How Should The Raptors Approach Pascal Siakam’s Future?

Pascal Siakam has followed a career trajectory lots of his peers would trade for in a heartbeat: winning a championship in year three, All-Star appearance the next season, and two All-NBA nods before age 29. Siakam may not be among the rarefied few NBA players who can put a championship team on their back, but he is an obvious answer for the many teams searching for a costar. As the Raptors look to their next chapter, it may be worth considering Siakam’s future, and at least a half-dozen playoff teams could improve their fortunes by bringing Siakam in for the remainder of his prime.

Siakam has turned into a bona fide point center, and this is by far the best offensive season of Siakam’s career. He’s posting career bests in points and assists per game on a career-high usage rate while also slicing his turnovers to a career low. Despite handling the ball and shooting more, Siakam’s scoring efficiency is in line with career norms, and the Raptors’ offense is 6.4 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

This puts him in elite company: His per-game counting stats this season are matched only by Luka Doncic, Steph Curry, LeBron James, and Nikola Jokic. He has started to play more like them, too. After years of playing off of creators like Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Fred VanVleet, Siakam gets the seventh-most touches per game in the league, his first season in the top 10. Siakam’s 28.1 percent usage rate is also the highest of his career and places him near the top 20.

Yet Siakam only has the one All-Star bid to his name (though another is surely coming here in 2023) in his seventh season, and is rarely talked about among the best players in the league. Surely NBA decision-makers know how good Siakam has become, but his name is rarely the first one to come up when executives opine to NBA reporters about teams’ pursuits of another star.

Part of what makes Siakam so special is that he has excelled and improved despite poor floor spacing and a young Toronto roster. Siakam’s defensive impact has graded out worse in recent years as he has taken on a larger offensive role, but the league knows he can be a great two-way player as part of a winning cast because he did it for the Raptors’ 2019 championship squad, finishing second in minutes in that six-game Finals series.

It would be incredibly easy to see Siakam as an elbow playmaker and switchable defender in a place like Phoenix, Golden State, or Miami. He could be a great partner in the two-man game for Luka Doncic in Dallas or Tyrese Haliburton in Indiana. Siakam, however, is not nearly the hot commodity that his strengths on the court would indicate. Part of the reason is that Toronto’s asking price — Matt Moore of The Action Network said other teams’ executives described Toronto’s asking price as “insane” for Siakam. Another straw poll described the price as being “a three-for-one plus picks.”

Siakam’s contract pays him $35.4 million this season and $37.9 million next season, so any team going big to trade for him would have to anticipate re-signing him on a raise in 18 months. Assuming he makes it in this season, Siakam will be locked into supermax criteria by making All-NBA in the two years preceding his contract year. A supermax extension, which he only qualifies for if he stays in Toronto, would pay Siakam $205 million from 2025-2030 (when he turns 36).

Though they can’t match the supermax salary, a team like the Mavericks or Suns could see that as a worthy investment if it means giving Donic or Devin Booker a championship-caliber number two for their upcoming prime years. It could also turn out that the NBA doesn’t see Siakam as worth quite that much and he gets a smaller extension or hits unrestricted free agency in 2024. If Siakam is dead set on that contract, it makes sense that he’s staying quiet and riding out his time in Toronto, where he’s played his entire career. It is also worth mentioning that he reportedly would be happy to stay north of the border alongside Scottie Barnes.

This potential ballooning of Siakam’s market has to impact how Toronto operates now, too. If it’s unclear whether teams in title contention would pay up for him, it would be an even bigger surprise to see the Raptors do it.

Toronto has admirably kept and developed its draft picks through their primes and continued to make the postseason long after the Lowry-DeMar DeRozan era. The reason Siakam, VanVleet, and OG Anunoby have as much value now as they do has a lot to do with the Raptors’ structure and pipeline. However, their hopes for a quick reset and reload after bottoming out in 2021 and bouncing back in 2022, seems to have hit a snag, and paying an elite secondary star top dollar usually requires having a primary star in place, which Toronto does not.

Even with an optimistic view of Barnes, the 2021 No. 4 pick who is averaging 18-7-6 on 51 percent shooting in January and has elite defensive tools, you find a player who at his best is going to occupy the same spaces and do many of the same things on the court as Siakam. Maybe from a talent perspective, a team built around Barnes and Siakam (not to mention Anunoby) would have enough to compete deep into the playoffs. But for two years running, the Raptors have been better with Siakam on the court and Barnes off than with just Barnes on or both on. Both Siakam and Toronto could benefit from a trade, especially because their supporting cast figures to take a hit soon, with VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. both becoming free agents this summer.

Last summer, apart from the bizarre Rudy Gobert trade, the two biggest moves were upstart teams in Atlanta and Cleveland going after young All-Star guards. There might not be players like that available this summer, but it’s clear Siakam is somewhere in the middle. The Raptors might just be victims of their own patience, waiting too long, until Siakam got older and far more expensive before seriously considering trading him.

Still, teams should be willing to spend money and assets on great players. Paying Siakam (who has never missed more than 16 games in a season) nearly $40 million has to be seen as a reasonable investment for a team like Dallas, compared with giving that same money to Tim Hardaway Jr., Davis Bertans, and JaVale McGee, as they are now. The same could be said of the Suns paying Deandre Ayton and Landry Shamet a combined $40-plus million, or Golden State eyeing down a potential raise on Draymond Green’s $25.8 million salary alongside $10ish million for James Wiseman. And salaries, especially for All-NBA-caliber players, are expected to keep shooting up as the business of the NBA grows in the coming years.

For now, Siakam remains in a less than ideal spot as he embarks on his prime. A star capable of so much on a roster not built to maximize his talents, with a team full of redundancies, and a trade market that seems unwilling to make him a priority.