This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
DeMar DeRozan was never going to declare his intentions by formally committing to a future with the Toronto Raptors on Saturday, a day after his team was eliminated from the playoffs. That would rob him of any leverage he has when he hits free agency on July 1.
DeRozan, however, came as close as he was ever going to come to tying himself to the only NBA team he has ever known. DeRozan said that playing your whole career with the same team ranks near the best things a player can do.
"I'm a loyal person," he said. "That's how I've lived my whole life. At this point, it's all about winning."
Given that none of the Western Conference powers will be seeking to spend their money on DeRozan, and the Raptors will be able to give him more years and money than anybody else, that would seem to give Toronto most of the control in his free agency. (That assumes DeRozan was speaking truthfully and will not change his mind in the next month, which he is entitled to do.) And that puts the Raptors in a strange position. The fleeing stars in team history—Damon Stoudamire, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh—have all caught flak for a perceived lack of loyalty, even though they had a mix of personal, professional and business reasons for leaving the Raptors. Now it is the organization that has to consider separating from a two-time all-star who has professed his devotion to the club.
Extending DeRozan a maximum-value contract, around $145 million over five years according to league estimates, would likely keep the guard in Toronto, and ensure he becomes the franchise's all-time leading scorer. Given the Raptors' franchise-best season, doing so might be considered a no-brainer. This, however, is an undoubtedly complex situation. Here is the case for and against the Raptors doing everything they can to retain DeRozan.
The Case To Keep DeRozan
First of all, the free-agent market will be flush with suitors wielding cap room because of the new national television deal, and short on players worthy, or even close to worthy, of massive deals. DeRozan is one of those select players, and will get max-value offers. There is no low-balling him if you want to keep him in Toronto. Regardless, there is no point in trying to penny-pinch (in this case, you'd be pinching billions of pennies, but the comment stands) DeRozan.
The Raptors just fell two games short of the Finals, and did so with DeRozan in the middle of things. Toronto finished with a top-five offensive rating in both of the last two years, and DeRozan had the highest usage percentage on both of those teams. Cutting DeRozan loose would result in too big of a setback, wasting the end of Kyle Lowry's prime.
Oh yeah, Lowry: He turns 31 next season. Despite advancements elsewhere on the roster, DeRozan is the only creator on the perimeter that can reliably give Lowry a break. Cory Joseph is not there yet. Terrence Ross will never be there. DeMarre Carroll is a shooter and little else. Norman Powell is too young to bank on. Whether Lowry is with the team beyond next year or he opts out of his contract and leaves Toronto in 2017, DeRozan is crucial to either lighten the load on the point guard or step into the play-making void his departure would create.
Nobody has ever questioned DeRozan's work ethic. He seems to come back with something new every season. If the Raptors enhance Jonas Valanciunas' role in the offence, 3-point shooting becomes even more important. DeRozan bumped his 3-point accuracy up to nearly 34 percent in the regular season, and that has generally trended up during his career. He will do everything in his power to become a better long-distance shooter, especially if that is the directive from the franchise.
If you let DeRozan leave in free agency, there is no guarantee that you will be able to improve the roster elsewhere. Even if you think you can sign Al Horford or Nicolas Batum, remember: A ton of other teams have the same flexibility the Raptors have, and some will have more. You better be sure you have the inside track on signing another excellent player if you think about casting DeRozan aside. That is a huge risk. Plus, if you are really worried, Masai Ujiri has always shown the ability to move players, no matter the size of the contract (see: Nene, Bargnani).
Finally, if you believe in the importance of building a culture, DeRozan is the Raptors' culture (sorry, Drake). He has been a Raptor since 2009, and has improved with the team. Rookies look up to him, and follow his basketball-above-all-else lead. Just look at the way Powell improved throughout the season as he practically channeled DeRozan. DeRozan has even received credit for Lowry taking the game and his health more seriously. Players follow DeRozan.
He is admired throughout the NBA. Players will be watching how the Raptors treat one of their leaders. So much of the buzz that the Raptors created with the All-Star Game and their playoff run will disappear if they let DeRozan walk. Toronto was just threatening to become a destination; letting him walk would end that notion.
The Case For Letting DeRozan Walk
DeRozan has been thoroughly admirable as a Raptor, and had a huge role in building this franchise up. Regardless, committing 30 percent of the team's cap room to him would be a huge misstep, and would harm the team's chances of taking the next step.
The Raptors are set up to replace DeRozan rather easily. Although they do not have a classically defined shooting guard to play as DeRozan plays, they do not need one. Valanciunas is ready for far more than the 12.4 field-goal attempts he took per 36 minutes this season, and DeRozan's presence is stunting his growth. DeRozan's entry passing is not great, and his lack of long-distance shooting means Valanciunas has less space and time to back his defender down in the post before help arrives.
