It appears the Toronto Raptors will not be NBA title contenders next season.
It feels weird writing that about a team who has repeatedly shown an ability to defy expectations. I mean, how could anyone doubt this year's Raptors after they defied the odds last season and came within a missed 3-pointer of potentially making the Eastern Conference finals.
Yet, as things sit today, on Monday, Nov. 23, it's impossible to say otherwise. The Milwaukee Bucks are better. The Brooklyn Nets are better and could be a lot better. The Miami Heat brought back almost everyone from last year's NBA Finals team. And the Boston Celtics, even without Gordon Hayward next year, should be as strong as ever.
Then there are the Raptors who appear to have taken a step back this offseason, swapping out Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka for former Phoenix Suns centre Aron Baynes.
But that's OK.
When Raptors president Masai Ujiri spoke to the media last month to lay out the team's offseason plans he said the organization had three priorities: Re-sign Fred VanVleet, bring back Ibaka and Gasol, and maintain flexibility for what he called a "key year" in 2021. Now, a month later, it's clear how the organization prioritized those priorities.
The Raptors were never going to let VanVleet walk away. The first thing they did when free agency opened was fly down to Chicago to meet with VanVleet on Saturday, Sportsnet's Michael Grange reported. It couldn't have been more than a few hours after the Raptors meeting that VanVleet reportedly agreed to re-sign with Toronto on a four-year, $85 million deal, first reported by The Athletic's Shams Charania.
Hidden within VanVleet's deal was the first clue to how Toronto viewed its offseason.
Instead of four years at $21.25 million each, VanVleet's deal reportedly goes down next season to $19.55 million in year two before going up in year three with a player option for year four, according to Grange. That extra $1.7 million next offseason gives the Raptors more wiggle room to go shopping in a star-studded free agency class next summer.
With VanVleet secured, the Raptors moved on to their second priority: Bringing back the bigs. They reportedly met with Ibaka later on Saturday, according to Grange. But Toronto couldn't get Ibaka to bite on a one-year, $12 million deal, according to HoopsHype's Michael Scotto, losing him to the Clippers on a two-year, $19 million deal. Then, when Gasol inked a two-year deal to join the Lakers on Sunday, the Raptors' offseason priorities became abundantly clear.
The 2020 offseason was never truly about being title contenders next season. If you're going for a title, you don't sign Baynes, Chris Boucher, and DeAndre’ Bembry all to two-year deals with non-guaranteed second years.
And that's what makes this offseason so hard to judge for the Raptors. From a title contention perspective, it was a failure. They did nothing to add to a team that came up short of the Eastern Conference finals. But if this year was about maintaining flexibility for next summer, then it was a total success.
Ultimately this offseason's added flexibility can only be judged by what is done with that cap space next summer. If the Raptors have cleared a path to sign Giannis Antetokounmpo next year, then one relatively down season for the organization is an easy price to pay for half a decade of title contention. If Toronto strikes out on Antetokounmpo and fails to bring in anyone of significance next year, then Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have possibly had their first truly bad offseason.
Until that happens, it's clear that Ujiri and Webster feel confident in their ability to reel in a star next season. And with track records as impressive as theirs, it's hard to doubt them.