Why the Raptors nailed free agency

Though the Toronto Raptors lost two of their three big free agents when Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol departed, they held onto the main one — Fred VanVleet — and kept their eyes on an even bigger prize.

They held onto the most important guy and kept their eyes on a bigger prize

Toronto hung onto top free agent Fred VanVleet for a reasonable price. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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When NBA free agency opened on Friday evening, three big-name Toronto players hit the market. By the time the dust settled, two of them were gone. 

But the Raptors re-signed the best one and made some cost-effective moves to replace the departures. Crucially, they kept themselves in position to land the biggest prize of all down the road.

Here are the details from the Raps' busy weekend:

1. They re-signed Fred VanVleet.

This was the big one. The Raptors helped turn the smallish guard from an undrafted free agent into a star over the last four years, and he was one of the best bargains in the league last season at a salary-cap hit of $9.3 million US.

But VanVleet made it clear that he intended to get paid this off-season, and he was probably the best truly-available player on the market (Anthony Davis opted out of his contract but is expected to re-sign with the Lakers). That opened the possibility that Toronto might either lose VanVleet to an aggressive bidder or have to overpay to keep him.

But the Raps re-signed him for four years and $85 million, which seems pretty reasonable. Especially after Charlotte dropped $120 million over four years on a diminished Gordon Hayward.

2. They lost Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol to Los Angeles. 

Ibaka joined Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers for two years at $19 million. Gasol went to the NBA-champion Lakers for two years, with no salary figures reported yet.

Both big men were important and beloved members of the 2019 title team, and Ibaka will be especially missed. He averaged a career-high 15.4 points with 8.2 rebounds last season while blending his athleticism, shooting range and intensity with an off-court playfulness that endeared him to teammates and fans.

Gasol, 35, is in the twilight of his career. But he's still capable of contributing off the bench for a contender with his brainy defensive work, passing and judicious three-point shooting.

3. They added Aron Baynes to fill the hole in the middle.

The 33-year-old Australian centre isn't as good as Ibaka and Gasol, but he's an inexpensive substitute who can take on their work.

Baynes averaged a career-high 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds last season for Phoenix and is considered a pretty good defender and three-point shooter (by big-man standards).

The Raptors signed 33-year-old centre Aron Baynes of Australia to a two-year contract for about $14 million. (Matt York/The Associated Press)

He technically signed a two-year contract for about $14 million. But the second year is a team option, so Toronto can walk away from it next summer to free up cap space.

That's very much in keeping with the Raptors' long-term strategy, which we'll come back to in a second.

4. They re-signed Canadian Chris Boucher and took a flier on DeAndre' Bembry. 

Boucher got two years, $13.5 million, signalling the Raptors think he can step into a bigger role helping Baynes soak up the minutes that belonged to Ibaka and Gasol.

Bembry is a 26-year-old wing who averaged only 5.8 points last season for Atlanta. But the Raptors are paying him less than $2 million and they can opt out after this season, so why not?

5. They stayed in the hunt for Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Perhaps even more than re-signing VanVleet, this was Toronto's top priority. The Raptors put up an impressive and honourable defence of their championship last season after losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency, but it became clear in the playoffs that they need a true superstar to win another title.

Antetokounmpo is as super as they come — the Greek Freak just won back-to-back MVPs and was named Defensive Player of the Year last season. He also might be looking to leave Milwaukee when his contract expires next summer, and Toronto could be one of the prime destinations for him.

The Raptors have a shot at landing reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo next summer. (Mike Ehrman/Getty Images)

To have a shot, president Masai Ujiri and his staff needed to preserve their cap space beyond this season while also keeping the roster solid enough that Antetokounmpo could envision a strong supporting cast.

By re-signing VanVleet and not doing anything dumb (like, say, that Hayward contract), the Raptors nailed both objectives.

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