Even before he touched down on Canadian soil, Goran Dragic’s days as a member of the Toronto Raptors were numbered.
From the kerfuffle around his initial “higher ambitions” comment that was blown out of proportion by the fan base to the Dallas Mavericks expressing obvious interest in pairing him with his Slovenian kinsman Luka Doncic, there was never any true expectation that Dragic would remain on the roster for the entirety of the 2021-22 season.
Even shedding the din typical of league drama, the Raptors acquired Dragic as primarily salary filler in the Kyle Lowry trade, their eyes on 22-year-old Precious Achiuwa. No draft compensation in that deal was tough at the time, but it was assumed that Dragic could eventually be flipped for more forward-looking assets in the future.
But things haven’t gone as planned this season, and Dragic fell out of head coach Nick Nurse’s rotation after just four games, returning for one quick stint on a mid-November night that Fred VanVleet was unable to play.
Now, it appears that game may have been his swan song, as the Raptors released a statement Monday announcing that Dragic would be spending some time away from the team to deal with “a personal matter.” General Manager Bobby Webster added that there is no timetable for his return.
Indeed, this would not only read as the Raptors providing Dragic with a copious amount of time to manage his personal business, but also as a confirmation that he will be sidelined until the team can find a new—and, ideally, mutually beneficial—path forward.
“First of all, he’s a really good dude, extremely professional, very wise … Enjoyable guy to be around and coach,” Nurse told reporters Monday.
With all that said, here are the two directions the Raptors and Dragic can take as the NBA calendar hurtles into winter:
Path 1: A Goran Dragic Trade
The Raptors will certainly poke around the league over the next couple months to gauge Dragic’s value with potentially interested parties, but the cold reality is that a player who falls out of his team’s rotation tends not to have a robust trade market.
Evidently, the hope was that Dallas (who, by all accounts, is still aiming to land the 35-year-old) would eventually come around to making an offer one way or another, whether impressed by Dragic’s veteran skill and leadership benefiting a young team, or pressured by their superstar to bring aboard his pal.
But the Mavericks have dug in their heels and clung to their preseason position: No significant future assets for the aging guard. It was likely that when those initial talks were had, they hoped Canadian big man Dwight Powell would be interesting enough on his own to merit a deal, but the Raptors, steadfast in their own position and knowing the Mavericks’ desire for Dragic, held out for a sweetener or two, such as Tyrell Terry or Josh Green.
It became a game of chicken. One the Raptors ultimately lost.
While Dragic may still hold value on an actual basketball court (he was serviceable enough in his last Raptors performance), his situation in Toronto will have Dallas or any team intrigued in his abilities smelling blood in the water. The Raptors are now operating from a position of no leverage, meaning suitors will have zero qualms about waiting them out and trying to snag Dragic via the buyout market.
Which leads us to …
Path 2: A Goran Dragic Buyout
There’s no point in sugarcoating it: This is a bad position for the Raptors to be in.
A trade would, ideally, bring back something of value. But there is little to gain from engaging in a buyout with Dragic.
In typical buyout situations, teams and players agree to mutually part ways, with the player surrendering a specific portion of their remaining salary in the process. The team acquires cap relief, and the player is free to seek out alternative destinations (often to a title contender).
Up until early November, the Raptors spent some time operating as a luxury tax team, though they never had any long-term plans to stay that way. At the time, Dragic’s contract was viewed as one of the potential solutions to that issue—shed his $19.4 million deal in some way, and no longer worry about paying the $136.6 million tax.
While a buyout was not the preferred method of making that happen, it was an option.
However, the Raptors actually skirted the tax (a mark they were just hovering around) when they waived Sam Dekker earlier this month, avoiding his contract guarantee date (had it locked in, it would’ve cost them $1.67 million) and pushing themselves around a mere $20,000 beneath the line.
So, with even that small task already completed, buying out Dragic at this point essentially provides the Raptors with nothing, other than the satisfaction of helping facilitate a positive move for a player whose career is in its twilight phase.
And, truth be told, that may be reason enough. There’s no point in keeping Dragic on the roster when he’s already fallen out of the rotation, and his expiring deal means there’s no point in holding him past the trade deadline for future moves. If no team is willing to bite, then buying him out is the courteous thing to do.
Especially considering how Dragic (who was a key part of the Miami Heat’s Finals run only two seasons ago) has handled his time in Toronto. Everyone who has been asked about him, from the players to the coaches, has only had favourable things to say, consistently praising his work ethic and veteran savvy.
“He has been a complete professional in the time that he has been with the Raptors,” Webster said. “Goran [Dragic] has been a great mentor to our younger players and a valued teammate for our veterans.”