus shutdown earlier this year. But the 7-foot-1 Utah Jazz centre is also a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who averaged 15.1 points and 13.5 rebounds last season. No one builds around big men anymore, but Gobert can be a key piece on a championship contender.

Victor Oladipo: The former No. 2-overall pick looked like a two-way star in the making in 2017-18 when he averaged 23.1 points and led the league in steals for Indiana. But a brutal quad injury during a game against the Raptors in January 2019 knocked him out for a full calendar year and no one seems sure whether he’s all the way back yet. If Oladipo proves that he’s his old explosive self this season, at age 28, he’ll command a huge contract. But he might be worth it.

DeMar DeRozan: Going back to an ex is rarely a good idea. DeRozan was productive and well-liked during his time in Toronto, but he was an inefficient scorer who put a ceiling on the team’s potential in the playoffs. It was a miracle the Raptors not only unloaded his contract but got a year of Kahwi Leonard in return.

Kawhi Leonard: Stop it. Yes, he can opt out of his deal with the Clippers this summer. But he spent years plotting his move to Southern California, his sidekick Paul George just signed a big extension and there’s a solid supporting cast around them. It would be pretty shocking if Kawhi left L.A. While we’re here, three other big-name veterans with opt outs who the Raptors are unlikely to get: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Milwaukee’s recently acquired point guard Jrue Holiday.

The “next Kawhi”: The Raptors didn’t sign Leonard. They traded for him. And, by all accounts, he wasn’t happy about it. But he showed up, played hard and led Toronto to its first title. Then he bolted for L.A. The reality is, many of the NBA’s biggest stars simply don’t want to play in Toronto. That’s part of the reason why the Raptors have never lured a top-shelf free agent away from his team. So a better strategy might be to try to replicate the Kawhi move and look for a disgruntled star to trade for. There are always a few in the NBA, and right now they include Houston’s James Harden and possibly Washington’s Bradley Beal.

Masai Ujiri: We tend to focus on the generational talents on the court, but the Raptors president is a generational talent in the front office and one of the very best executives in all of sports. He’s always had his eyes on bigger things, though, and it’s been rumoured that Barack Obama wants Ujiri to work with him on something. The fact that Ujiri is entering the final season of his contract and still hasn’t signed an extension suggests he’s at least considering leaving. The Raptors, surely, were already doing everything they could to convince him to stay. Now that the Giannis dream is dead, they might want to focus their considerable resources on retaining their most important employee.

CBC Sports Senior Contributor Vivek Jacob breaks down three things Raptors fans need to know before the new season kicks off. 2:59

Quickly…

Henrik Lundqvist won’t play this season. The future Hall of Fame goalie signed with Washington over the off-season, ending his 15-year tenure with the New York Rangers. But Lundqvist, 38, revealed today that a heart condition will prevent him from joining his new team this season. It’s unclear whether he’ll play again. Lundqvist said in a statement that he’ll “spend the coming months figuring out the best course of action.” Read more about his surprising announcement here.

Russia’s four-year “ban” was cut in half. A year ago, the World Anti-Doping Agency suspended the country from some big international sports events like the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup as punishment for its continued doping-related violations. Well, sort of. The ruling allowed Russian athletes who could prove they were clean to compete, though they’d have to do so without the Russian flag and anthem. We saw this at the 2018 Winter Olympics, where those athletes competed under the Olympic flag as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” WADA’s relatively toothless punishment lost a few more Chiclets today when the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced the term to two years on appeal. That means the sanctions will apply for, most notably, the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the ’22 Winter Olympics in Beijing and the ’22 World Cup in Qatar. Russia is also blocked from bidding for major events for the next two years. Read more about the ruling here.

Curling has a new superteam. Brad Gushue and Kerri Einarson are joining forces in mixed doubles, putting the reigning Brier and Scotties champion skips together. They’ll compete in the Canadian championship in mid-March in Calgary, and the long-term goal is to represent the country at the 2022 Olympics. Einarson has never played mixed doubles competitively, but we saw during the event’s Olympic debut in 2018 that talent wins out. The Canadian duo of John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes had barely played together before winning eight of their nine games and the gold medal in South Korea. Gushue and Einarson are also hoping to win the right to represent Canada in the conventional curling event in Beijing and are lobbying for a policy change to make that possible. Curling Canada currently does not want its athletes competing in two tournaments at the same Olympics. Read more about the new Einarson-Gushue tandem in this story by CBC Sports’ Devin Heroux.

And finally…

Jaromir Jagr started his 33rd season of pro hockey. His career began in the 1988-89 season with Kladno of the Czech league, and it’s come full circle. Jagr now owns the team and, last night, he suited up for another season with them at the age of 48. He’s still got game too: he scored 15 goals in 38 games last season and picked up an assist last night. Jagr’s last NHL appearance was three years ago with Calgary. He’s third on the NHL’s all-time goals list with 766 and second in points with 1,921.

Coming up on CBC Sports

You can live stream four World Cup events Friday on CBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports app. Watch a men’s skeleton race at 3:30 a.m. ET and a women’s skeleton race at 7:30 a.m. ET here. Watch a women’s downhill at 4:30 a.m. ET here. Watch a men’s super-G at 5:45 a.m. ET here.

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