Beyond that, DeRozan leaving would open up more minutes for Ross and Powell—better 3-point shooters than DeRozan. They have a lottery pick that they could use to shore up the wing, as well.
Moreover, DeRozan just is not a max player, even if he will earn that status this summer. The Raptors were actually a better team this year, in terms of point differential, when Lowry played without DeRozan on the floor than when the two all-stars shared the court. The heart of the offence should be Valanciunas post-ups and Lowry/Valanciunas pick-and-rolls, and DeRozan's skill set does not jive with that. And it is not as if he is bringing in extra value on the other end of the court.
DeRozan will be entering his eighth year in the league. This is who he is. He has had plenty of time to work on his 3-point shot, and he is not yet at the league's average. He has played under a defensive-minded coach for five seasons, and he still gets lost off of the ball often. Thanks for your time, DeMar, but the Raptors can only reach their ceiling with improvements elsewhere on the roster, both this summer and in summers to come. Giving you $25 million a year will get in the way of that, and your game does not justify the loss of those opportunities.
What Will Happen
In speaking to the media on Monday, Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri was non-committal about DeRozan's status. While he said that retaining DeRozan was the franchise's top priority in free agency, he hedged on offering him a maximum-value contract.
"I think that question is for later," Ujiri said. "We'll have those discussions. Our organization, I think, has showed that we want to win. Those are, I think, negotiations that we'll have with DeMar and his agent, and we'll see where it goes."
Ultimately, Ujiri will decide that the devil he knows is better than the devil he doesn't—not that DeRozan's play should conjure up such demonic thoughts. Improving the team's power forward position with DeRozan at this price will be difficult, and retaining Bismack Biyombo will be nearly impossible (see below). On the court, however, and off the court, DeRozan is a huge part of who the Raptors are.
"I believed in this team is what I said before we went into that (Indiana) series. ... You've been in fights and battles with them. I don't know what the outcome is going to be," Ujiri said. "You really know where you can rely on them. Honestly, we knew this from these guys. They showed it to us the last three years. It's why we keep going and going and trying and giving them the best opportunity and putting them in the best place that we can."
The core of this team is Casey, Lowry, Valanciunas and, yes, DeRozan. Expect him to be back at the maximum, or close enough.
Unlike their position with DeRozan, the Raptors do not have an intrinsic financial advantage in bringing back Biyombo if they are inclined to do so. Without his Larry Bird rights, an exception that gives teams the right to exceed the salary cap to re-sign an incumbent player, the Raptors will be like any other team once Biyombo hits free agency. The only advantage they have is that Biyombo just spent a year with the Raptors and loved it. He told a local radio station on Monday that he expected to be back in Toronto, and would even take a hometown discount to do so. (It is best not to hold players to these sentiments when expressed right after a magical postseason run.)
Given his excellent playoff play, some desperate team looking for a centre is going to aggressively pursue Biyombo. Rumours have put his starting salary in the mid-teen millions. As of now, the Raptors could offer him, at most, the mid-level exception, which will fall well short of that. Assuming that the Raptors can clear space by trading a current roster player (Ross is the most likely candidate) for no incoming salary, should the Raptors do everything they can to retain Biyombo?
The Case To Keep Biyombo
Biyombo is an elite rim-protector, with the quickness to handle himself out on the perimeter. He improved offensively as the season went on, with his teammates understanding what passes he could catch and what passes just should not be thrown his way. He will be the same age as Valanciunas heading into next season, so there is still a reasonable chance he will improve. His strengths cover up for Valanciunas' weaknesses, and vice versa—they make a great pair. There is even a chance that if Valanciunas improves his shooting, both centres can play together. Biyombo's teammates love him, and his energy is infectious.
The Case To Let Biyombo Walk
Biyombo is proof that you do not need to overspend to fill certain holes on your roster. The Raptors already have a nice prospect at centre in Lucas Nogueira, who will be able to supply a lot of what Biyombo brings to the table at a fraction of the price. Despite Biyombo's incredible spring, Valanciunas still has the brighter future of the two at centre, and it makes no sense to tie up starting money to two centres who likely cannot play together while keeping the offence humming. Besides, if they can create the necessary room, the Raptors have needs they need to address that are more important than re-signing their backup centre. Biyombo had a fun year, but he is the definition of a player who becomes a casualty for an ascendant team in a salary-capped league—he is just not necessary. And he is not worth giving away a useful, if rightfully maligned player like Ross for nothing, either.
What Will Happen
Some centre-hungry team will offer Biyombo a deal similar to the one Valanciunas signed last summer, for about $64 million over four years. The Raptors will pass on bringing Biyombo back. He will receive a rousing ovation upon returning to the Air Canada Centre, and it will be deserved.