Last month, I wrote about Jonas Valanciunas and his potentially shrinking role in a league moving toward small ball, and playing with a head coach that seems committed to participating in that trend. Despite that, the Raptors reached a reported four-year, $64 million extension with their 23-year-old starting center Thursday. The fourth year is a player option, which means Valanciunas can hit the market again before he's 30 to land another lucrative deal should he continue to improve on the court.
So, here are some questions about the extension, and some possible answers:
Why did the Raptors offer the extension now, instead of letting the season play out and having Valanciunas hit restricted free agency where they could still negotiate with him and match any offer from other teams?
Restricted free agency is always a tricky proposition. In recent years, we've seen players like Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons sign deals structured to discourage the incumbent team from matching. This might have been less of a concern given that the salary cap is set to rise significantly the next two summers (and beyond, depending on whether a lockout happens) thanks to the league's new television deal, giving teams, including the Raptors, more flexibility under the cap to not have to worry about such maneuverings.
Still, Valanciunas was poised to command and receive a maximum-level offer if he hit the market as a restricted free agent next season. So, given an opportunity to extend a player they wanted for the long term, general manager Masai Ujiri proposed a number (initial reports had the figures at four years, $60 million) and the two sides were able to come to terms on what both felt was a fair offer. You have to imagine Ujiri has a threshold he was willing to reach in terms of dollar amounts. From here, it certainly appears they landed on a deal that the team is very comfortable with.
It also bears mentioning: even if the Raptors decide that Valanciunas isn't part of their future at any point in this contract, he will be a very movable piece in trade talks. The team has made a commitment to him and you have to imagine it would prefer he develops into a top player on a contender in Toronto. But Ujiri is, like all sensible general managers, about toeing the line between winning now and maintaining flexibility for the future. When he was the general manager with the Nuggets, Ujiri signed Nene to a contract with—depending on if you believe some reports—the intention of trading him, which he did in the first year of his new deal. That was a different scenario, and the two players are at different points in their career arc, but this is something to keep in mind. The takeaway isn't that Ujiri wants to trade Valanciunas, but it does illustrate how affordable contracts can provide a variety of options to rebuild and re-tool. The Raptors have done very well in maintaining that flexibility under Ujiri's watch.
So, we are in agreement that this was a favourable deal for the Raptors?
Surveying the contracts handed out to centers this summer, the answer would be yes. Robin Lopez received a four-year, $54 million deal from the Knicks, while Omer Asik re-signed for a five-year, $60 million contract with the Pelicans. These two players are more established, but neither has a higher ceiling than Valanciunas.
Super happy!:)) Best city and best fans in @NBA for another 4 years. Aciu! Can't wait for @Raptors season #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/kp9VU8ueru
— Jonas Valanciunas (@JValanciunas) August 20, 2015
Valanciunas isn't a finished product, and he might never meet the expectations some of us have for him. But if he continues to develop, the Raptors will have a starting center in his prime on a very market-friendly deal. The other comparison is Enes Kanter, who received a four-year, $70 million offer sheet from the Trail Blazers which the Thunder matched. He is much more polished than Valanciunas on the offensive end, but a liability on the other side of the floor. The jury is still out on whether Kanter or Valanciunas will end up being the better overall player over the course of their deals. The Raptors are paying a bit less to find out.
So, why didn't Valanciunas wait to hit restricted free agency to earn a larger payout?
Prior to the start of free agency, Zach Lowe of Grantland wrote a terrific column breaking down the options players like LaMarcus Aldridge had in this new NBA financial landscape, and calculated how taking a shorter deal this summer and re-entering the free-agent market earlier would result in more money in the long term. This all sounds great on paper, but as Lowe acknowledged, life isn't simply dictated by choosing the largest number among a bunch of sum formulas on an Excel spreadsheet. So, players like Aldridge, Kevin Love and Greg Monroe all took longer-term deals.
