Following their 4-2 series loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals Toronto’s most successful season in franchise history came to an end, and although there was not a championship to show for it, there was much for Raptors fans to be proud of.
This year was another step forward for the ever-improving Raptors franchise, as it marked Toronto’s first ever 50-win season, with their 56-26 regular season record, and the first time the side had ever made the Conference Finals.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan immediately struck up a partnership after Lowry was traded to the team in 2012 and have been the two stars of the franchise ever since as they have repeatedly progressed each year, but have the pair hit their ceiling together?
Lowry has just turned 30 and is in the peak of his career with DeRozan, who turns 27 during the off-season, not far behind, meaning the Raptors may have a tough decision to make this summer.
The team can either decide that this twosome that has continually brought them success in recent years do still have the required potential to take them to a title, or they must attempt to throw the kitchen sink at a marquee free agent this summer to create a three-pronged attack alongside Lowry and DeRozan.
If they wait to decide it may be too late
It may be now or never for the Raptors, who may not be as fortunate to face a similarly weak Eastern Conference next season, after their second placed finish in the east’s regular season standings this past year helped carry them to the third round of the playoffs.
Boston are a young, up-and-coming side who now have two consecutive years of playoff experience, will add a top three draft pick over the summer and alongside Miami are one of the favourites to make a big summer move for the biggest free agent of 2016, Kevin Durant.
Indiana, Detroit, Chicago and Washington will also be looking to take big leaps up the conference standings in the east, which was narrowly contested throughout the entire 2015-16 regular season.
Responsibility on the shoulders of Ujiri
This decision therefore relies on Masai Ujiri, general manager for the Raptors who, alongside the players, has been key to their development in the past few seasons. He will now have to decide if Toronto have peaked with the Lowry and DeRozan partnership, or if they can kick on to another level.
Ujiri may feel more confident in making small adjustments while keeping his core squad together as Toronto’s starting center, Jonas Valanciunas, missed a large chunk of the second-round series against Miami through injury, and could only return for a small part of the final two games of the Conference Finals.
With the team managing to force a game six against Cleveland without Valanciunas, which led to the development of Bismack Biyombo on a higher stage, Toronto may feel more comfortable in opting to make fewer alterations in the off-season.
Will DeRozan leave to be a Hollywood star?
However, that decision is not entirely up to them, as DeRozan becomes an unrestricted free agent on the first of July, meaning he is free to sign with any team he likes.
DeRozan does have a player option to return for another season, but it is nigh-on impossible that he will choose to do so, as even if he was to re-sign with the Raptors he could command a much higher wage by opting out, with the new salary cap increase taking effect this year.
One team that have been strongly linked with a move for the Toronto shooting guard has been that of the LA Lakers, who just may offer DDR a deal too good to turn down.
Heading to the Lakers would be particularly enticing for DeRozan as it is surely the homecoming he dreamed about throughout his younger days growing up in the Compton area of Los Angeles and attending the University of Southern California in LA for a year prior to declaring for the NBA Draft.
To lose DeRozan now would be a heavy blow for the Raptors as it would throw their immediate future into the unknown, but it would certainly be recoverable for a side who have established a solid squad thanks to Ujiri’s recent work.
It would open up cap space for the Raptors to obtain a suitable replacement and possibly even improve their side further. This may be the time for Raptors fans to thank DeRozan for his seven-year stint of work across the Canadian border, allow him to return home to California and head in a new direction.
If he and Lowry have already maximised their potential as a duo, then a change may be for the best, as Cleveland will not be getting worse anytime soon, whilst behind them ‘the East is coming’…