You could kind of see it coming for the Mavericks. After a thrilling run through the 2011 postseason, and a remarkable performance in the NBA Finals to forestall the coronation of the Big Three Heat, Dirk Nowitzki was finally a champion; he sang about it loud enough for all to hear. But after the party comes the hangover, and the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season was a sunglasses-and-Advil-type situation in Dallas. The Mavericks lost half of their postseason rotation after the title win and whiffed on their big-swing attempt to retool on the fly, as Lamar Odom flamed out spectacularly. A sputtering offense led to a seventh-place finish in the West, and a closer-than-it-appeared sweep at the hands of the Thunder signaled the departure of one champion and the arrival of another. (Or so we thought.)
Those Mavericks became a popular point of comparison for the 2018-19 Raptors during their somewhat surprising run to the NBA championship. They had the singular superstar operating at an all-time level, the supporting cast full of tough, smart veterans who could shoulder the load without shrinking in the postseason heat, and the creative coach who just kept pushing the right buttons to give his team an edge. When Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green chose to head to Los Angeles in free agency, many prognosticators predicted the same sort of decline for Toronto that came for Dallas; it has been pointed out to me, more than once, that none of this website’s 29 people and things that will define the upcoming NBA season involved the Raptors.
These Raptors have one thing that those Mavericks didn’t, though—an exciting, dynamic young player with a real chance to become a franchise cornerstone. Pascal Siakam is Toronto’s ticket to remaining relevant and competitive into the future, and this weekend the Raptors locked him up with a four-year, $130 million, maximum-salaried extension of his rookie contract.
Reaching an agreement to keep the 25-year-old Cameroonian in the fold through 2024 allows the Raptors to enter the 2019-20 season with the franchise’s most important question already answered. It also puts Toronto in position to be one of the league’s most interesting teams over the next few months, a potential chaos agent in one of the most wide-open seasons in recent memory.
With a championship in their back pocket, Kyle Lowry inked to a new extension, and Siakam signed to be their standard-bearer for the next five seasons, the Raptors have nothing but green grass in front of them. President of basketball operations Masai Ujiri can let the first couple of months unfold, then take stock of where his team stands around the holidays and determine which course of action seems most prudent.
Let’s say the rest of last season’s title team gets off to a hot start—which is entirely possible, considering the Raps went 17-5 with Leonard out of the lineup last season, and outscored opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions with him off the court. (Though, to be fair, the numbers were quite a bit bleaker without Leonard and Green on the wing.) If Ujiri thinks that form is sustainable, he can opt to stand pat, making a full-fledged effort to run it back and defend Toronto’s title.
If Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka look particularly spry and effective in the larger roles they’ll likely need to take on post-Kawhi, Toronto could look to offer them one-year extensions similar to the one Lowry got, punting on major additions in the summer of 2020; the Lowry and Siakam deals already put Toronto $5 million over the projected salary cap for 2020-21 anyway, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. That approach would keep the Raptors in the running for home-court advantage in the opening round of this spring’s Eastern Conference playoffs, where nobody besides the Bucks and Sixers seem like a sure thing.
Or, if you’re a glass-half-empty type: Let’s say the Raptors struggle out of the gate. Maybe long-in-the-tooth types like Lowry (who just returned to the court after undergoing thumb surgery following the Finals), Gasol (who barely took a breather this summer, pivoting from Toronto’s title run to a gold-medal push with Spain in the 2019 FIBA World Cup), and Ibaka see their production wane from last season’s heights. Maybe that puts even more pressure on the newly maxed-out Siakam, free-agent-to-be Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby to carry the team through the winter months; maybe that doesn’t go so hot, and Toronto sits under .500 as the February 6 trade deadline approaches.
In that case, well, Ujiri’s course is clear: canvass the league, gauge the value on everybody, and see what sort of draft capital/young talent/reclamation projects you can recoup as you look to build a new core around Siakam. Making those sorts of moves would be painful—especially if it means moving on from Lowry, the heartbeat of the franchise for nearly a decade. But having already secured Siakam’s signature lessens the emotional blow, giving Ujiri cover to undertake the sort of down-to-the-studs rebuild that we expected way back when he traded Rudy Gay in December 2013, only to be saved from it by James Dolan’s reported refusal to engage Ujiri on a Lowry-to-the-Knicks deal.
And if the Raptors fall somewhere between those poles, floating in the middle of the pack in the East, Ujiri could float in the middle, too. There’s a lot of room between “keep everybody” and “trade everybody,” and with the Larry O’B already on the mantel and Siakam’s deal already set in stone, Toronto could comfortably live in it—until or unless somebody puts something on the table that makes Ujiri stand up and take notice.
Like most other teams, the Raptors are operating with their sights set firmly on the 2021 offseason, when a star-studded free-agent class to rival last summer’s could once again tip the scales of competitive balance in the NBA. And, like most other teams, you’d expect Toronto’s shopping list to start with Giannis Antetokounmpo, with whom Ujiri has had a relationship since the reigning MVP’s days as a reed-thin prospect playing in Greece’s second division. Even after accounting for Siakam’s extension, Toronto “could have $80 million” in salary cap space in 2021 with which to hunt max free agents like Antetokounmpo, according to ESPN’s Marks; every move the Raptors make over the next two seasons will be weighed against how it might impact the pursuit of such a landscape-shifting superstar to pair with Siakam. (How two huge, shaky-shooting wing creators who are often at their best with the ball in their hands would fit together is an open question, though one imagines it’s precisely the sort of problem that head coach Nick Nurse would love to have to solve.)
That might make this season something of a frustrating exercise for Raptors fans, who barely got a moment to celebrate the title their team just won before feeling compelled to think about how Ujiri and Co. might best build a bridge to another. It could also, though, augur a surprisingly exciting campaign for the champs. Asked what he’d learned about his team during the preseason, Ibaka told reporters, “We’re still good, man. People are sleeping on us.” That might be less because the post-Kawhi Raptors are boring, though, and more because what comes next could once again be the stuff dreams are made of.
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Kyle Lowry’s absence due to thumb surgery. He played during the 2019-20 NBA preseason.