This, in part, explains why Valanciunas was comfortable in taking this deal, even if it meant leaving some money on the table by not waiting a year. Again, a career-altering injury or a significant decline in play could have hurt his value tremendously, and that's money that can't be recouped. In addition, as mentioned at the start, the player option will allow him to re-enter the market relatively soon, and who knows by then what the salary cap will look like, or if there is one at all.
So, does this mean he's going to become a focal point on offence, and play all the fourth-quarter minutes from here on out?
Unlikely. Even Valanciunas himself acknowledged after signing the extension that his fourth-quarter minutes won't go up unless his defence improves. Because of his lack of foot speed and ability to rotate and defend against smaller, quicker players, Valanciunas has been pinned to the bench in the closing minutes of many games—he had the worst defensive rating among the team's big men last year at 105.6 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, according to Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated.
Dwane Casey's defensive schemes are not the best fit for the player Valanciunas is right now, but we could be moving toward a compromise that can result in more minutes for him, given that the Raptors have brought in new members of the coaching staff and might adjust some of their defensive principles. Also, they've strengthened their perimeter defending with DeMarre Carroll, which might have a trickle-down effect on what is asked of Valanciunas on the defensive end.
So where does this leave the team for next summer, and is Terrence Ross going to receive an extension as well?
Per former NBA executive turned analyst Bobby Marks, here's where the Raptors stand heading into the summer of 2016: they'll have $71 million guaranteed, an $8.8 million cap hold on Ross, and they'll get either the Knicks or Nuggets first-round pick, whichever one is lower.
DeMar DeRozan will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and while it's crazy to think this for a player who is a tier below the top superstars in this league, he'll command an annual salary of at least $20 million next summer. That will be the market price for a player of his age and skill set. If the cap is going to approach $90 million, meeting DeRozan's demands will put the Raptors near or over that number depending on what other changes are made to the roster between now and the summer of 2016. This is a discussion for another time, but it will be fascinating to see whether the Raptors are on board for committing the dollar amount and years to DeRozan, especially if they know what he is and isn't at this point in his career.
As for Ross, Ujiri said the two sides have talked about an extension, so it's still possible he will be the next to be signed to a long-term deal. With the signing of Carroll and the other wing players on this team, the Raptors are likely not in a hurry to come to terms, especially if Ross demands a higher number than they're comfortable with. After two very disappointing playoff appearances, the Raptors might want to see how Ross performs in a predominantly backup role this season before evaluating whether he is part of the core group moving forward.
So, what's your major takeaway here?
Assuming Ross doesn't sign an extension, this will wrap up the offseason for the Raptors. There has been significant roster turnover, and this was the summer when Ujiri finally started making this team his own. Until Carroll signed with the Raptors (and, with Patrick Patterson moving into the starting lineup to replace the departed Amir Johnson), the primary starters on this Raptors team were all originally acquired by Bryan Colangelo.
Ujiri did make his first long-term bet last summer by signing Kyle Lowry to an extension, and he's done so again with Valanciunas. The next decisions will be DeRozan and Ross. Both Lowry and Valanciunas are on reasonable deals, which gives Ujiri room to move in another direction should this team not perform up to his expectations this season.
This upcoming year will be huge for the evaluation of this team. Ujiri has put the pieces in place from a personnel standpoint that you would have to expect improvement on the defensive end, where there was significant slippage last season. Casey has a reputation as being a defensive coach, and while on paper the Raptors look better, the onus will be on him to make it all work. You could point to the makeup of the roster last season to explain some of the deficiencies on the defensive end, but that excuse is unlikely to fly this season if the team is in the bottom ten in defensive rating again.
So, while the Raptors aren't legitimate title contenders, they're slowly becoming a roster that has Ujiri's fingerprints all over it. While the focus will surely be on the head coach, the general manager will be under scrutiny, too, if the roster makeover doesn't result in a more favourable playoff outcome this time around.