TORONTO — Less than a month ago, Pascal Siakam was crossing the stage at the NBA awards in Santa Monica, Calif., to accept the league's Most Improved Player award.
Now the self-described "scrawny kid from Cameroon" could find himself centre stage on a Toronto team facing potentially a big rebuild, as a likely cornerstone of Masai Ujiri's next moves.
Raptors fans woke up heartbroken on Saturday morning to learn superstar Kawhi Leonard was heading home to the Los Angeles Clippers after leading Toronto to an historic NBA championship. Danny Green left right on Leonard's' heels, for the L.A. Lakers.
By the time the dust settled on the moves, the Clippers' had become Vegas' favourite to win next year's Larry O'Brien Trophy, while the Raptors' odds dropped from 7-to-1 to 16-to-1. The Raptors won't necessarily fall out of the playoff picture, but their hopes of another magical championship run, at least in the near future, certainly seems dead.
The moves are a big blow for Ujiri and the Raptors, who have little wiggle room financially plus a free agent pool that's all but dried up to shore up their roster. The first three days of free agency alone saw more than 80 players on the move.
Toronto had the mid-level cap exception of about US$9 million to woo potential free agents, and according to reports signed free agent Stanley Johnson to a two-year deal worth US$7.5-million on Saturday.
Johnson, the eighth overall pick in the 2015 draft, averaged 6.9 points in 18 minutes a night last season, in stints with Detroit and New Orleans.
Ujiri's longer-term moves will be interesting. The Raptors still have veteran leaders Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, plus talented young players Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. But Norman Powell and Anunoby are the only Raptors with contracts that extend past next season.
The Raptors will head into next summer with a truckload of cap space — potentially the most in the league, at about US$90 million U.S.
Ujiri could trade the 33-year-old Lowry and Gasol, who's 34, and build around Siakam, Anunoby and VanVleet in a new-look Eastern Conference.
The shifting NBA landscape saw Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving team up in Brooklyn this week, Al Horford and Josh Richardson go to Philadelphia, and Jimmy Butler to Miami. The Milwaukee Bucks, who had the league's best record in the regular season, lost Malcolm Brogdon to Indiana, but should still be a power with Gianis Antetokounmpo, plus Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez.
The Raptors have a bonafide future star in Siakam. He earned the league's most improved award after a breakout regular season, then found another gear in the playoffs, averaging 19 points and 7.1 rebounds, and on many nights was the second scoring option behind Leonard.
But fans can't expect the 25-year-old to step immediately into Leonard's superstar shoes.
"I want to thank the Toronto Raptors for believing in me — a little scrawny kid from Cameroon," Siakam said when he received the award.
"For the people who know my story, also know how important my dad is and him not being able to be here today," said Siakam, whose father was killed in a car accident in 2014. "He had this crazy dream … that this would be possible and me being here. I'm just blessed to be able to make his dream a reality."
The Raptors went 17-5 last season in the 22 games Leonard missed due to load management.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press