For the Toronto Raptors and their fans, the heartbreak from Sunday's loss to the Brooklyn Nets in Game 7 is still fresh - so fresh that even contemplating next season, or even this offseason, might be too painful to do right now. Perhaps thinking about anything else at all would be a welcome distraction.
The 2014 Toronto Raptors seemingly came out of nowhere. In a season when the club was expected to be "riggin' for Wiggins" or one of the other highly touted prospects available in next month's NBA Draft, not only did the Raptors compete, they won the division and, in the process, became the most likable team that Toronto sports has seen for some time.
Now, what's next? What would you do to build upon this year's breakthrough season going into 2014-2015?
The Raptors' success was a confluence of many different things and credit is due to many different people.
General manager Masai Ujiri's December trade of Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings opened a number of doors for Dwane Casey's squad and was the chief catalyst for the success to follow. Nobody will dispute Gay's credentials as a gifted scorer and a well-liked teammate, but on many nights, he was a black hole on offence for the Raptors. Sure, Gay led the team in scoring, but he also led the team in shots taken with many of them low-percentage and poorly thought out. The Raptors' offence lived and died with Gay and the team's 6-12 record at the time of the trade indicates that there was a lot more dying being done.
Gay's removal did two major things for the Raptors – it opened up the floor for the emergence of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and effectively rounded out the team's second-unit.
Not much more ink can be spilled on the seasons that both DeRozan and Lowry had for the Raptors. In becoming the team's out-and-out number one option, DeRozan rounded into a smarter player who, when given the ball, did one crucial thing much better than Gay did – he picked his spots. Rarely did you see a Gay-like game from DeRozan with 25+ points, but on sub-30 per cent shooting. DeRozan earned himself on an All-Star appearance in becoming the Raptors' go-to player and it was well deserved.
Lowry was inarguably the best point guard in the Eastern Conference in 2014. The Raptors' backcourt general, Lowry's vision and quick decision-making on most nights opened up the floor and allowed the Raps to develop into a solid offensive team in the league's top half.
Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, two of the players acquired from the Kings, were sparkplugs off the bench, contributing both valuable minutes and timely scoring.
Of course, there was more than just that.
Jonas Valanciunas built on his rookie season, growing more accustomed to the North American game, to continue to develop into a more than effective post presence.
Amir Johnson, the heart and soul of the team, was a dependable energy player, both responsible defensively and able to chip in on offence.
None of this would have been possible without the guiding hand of Casey. The man who finished fifth in voting for the NBA Coach of the Year award got his charges to commit to his system and work as a cohesive unit. More often than not, one of the most consistent talking points you would get from any interview given by a Raptors player over the course of the season was that there was a real sense of camaraderie amongst the squad and that was fostered under Casey's tutelage.
But what now for Ujiri's second act?
Soon, though, when the heartache from that last-second loss begins to subside in earnest, Ujiri will some difficult decisions to make in guiding his 2014 Atlantic Division champions forward.
Firstly, let's look at who on this team is almost certain to return.
Under guaranteed contract for 2015 are DeRozan, Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Chuck Hayes, Steve Novak and Landry Fields. That's 60 per cent of your starting five and three bench pieces, but ones that are not remotely irreplaceable.
The team has five players with non-guaranteed contracts for next season, three of those of consequence. With all due respect to Julyan Stone and Dwight Buycks, whether or not the team chooses to retain the pair's modest salaries is insignificant, considering the two are in street clothes more nights than they're dressed. Amir Johnson, John Salmons and Tyler Hansbrough are the trio of players that Ujiri has options on.
Johnson and Salmons both have a $7 million option and Ujiri will be loath to let the former go. Johnson is arguably the team's most popular player and his workmanlike effort will not be easy to replace. Barring the unforeseen, Johnson is a Raptor next season.
The situation is murkier for Salmons. A piece who came over from Sacramento as part of the Gay deal, Salmons found himself in and out of Casey's favoured rotation over the course of the season. A more than competent sixth or seventh man, there certainly is value in retaining Salmons in his leadership and sharpshooting. That said, $7 million isn't exactly a drop in the bucket for a bench player who will turn 35 over the course of next season and the team might try to explore a trade for veteran before deciding not to qualify him. Salmons probably won't be back.
