The Toronto Raptors should follow the Spurs’ approach to team building

Toronto Raptors - Kyle Lowry (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Kyle Lowry (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Raptors are no longer in title contention after the loss of Kawhi Leonard, but that doesn’t mean they need to start a rebuild. Toronto should follow the San Antonio Spurs model of sustained success.

The NBA has turned into a strange place. There is no room to be good anymore. Teams are either in a position to compete for a championship or they are rebuilding. It’s true the worst thing a team can do is get stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity, but that doesn’t mean fielding a competitive team holds no value.

There are a few organizations that are diametrically opposed to tanking. Pat Riley and the Miami Heat refuse to tank. Another team is the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs are widely viewed as one the most well-run organizations in all of professional sports.

The last time the Spurs tanked it was by accident. In 1995 the Spurs won 62 games and reached the Western Conference Finals. David Robinson was named league MVP. The following year, the Spurs won 59 games and advanced to the second round.

In 1996-97, Robinson played a total of 6 games due to foot and back injuries. The Spurs won 20 games. They missed the playoffs and ended up with no. 1 overall pick and selected Tim Duncan. The rest is history.

Since Duncan arrived in San Antonio the Spurs have experienced an unprecedented run of success. The Spurs have made 22 consecutive post-season appearances. They have reached the NBA Finals six times and won five championships.

One of the most impressive parts of the Spurs’ run is that they have done this without any further lottery picks. The Spurs have been able to identify players late in the draft and develop them.  Since 1998, the Spurs have drafted higher than 20 only three times (2011, 2018 and 2019). Kawhi Leonard was selected 15th overall in 2011, but he was acquired by trade. The Spurs got Leonard on draft night in exchange for George Hill, who had been selected no. 26 in 2008.

In addition to Leonard and Hill, the Spurs drafted Tony Parker at no. 28 and Manu Ginobili at no. 57. More recently, the Spurs selected Dejounte Murray no. 29 overall in 2016. Murray missed all of last season with a torn right ACL. However, Murray may be the latest steal by the Spurs.

You may be asking yourself what does this have to do with the Toronto Raptors?

The Raptors are at a crossroads. The team has experienced a great deal of success over the last six years. They have made the playoffs every year, with an average of 53.5 wins. In 2016, the Raptors advanced to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. And this past season ended with a championship parade.

If the Raptors had been able to run it back, they would have entered next season as favorites to repeat. However, both Kawhi and Danny Green are headed to Los Angeles. The Raptors are no longer considered title contenders. Trade rumors are starting to circulate.

The three names that most Raptors’ fans and analysts are speculating about are Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka. All three will be on the wrong side of 30 at the start of next season. They are the team’s three highest-paid players, with combined salaries of almost $84 million. They are also all on expiring contracts.

It is easy to suggest that Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster should trade all three for assets and rebuild. But is that really in the best interests of the franchise?

Most rebuilding teams spend years acquiring lottery picks to build a foundation for the future. After a few years, those teams try to add the right mix of veterans in order to make a playoff run. The hope is that the team will continue to make strides and eventually become a title contender.

The Raptors have already shown that it is possible to take a different path to contention. This has been a very shrewd organization under Ujiri’s stewardship. The Raptors are the first team in NBA history to win a championship without a single lottery pick on the roster.

Ujiri took over the Raptors’ top job in the summer of 2013. Between 2014 and 2017, the Raptors picked 20, 20, 27 and 23. The Raptors acquired the no. 9 pick in 2016 as part of the Andrea Bargnani trade. The team did not have a first-round pick in 2018 or 2019.

The Raptors were able to find rotation players in consecutive years in Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. Siakam in particular looks like a future All-Star. The Raptors also selected Norman Powell at no. 46 and picked up Fred VanVleet as an undrafted free agent.

One of the most impressive things the Raptors have been able to accomplish over the years is to be a playoff team, while still developing young players. This past season was the first time since Ujiri has taken over that the Raptors haven’t had a stockpile of young prospects at the backend of the roster.

Ujiri and his staff have gone back to their roots this summer. They signed Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Patrick McCaw, Terence Davis and Matt Thomas primarily to one or two-year deals (Thomas’ third year is not guaranteed).  All of these additions are 24 or younger.

Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson are both former first-round picks looking to prove they belong. Despite McCaw’s three championship rings, he has yet to be a consistent on-court contributor. As for Davis and Thomas, they are both looking to join VanVleet as undrafted players who are willing to put the work in and fulfill a lifelong dream.

Even with the loss of Kawhi, the Raptors will still be in the playoff hunt next season. The team was 17-5 in games without Leonard last season. Outside of Leonard and Green, the Raptors are bringing back their entire championship core. With internal improvements from Siakam and Anunoby, the Raptors should be able to push for a top 4 seed in the East.

Josh Lewenberg of TSN reported that the Raptors have no plans to trade Lowry, Gasol or Ibaka. Lewenberg went on to say that Masai is expected to give his team “an opportunity to sink or swim before choosing a path and deciding what comes next”.

This seems to be the right course of action, for now at least. Lowry, in particular, is worth more to the Raptors then he is to any other team. Point guard is the deepest position in the NBA. There aren’t a lot of teams in the market for a 33-year-old Lowry. Does it really make sense to flip Lowry to the Orlando Magic for Evan Fournier, salary filler and a heavily protected first-round pick?

Lowry’s production declined a bit this past season. But that has more to do with the presence of Leonard and the emergence of Siakam. Lowry still averaged 14.2 points, 8.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Lowry provides veteran leadership at the point guard position and a consistent three-point shot (36.7 percent for his career).

At the end of the day, Lowry is a five-time All-Star and NBA Champion. What Lowry is going to bring to the table is more valuable than a mid-to-late first-round pick.

With that being said, the Raptors should explore the trade market for Gasol or Ibaka at some point prior to the trade deadline. Keeping one might make sense, but keeping both is not necessary.

The Raptors could decide to re-sign Lowry next summer, at least on a short-term deal. However, there is no reason to retain both Gasol and Ibaka beyond this season. As such, getting some sort of asset for them now is only prudent.

The Detroit Pistons were rumored to have interest in Gasol at the trade deadline. Swapping Gasol for Andre Drummond and a lottery protected first-round pick should work for both sides.

Drummond led the league in rebounding again last season. But he is a limited offensive player and a liability to close games. Gasol might not be the player he once was, but he is a winner and can help take the Pistons to the next level. The move costs the Pistons a pick to upgrade the center position and get off the extra year left on Drummond’s contract.

The Raptors have six players under contract for next year, including Johnson’s player option. The salary cap is projected to increase to $117 million. Even after factoring in cap holds for Siakam and VanVleet the Raptors will have over $65 million in cap space. Re-signing Lowry for a one-year contract at $20 or $25 million would still give the Raptors enough space for a max player next summer.

By taking on the final year of Drummond’s contract, the Raptors lose that flexibility. However, the free agent crop isn’t nearly as strong as it was this summer.

If the Raptors are not going to make a big splash in free agency, retaining some of the team’s veterans makes sense. The Raptors will continue to be a playoff team. Add a couple of first-round draft picks in 2020 and give their young players big game experience.

What this summer has taught us is today’s players value a winning culture and a strong organization. The Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets have no history of attracting big name free agents. However, both teams were big winners in free agency adding Leonard, George, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving.

What the Raptors should focus on is continuing to build a reputation throughout the league of winning and professionalism. Masai Ujiri is one of the most respected executives in the Association. If the Raptors want to chase someone like Giannis, they need to have a core in place that is ready to compete for a title. Giannis isn’t going to leave Milwaukee to join a rebuilding team.

This is something that the San Antonio Spurs seem to know that a lot of teams don’t. Winning matters. Playing in meaningful basketball games matters. There is value in having veterans around to teach young players how to be professionals. There is value in winning 50 games and being in the playoffs every year.

Next. Where do the Raptors rank in the Eastern Conference?. dark

That is why the Toronto Raptors should consider following the Spurs lead and continue down this path. Don’t trade someone like Kyle Lowry just for the sake of chasing lottery balls. The Raptors have proven they can find talent late in the first round. Keep building a winning culture and just like last summer, strike when the time is right.

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