Teams coming off an NBA championship can go in any number of directions. Some try to bring the whole band back and do it again, some look to add another game-changing piece so nothing's left to chance, and some blow up their core, fading from contention in the process.
No matter what comes next, this is unfamiliar territory for the first-time champion Toronto Raptors. And the front office won't have much time to celebrate before turning its attention toward an offseason that will determine the course of the franchise's future. There are many decisions on the horizon this summer.
The thing is, the most important decision - one that will dictate all the others - is not the front office's to make. Kawhi Leonard is set to become an unrestricted free agent, and the competition to secure his services for next season and beyond is widely reported to be a two-team race between the Raptors and Los Angeles Clippers.
Leonard's reportedly had his eye on Los Angeles ever since he asked out of San Antonio, but the Raptors have done every last thing in their power to convince him to stay.
They surrounded Leonard with a perfect supporting cast that helped win a championship, their medical team earned his trust with a season-long plan that had him playing his best basketball in the spring, and their fans showed up by the millions to fete his accomplishments. Meanwhile, Leonard's marketing team at New Balance found a toehold in the local market and his personal brand has never been stronger.
Maybe all of that would carry over to L.A., but there's something to be said for having seen it and lived it. He knows what he has in Toronto.
Going forward, the Raptors can also offer Leonard more money and one more year on his next contract than any other team. It's unclear, though, how much that fifth year will matter. If he does stay, the most likely scenario would seem to be a short-term deal - either a one-plus-one or a two-plus-one - that allows Leonard to re-enter free agency with 10 years of service time under his belt, making him eligible for a bigger max contract beginning at 35 percent of the salary cap.
Despite their strong position, the Raptors have to be prepared for the possibility that Leonard might leave. And they'll hope to learn the answer soon, one way or another, because they're kind of stuck until then. If he stays, the Raptors can focus on tinkering in the margins (via the taxpayer's mid-level exception and minimum deals) around an experienced championship core. But if he goes, they will likely try pivoting toward a younger roster focused on the long term.
A good example of that domino effect is Danny Green, who arrived with Leonard in last summer's trade and is Toronto's only other free agent of consequence (for now). He's expressed a desire to re-sign with the Raptors, but he's also acknowledged that Leonard's decision affects everybody.
Green was a crucial component of this year's team. The Raptors were an outstanding 17.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court during the regular season, and 5.9 per 100 better during the playoffs, even as he struggled badly with his jump shot. The veteran's ability to space the floor, play lockdown defense on or off the ball, and switch comfortably across three positions made so many of Toronto's lineup combinations work. Green was also extremely durable, tying Pascal Siakam for the team lead with 104 games played.
If Leonard returns, retaining Green seems like a no-brainer. The Raptors may want to bring him back anyway as a culture-setter for a younger team, but signing a soon-to-be 32-year-old to a multi-year deal, when you're close to the luxury-tax line, without championship upside, is a lot harder to rationalize.
Meanwhile, Marc Gasol will have the choice to join Green and Leonard in free agency, but his $25.6-million player option for 2019-20 makes him less likely to do so. Gasol could always opt out in hopes of landing a longer-term deal at a lower annual value, but given he's 34, it's difficult to imagine him even approaching the value of that option year on the open market. Still, as a guy heading into his twilight years, Gasol found himself in a near-perfect situation with a contender in Toronto. Leonard's departure could certainly change his thinking.
In a roundabout way, these discussions all revolve around Pascal Siakam. The third-year forward's emergence as an All-Star-caliber, two-way force is both the strongest on-court selling point for Leonard and the cushion that would soften the blow for Toronto if Leonard leaves. Siakam is eligible for an extension this summer, and it's a safe bet that the Raptors will max him out eventually. The question is when.
Will the Raptors do it at the first opportunity as a gesture of good faith? Or will they wait until Siakam becomes a restricted free agent next summer, so they can enter the 2020 offseason with only his $7-million cap hold on their books when the big-money contracts of Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and possibly Gasol expire?
The other question regarding Siakam is whether the Raptors think he's good enough right now to justify trying to remain competitive in the short term if Leonard is out of the picture. When you consider how meteoric Siakam's growth has been to this point, it's easy to project him as the best player on a playoff team. But on a championship contender? That's another matter.
What's the ceiling, for instance, on a team comprised of Siakam, Lowry, Gasol, Green, Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and OG Anunoby? And for Toronto's front office, would finding out be preferable to executing a proactive teardown and starting to rebuild around Siakam with a crop of younger guys?
That last question boils down to Lowry, and whether or not the Raptors would really look to trade their longest-tenured player one year after dealing their two previously longest-tenured players. Would they really ship out Lowry after he spent seven years making them relevant and finally helped deliver a championship? And if the Raptors would, does Lowry (or Ibaka, or Gasol, for that matter) even have enough trade value on his current deal to make pivoting directly into a rebuild a sensible move?
In other words, a lot is up in the air.
Toronto might be the favorite next season if the front office can just run it back. Elsewhere, the Warriors' dynasty is on hiatus (at best), the Rockets are in shambles, the rest of the West in is flux, and there's no obvious juggernaut (yet) lurking in the East. It's clear there's an opportunity to repeat.
But the thing about being on top of the mountain is there's nowhere to go but down. Sometimes, staying there takes just as much work as getting there in the first place. The Raptors' title defense won't begin in earnest until next fall, but the next few weeks will lay the groundwork.
For Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster, the celebration is over. It's time to get down to business - one way or another.