October 22, 2019, 6:31 pm
Kyle Lowry will probably get the last spot in player introductions when the Raptors open the season on Tuesday night. It was where the team hyped up Kawhi Leonard a season ago as the city rolled out the red carpet to get him to stay.
For Toronto’s next hopeful star, no such practices will be needed.
The Raptors and Pascal Siakam made quick work of negotiations on a contract extension, with the sides agreeing to a four-year max contract for the reigning Most Improved Player.
Siakam, the biggest victory in the franchise’s player development record, and a critical component of the franchise’s crowning achievement, is locked in as the centerpiece of the next era in Raptors basketball.
While some media types bristled at giving Siakam $130 million, it’s a richly deserved reward for a franchise player who is still exploring his ceiling. Some (okay, one) of the other deals for impending RFAs quickly set that straight, too.
Odds are that Siakam would’ve received a max offer in next summer’s weak class of free agents. Although Toronto could’ve waited for that to happen and try to keep maximum salary flexibility in the meantime, such a deal was always going to come from somewhere, and the Raptors were always going to match it. Players whose efficiency rises in tandem with usage, at a demanding spot on the floor, with consistent displays of top-end, two-way potential, get those max deals – and often the sweetener of a player option, too.
Acquiring players like this is difficult, and playing too much cat-and-mouse isn’t worth the trouble when it’s clear that both parties have the same goal in mind.
Ultimately it just didn’t make sense to risk alienating a player like Siakam, who represents so much of what the organization is about, by selling the future flexibility angle. Siakam is the future, more or less. Whatever the Raptors could’ve accomplished by maintaining peak flexibility into next summer would be completely undone had it soured Siakam on Toronto as his long-term home.
For the Raptors, it’s clear that they have a type. Masai Ujiri and company have no issues doling out cash to high-character players that won’t put their feet up, and the team’s big money deals in his tenure (Siakam, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) have been given to players with a strong work ethic.
In the case of DeRozan and Lowry, both have worked to gradually evolve their games over time, with DeRozan notably coming back as an improved player every summer by adding to his toolkit. The Raptors know Siakam and his work habits better than anyone, and can proceed confidently knowing that he won’t rest on his laurels given the work he’s put in to get to this point in the first place.
Moreover, the Raptors should feel good about this bet because there’s no telling what Siakam’s ceiling is. Even if the 25-year-old stagnates, which isn’t impossible given that he’s a shade older than the league’s other young stars, or if the adjustment to franchise face and primary scorer doesn’t go smoothly, the team is simply paying the market rate of players who have shown the sort of potential that Siakam has.
If he keeps improving – and remember, Siakam started playing basketball less than a decade ago – then everyone will be sitting pretty. His unique circumstances make this a tough situation to project, but if Siakam is already this good, then why not roll the dice on him getting better after he’s made astronomical leaps so far?
Siakam just blitzed the league, and though he did have some rough patches in the postseason – particularly against Philadelphia – he should be better prepared to shoulder a primary scoring load. This is a player who went from the sixth or seventh guy in the rotation to someone whose most frequent defensive matchups in the postseason were Jonathan Isaac, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Draymond Green.
That leap took place in one year and he averaged 19.0 points per game on 47 percent from the field in the playoffs, even as teams freely allowed him space to attempt jumpers.
Perhaps most importantly, the Raptors get the benefit of locking Siakam in for his theoretical prime years with this extension taking him into age 30.
For the cynical out there, Siakam, even at his lofty new salary, is not going to become the sort of dead-weight asset that can’t be moved. If Ujiri should find an opportunity, he’s got a valuable trade chip in the bag with a top-level player and a big number that should help with salary matching, assuming an expensive star player would be his target.
Although Ujiri has shown he can strike a deal at a moment’s notice, for now Siakam is shaping up as the first home-grown star to stay in Toronto through his very best seasons.
That’s not inconsequential for a team who has to deal with the unfortunate truth that they just don’t seem to be a destination in free agency, or at least one that the superstar class has taken seriously. The Raptors have been built on guys that were overlooked elsewhere, and Siakam is familiar with that grind. It should not change him, even as he enters the league’s upper echelon as a certified star.
Beyond what this means for Siakam, it’s also a selling point for the Raptors’ development program. They’ve shown an intense willingness to make everyone, whether that’s ‘project picks’ or undrafted types, better. They are not champions without the creation of an entire G League franchise to ensure that players like Siakam could develop carefully and according to plan. An extension like this is a sign to the rest of the league.
“Look what can be achieved in Toronto. Look at the growth that can happen in Toronto. Look at what the reward can be.”
The Raptors may never be able to bring in a superstar without sacrificing other players in a trade, but they have made themselves an attractive option for the second and third tier of players who bring imperfections to the table. The franchise is used to that hustle, and players who fit that bill should be taking note.
So yes, the Raptors sacrificed a bit in inking this deal now. They could’ve emerged as potential players next summer, either as a dumping ground for bad contracts attached to assets or a wheel-greaser in more complicated deals. The potential downside in moving this to the back burner, however, was far greater than the potential reward.
Starting on Tuesday, the Raptors will enter a new era with Pascal Siakam at the fore. Only time will tell how high he can climb, but Toronto was happy to pay the price of admission to find out firsthand.