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Free Agency 2019

NBA Free Agency 2019: The domino effect of Kawhi Leonard leaving the Toronto Raptors

Kawhi Domino.jpg
Toronto Raptors (NBA Canada Illustrations)

At his end-of-season press conference this week, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri said he's confident Kawhi Leonard will return and that his priority is to bring everyone back.

But what if Leonard leaves?

MORE: The case for Leonard to stay | Leonard's other options

The easiest option is to still bring everyone back, with Danny Green being the only key player other than Leonard who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet each have one more year on their contracts and Pascal Siakam is due for an extension this offseason that could keep him under team control for as much as another five years.

However, Leonard's decision could impact all of their futures on the team, to the point where the team could look very different by the start or midpoint of next season. He could be merely the first domino to fall in a series of events that could fundamentally alter the course of the future for the Raptors.

Here's how.

Kyle Lowry

If the Raptors do decide to rebuild/retool, Lowry becomes their most interesting trade chip.

While he only has one year remaining on his current contract, Lowry has the potential to make a difference on a team looking to compete for a championship next season. Not only is one of the better defenders at the point guard position, he's an excellent shooter and a smart passer.

Lowry doesn't dominate the ball, either. He's coming off of a season in which he was involved in 19.6 percent of Toronto's offensive possessions, giving him an incredibly low usage rate for a player of his caliber.

It might be in the team's best interest to trade Lowry if Leonard leaves, if only because they'd be unlikely to re-sign him in the summer of 2020 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent - assuming, of course, the Raptors do go down the rebuilding route. That would put them at risk of seeing him walk without getting anything in return.

The tricky part of Lowry's contract is he'll make $33.3 million next season. The Raptors would have to take on an equally large contract to make a trade work, but they might be able to get draft compensation, especially if they trade him for a lesser player, which would be a huge asset to a Raptors team that has hit a couple of homeruns in the draft over the last few years.

If the Raptors were to part ways with Lowry, it would open up a spot in the starting lineup for Fred VanVleet, who told us in December that he seems himself being a starter in the NBA "very, very soon." It was an up and down season for VanVleet, but he came up big in the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals, even earning a vote for Finals MVP.

The Raptors would likely feel confident handing VanVleet the keys to the offence, giving them an opportunity to evaluate him as a starter before he also becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2020.

Danny Green

Whether or not Green returns to the Raptors next season might hinge on Leonard's decision.

Green is the ideal shooting guard for a contender like the Raptors to have. He plays his role to perfection, knocking down a career-best 45.5 percent of his 3-point attempts this season while almost making an All-NBA Defensive Team for what would've been the second time in his career.

If Leonard stays, re-signing Green becomes a priority because of how easily and well he fits with everyone else on the roster. If Leonard leaves, the Raptors might be better off distributing his minutes to someone else or a number of players, such as Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby.

Green won't come cheap this offseason. With the demand for 3-and-D wings being greater than the supply, various teams are expected to pursue him in free agency, including the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers.

It's hard to believe the Raptors wouldn't match any offer Green receives if Leonard does return based on how important he was to the team's success this season - he might even be willing to re-sign at a discount to stay in Toronto - but paying him upwards of $10 million annually might not make much sense for a rebuilding team.

If Leonard walks, Green could join him.

Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka

Gasol and Ibaka are in a similar boat as Lowry, in that they are both expiring contracts next season. Having picked up his player option, Gasol will be the team's second-highest paid player at $25.6 million, followed by Ibaka at $23.3 million.

Even though the Raptors split them up this season, Gasol and Ibaka are still starting-level centres. In addition to proving he's one of the best post defenders in the league in the playoffs, Gasol is a solid offensive player due to his ability to space the floor out to the 3-point line and his vision. Ibaka is neither the 3-point shooter nor passer Gasol is, but he's a superior rim protector and a more versatile finisher in pick-and-rolls.

Their salaries make it highly unlikely that they'd be a packaged deal, but the Raptors might be able to trade one or both of them to different teams for a combination of young players and draft picks. Similar to Lowry, that would give the Raptors an opportunity to get some sort of return on Gasol and Ibaka before they both become unrestricted free agents next summer.

What's important for the Raptors is they don't take on too much long-term salary in a trade for Gasol and Ibaka in order to keep their books clear for the summer of 2020 and 2021. They are currently projected to have only $14.7 million in guaranteed salary for the 2020-21 season and $11.6 million for the 2021-22 season, though neither of those figures include Siakam's impending extension, which is expended to be for the max.

Pascal Siakam

After the season he had, there's no question the Raptors would become Siakam's team if Leonard leaves in free agency.

What might that look like? According to NBA.com, Siakam played a total of 1,012 minutes without Leonard on the court during the regular season. The Raptors weren't quite as dominant in those minutes, and yet they still outscored opponents by a massive margin of 10.1 points per 100 possessions, doing so with an above average offence and an elite defence.

Siakam saw his individual numbers improve across the board with Leonard on the bench, to almost 20 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes on 54.2 percent shooting from the field. An increased role next season would set him up well to make an All-Star team for the first time in his career after coming close this season.

The postseason was a different story - both the Raptors and Siakam struggled in the minutes Leonard was on the bench - but Siakam is already good enough to keep Toronto in the playoff race as long as he's surrounded by competent players. The Raptors would then be able to focus on filling out the rest of the roster around Siakam to get them back to being contenders, either by counting on internal development, using their cap space to target a big-name free agent next summer, going all-in on the draft or a combination of the three.

MORE: Who are the best free agents next summer?

Siakam alone can't make up for the loss of Leonard, but his development into one of the best young players in the league softens the blow because it gives them a legitimate building block moving forward.

OG Anunoby

Anunoby started at small forward for most of his rookie season, but the arrival of Leonard moved him to the second unit. Of the 67 games Anunoby played this season, he started in only six of them, with all but one of those starts coming in games Leonard sat out.

Leonard leaving would pave the way for Anunoby to start again. Leonard returning, on the other hand, means he would continue to come off the bench for the foreseeable future.

That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for Anunoby, who missed a lot of this season due to personal reasons and injuries. One of the more raw prospects in the 2017 NBA Draft, he still has a lot of developing to do and could learn a lot from both Leonard and Siakam.

But there is a chance that playing behind both of them stunts his growth. In which case, would the Raptors think about trading Anunoby, possibly as a sweetener alongside Gasol or Ibaka, to get a player who could help them win more now?

Trading Anunoby probably isn't an option for the Raptors if Leonard leaves, as he's Toronto's second-best prospect behind Siakam, but he stands to gain more by Leonard's decision than anyone else on this list because of how it impacts his immediate role on the team.

Future draft picks

The Raptors currently own each of their first-round picks between 2020 and 2026, per Pro Sports Transactions. The only draft picks they don't own are three future second-round picks (2021 to the Brooklyn Nets, 2022 to the Philadelphia 76ers and 2024 to the Memphis Grizzlies).

There's a possibility the Raptors could add to those picks as well, depending on what they choose to do with Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka between now and next season's trade deadline.

It remains to be seen how good each of those draft picks are, but even picks in the mid-to-late first round would help them build around Siakam, Anunoby and VanVleet. The Raptors proved that in the 2019 NBA Finals, as they became the first team since 1985 to win a championship without a single player on its roster being a lottery pick. They didn't select all of those players themselves, but they picked up Siakam with the 27th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Anunoby with the 23rd pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and signed VanVleet in 2016 after he went undrafted.

With those three, plus a couple of high-upside draft picks, the Raptors would be set up for future success.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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