As for Hansbrough, his $3.3 million is commensurate for what "Psyco T" brings to the table and, while he's not a lock to come back, he's likely to return.
The team holds qualifying offers on three players: Vasquez, Patterson and Nando De Colo.
Both Vasquez and Patterson want to return and it's easy to see why Ujiri would want them back. Vasquez excelled as the team's back-up point guard with Casey feeling no unease inserting him to spell Lowry. His dependable off-the-bench scoring, competent defence and the ability to start in a pinch guarantee that a player like Vasquez, due to make $3.2 million next season, won't have any troubling finding an NBA job.
The same goes for Patterson, who comes in at just over $4.3 million. Expect there to be interest league-wide for both players, but look for the Raptors to be game to match.
De Colo, who came over at the deadline from the San Antonio Spurs, was serviceable in his limited role as a number-three point guard and would be welcomed back in that role.
This, of course, leaves the team's biggest question mark on the court and its only unrestricted free agent: Lowry.
The player wants to come back. Management wants him to stay. His teammates want him to return. Kyle Lowry doesn't have to clean out his locker room stall at the Air Canada Centre if he doesn't want to. The sticking point, as is apt to be the case in situations like these, is money.
Lowry, a player who was attached to trade rumours for much of this past season, was the 23rd-highest-paid point guard in the league. You can guarantee that won't be the case with his new deal, but two key factors come into play for the Raptors: just how much the 28-year-old is looking for and how big the market is for his services.
Obviously, the two are linked.
From a financial standpoint, Lowry's career-year couldn't have come at a worse time. There just simply aren't vacancies right now around the league for a point guard to be paid what the Raptors' talisman will likely command. Sure, Lowry's easily the best unrestricted PG out there (with the likes of Rodney Stuckey and Mario Chalmers also on the board) and a team like the Los Angeles Lakers is a potential destination, but in all likelihood, they're keeping their chequebooks open for next summer's probable free agent bonanza (including UCLA product Kevin Love, who they covet highly.)
What that boils down to, then, is the fact that for a myriad of reasons, Toronto is Lowry's best fit. It's all a matter of finding common ground. He's not going to get max money, but he's going to be in line for a significant raise that will eat up some of the team's available cap space. All signs are pointing to a deal getting done, but don't think that Lowry won't be listening to other offers.
So where does this leave the Raptors for next season?
They're clearly a work in progress, which is a blessing and a curse. There's potential here to build on, but there's also a clear indication that this team needs to raise its talent level one way or another, whether it's through free agency or trade.
It's difficult to speculate on the trade market just yet, but there are several potentially attractive names for the Raptors available on the free agent market. The likes of Trevor Ariza, Luol Deng or even a returning Vince Carter could all make sense for the Raptors and represent an upgrade in the overall talent department. Yes, there's always been the concern about how attractive Toronto is to NBA players, but much of that is unfounded speculation based on ignorance. Players will always follow money and a chance to win and 2014-15 could be an opportunity for the Raptors to strike while the iron is hot.
Don't get me wrong, nobody is suggesting that this team is in the same class as the Miami Heat or even the Indiana Pacers, but look around at the rest of the East and especially the Atlantic.
The Nets are obviously anticipating the return of a healthy Brook Lopez, but Brooklyn is both expensive and old. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers will both be buoyed by a high selection in next month's draft, likely a player who could make an immediate impact, but each team is in the midst of a long rebuild.The New York Knicks will play the waiting game with Carmelo Anthony and whether or not he'll want to opt out of his current deal. Yes, the likes of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade have opt-outs, too, but out of the premier players in the NBA who have that option, Anthony is the only one who realistically might take it with the Chicago Bulls potentially waiting in the wings. As Phil Jackson's team focuses on Anthony, the rest of the team around him just isn't good enough.
There is room to move in the East and the Raptors will do what's necessary to help facilitate that.
Next October is a long way's away, but the path to it will start soon. Masai Ujiri's Toronto Raptors face a pivotal offseason after the team's greatest success in recent memory.
How would you move forward with the Raptors? It's Your Call!