I sat down shortly after the Toronto Raptors' season slammed to an abrupt, unfortunate halt in order to do the standard end-of-season report card. That is, until I asked myself what I could say of any significance that wasn't already explicitly obvious (Kyle Lowry had a great season, DeMar DeRozan was an All-Star, Amir Johnson showed heart, etc).
Instead, I will do as the franchise should currently be doing and move past what was a great season with a gutting conclusion by looking ahead. For the Raptors, looking ahead means a glimpse at a potentially bright future that starts with an upcoming off-season that is equal parts fascinating and crucial - fascinating for what Masai Ujiri will do in his first summer at the helm of a club facing a new reality, and crucial for the major consequences sure to loom based on the decisions that are made in the coming months.
In order to look ahead, let's break this off-season into four critical areas: Lowry, Other Free Agents, Areas of Need and Potential Targets (also known as Baseless Speculation). Ready?
I don't need to explain why Lowry, a pending free agent and the heart and soul of the franchise, is the biggest puzzle piece of the off-season for Ujiri and the Raptors. The club can't afford to lose him (who would've thought that to be true six months ago??), but he will be unrestricted and may have at least one notable suitor.
Personally, I think that everybody except maybe LeBron James has a price and while the club may need to make a competitive offer to keep him, they can't have his return come at the expense of all other roster flexibility. In this case, its the money that carries more weight than the term. Even as the Raps reportedly seek to keep their books clear for 2016, Lowry helps establish the foundation upon which other pieces can be added to build a winner.
OTHER PENDING FREE AGENTS
A quick rundown of the other - albeit, less significant to the long-term plan - Raptors for whom Ujiri will have decisions to make:
Vasquez's loudly-expressed affection for Toronto is refreshing. The team would certainly benefit from the return of one of the heart-and-soul energy guys who helped build the club's identity, but they also must be careful about overpaying a back-up point guard.
Vasquez may be leading the "I Love Toronto" charge, but that doesn't change the fact that Patterson is the most irreplaceable of the team's UFA's not named Kyle Lowry.
Status: Team Option
Unless some medical test in the coming weeks reveals that Johnson was playing on two MCL/ACL tears this season (not completely implausible), his $7 million option is good as picked up.
Status: Team Option
The Raps can find younger and cheaper players to provide the minimal production that Salmons offered up. He's gone.
Nando De Colo
De Colo was okay in stretches as the team's third point guard and provided more to the club than Austin Daye, his trade counterpart, was ever going to. Still, he's a dime-a-dozen guard who might be worth checking in on if the team still had a need come training camp - and that's about it.
AREAS OF NEED
As with so many other aspects of the Raptors' off-season, this hinges on Lowry. If he flies the coop, the point becomes the first, second and third biggest priority.
Let's assume for a second that he re-signs. Under that scenario, the needs become a lot less pronounced. You need to find a Salmons upgrade as your back-up wing, particularly in light of Terrence Ross' playoff troubles (hopefully not Vince Carter, but that's a blog for another day).
Also on the short list of Raptor needs is more support up front. Tyler Hansbrough and Chuck Hayes will make over $9 million next year, but neither could really be counted on when the games mattered this past season. Neither man is unmovable, so the possibility of renovating the team's big man rotation is there.
Let's be clear here - losing Lowry would not be as simple a scenario as to just replace him with another point guard. He gives the club their fearlessness and energy, qualities that aren't easy to replicate. It doesn't help that there are no viable free agent options looming, with Rodney Stuckey and Mario Chalmers serving as the best of an underwhelming bunch. Expect the Suns to match any contract offered to RFA Eric Bledsoe, too.
Possible Draft Fits: He's not a Day 1 starter, but it sure would be interesting if Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) remains on the board at No. 20.
As much as I think Gordon Hayward would be an awesome, bold move, an offer sheet for the Jazz sharpshooter is unlikely. Instead, a defensive-minded, three-point-shooting veteran could be the target. Possible names: Thabo Sefolosha, Shane Battier, Alan Anderson or Danny Granger.
Possible Draft Fits: Jerami Grant (Syracuse), Rodney Hood (Duke), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), TJ Warren (NC State)
Just as Hayward is my SF pipe dream, Zach Randolph would be my dream big man acquisition. Of course, the only way he comes available is if he declines his $17 million player option, which you better believe would get him seeking out a deal richer than what Toronto wants to fork over. Instead, look for the Johnson/JV starting duo to be complemented by a reserve big in the mold of a DeJuan Blair - if they address the front court, at all.
Possible Draft Fits: Anybody else think Adreian Payne (Michigan State) would be a great fit in Toronto?