The best executives are nimble, able to quickly turn on a dime and adapt when situations and factors change.
The Toronto Raptors aren’t better without top centres Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, but thanks to quick pivoting at the pivot spot, they landed a couple of potentially above average replacements in Aron Baynes and Alex Len and managed to keep their priority of having space next off-season to add a max free agent possible while still likely staying in the mix in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors aren’t in the same class as either Los Angeles team, the Lakers, where Gasol landed as a perfect fit, or the Clippers, where Kawhi Leonard will be rejoined by Ibaka, but the East doesn’t have that type of powerhouse squad, unless you truly believe Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday is as good as the king’s ransom the Bucks delivered to New Orleans for him illustrates.
Toronto still boasts two all-stars in Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam; One of the better two-way guards in the sport in Fred VanVleet; Ever-improving 23-year-old defensive menace OG Anunoby; Norman Powell, one of the NBA’s best reserve guards, along with Baynes, a rugged, board-cleaning, stretch centre and Len, the fifth pick of the 2013 draft, who has been a strong backup centre when healthy enough to take the court. The 27-year-old has averaged eight points, 6.3 rebounds and a block in his career and has shown some three-point range. Len was added on the cheap Monday, a day after Gasol chose the Lakers over the Raptors. Energy big man Chris Boucher is also returning and Malachi Flynn is regarded as a plug-and-play rookie.
That should be good enough to compete for a “home”-court spot in the playoffs and to challenge any conference opponent.
Equally important (and factors in why they didn’t retain two pillars of their championship squad in Gasol and Ibaka) the Raptors made sure that their moves (VanVleet aside, because it simply wasn’t an option) gave them the flexibility to not be on the hook beyond this season. Baynes, Len, Boucher and swingman DeAndre Bembry all reportedly took deals that don’t have a second year guaranteed in some form or another.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has long been the apple of Masai Ujiri and co.’s eye. The two-time MVP could be available after this season, should he not sign a super-max contract with the Bucks. Toronto made sure a play for the Greek Freak remained a possibility. Other top names potentially on the market that year include Leonard, Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo, Paul George, Holiday, LaMarcus Aldridge and others.
But that’s the future and a lot is going to change before then. Here in the present, the Raptors can surprise if Siakam morphs back into the player he was before the bubble, not the shell of his old self he played like in Orlando. If Lowry doesn’t finally start to show his age. If VanVleet and Anunoby continue to keep strides and if Baynes and Len bring the expected rebounding, defence, screen-setting (both Baynes and Len averaged more screen assists and generated more points off those screens than either Gasol or Ibaka) and outside shooting threats as anticipated. Len also drew twice as many charges (16, eighth in the NBA) as Gasol and is only a notch below him as an outside shooter (and is more willing to let it fly than the reluctant Spaniard).
The Bucks, finalist Miami, Raptor-beaters Boston, a more balanced Philadelphia squad and Brooklyn should all be solid and another team or two usually are a lot better than expected, but this Raptors group should be in the mix in the East.
Of course getting back to where they want to be, contenders again for the NBA title, will take that second part of the plan paying off next off-season.
In the meantime, expect a competitive, fundamentally sound, reasonably deep Toronto Raptors team to take the court in Tampa Bay in 2020-21.
Considering who has exited, that doesn’t sound too bad.
BOOSTING THE BENCH
The Raptors should have an intriguing bench after adding centre Alex Len and guard/forward DeAndre Bembry to the mix.
Len, a 7-footer who split last season with Atlanta and Sacramento, was once highly-regarded enough to be in contention for the first pick of the 2013 draft by Cleveland. He ended up going fifth to Phoenix and has averaged eight points and 6.3 rebounds in 467 games. Injuries have been a major factor for the Ukraine native, but when he plays he has shown he can defend, rebound, score inside and step out with mixed success.
He’ll backup fellow newcomer Aron Baynes, with Canadian Chris Boucher likely to split time between power forward and centre.
Bembry, 6-foot-5, is known for his effort level, defence and athleticism. He can handle the ball a bit and create, but has struggled to shoot from everywhere on the floor aside from right at the rim, where he’s a good finisher. Bembry has shot just 27% from three in 189 career games, but with the status of two other potential Nick Nurse options uncertain, could be in the mix for some playing time.
Guard Terence Davis is facing legal issues and the Raptors will make a call on whether to cut or keep him by Nov. 29. Nurse favourite Patrick McCaw has not played since March due to a knee issue.
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