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Sasha Vezenkov is somewhat of an afterthought in terms of the NBA. He signed with the Sacramento Kings to some fanfare during the 2023 offseason. After an injury-plagued and non-descript rookie season, Vezenkov was traded to the Toronto Raptors. This trade was mostly designed to clear Sacramento some flexibility under the tax aprons for future moves.

Seems like a pretty standard NBA move, right?

Not so fast, my friend!

This situation is far murkier and more complex than a simple salary-shedding trade in the NBA between a playoff contender and a rebuilding team. Most of it revolves around Vezenkov and his own desires being in conflict with the contract he signed with Sacramento a year ago.

A bit of background first, to better understand the complete situation.

Vezenkov was a two-time early entrant into the NBA Draft in both 2015 and 2016. The 6-foot-8 forward withdrew both times. In 2017, when Vezenkov was auto-eligible, he was drafted by the Brooklyn Nets with the 27th pick in the second round (57th overall).

In 2021, Vezenkov’s draft rights were traded by the Nets to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers then traded Vezenkov’s draft rights to the Sacramento Kings in 2022.

During this time, Vezenkov established himself as one of the best players in Europe. The dual-national of Bulgaria and Cyprus played for Barcelona in 2017-18, before moving to Olympiacos in Greece in 2018-19. Vezenkov blossomed while playing for Olympiacos.

While back in Greece, where he had previously won Greek League MVP in 2015 with Aris, Vezenkov won back-to-back MVPs for Olympiacos in 2022 and 2023. He was also named EuroLeague MVP in 2023, after leading Olympiacos to the top of the EuroLeague table and runners-up in the EuroLeague playoffs.

Following that season, Vezenkov decided to head to the NBA. He signed a three-year deal with the Kings worth $19.9 million. His per-year salaries on that deal are:

  • 2023-24: $6,341,464 (season completed)
  • 2024-25: $6,658,536 (current season)
  • 2025-26: $6,975,609 (team option)
  • Total: three years, $19,975,609

Vezenkov’s rookie season with Sacramento wasn’t what either side hoped for. Just when it seemed like the scoring forward was finding his rhythm in the NBA, Vezenkov suffered a sprained right ankle. He returned two weeks later and re-injured the same ankle. Vezenkov then returned to play out the final few weeks of the season for the Kings.

Following the season, rumors came up that Vezenkov was disenchanted with his role with the Kings and with the NBA overall. Reports were that he would seek a return to Europe, with a return to Olympiacos high on his list. Several reports went as far as to suggest that Vezenkov had already told the Kings that he wouldn’t be returning to Sacramento for next season.

That’s all well and good, minus the fact that Vezenkov is under contract for the 2024-25 season for a guaranteed $6.6 million. In order for him to leave the Kings, he’d need a buyout or trade from Sacramento. A trade from Sacramento is what he got. The Kings traded Vezenkov and Davion Mitchell to the Raptors for Jalen McDaniels ahead of the 2024 NBA Draft.

Vezenkov’s desire to leave the NBA is now Toronto’s problem.

Immediately upon the trade being completed, Toronto media reported that the Raptors were looking forward to having Vezenkov on the roster. There were also reports that Toronto had no intentions of simply waiving Vezenkov.

Still, rumors of Vezenkov wanting to leave the NBA won’t go away. So much so, that reporting hit in the wee hours of July 5 in North America, that Vezenkov had already agreed to terms with Olympiacos on a long-term contract starting with the 2024-25 season.

Again: not so fast, my friend!

There isn’t a feasible way for Vezenkov to just leave Toronto to sign with Olympiacos. He’s not a free agent, nor do the Raptors currently seem inclined to make him one.

So, where does this situation stand? Let’s answer some of the most commonly asked questions.

Can Sasha Vezenkov just leave the Toronto Raptors? Why does he have to stay?

The simple answer is: No, he can’t just leave. Vezenkov is under contract with Toronto for $6.6 million for the 2024-25 season. He has to honor those terms.

Why does he have to honor that NBA contract? Olympiacos isn’t an NBA team.

In professional basketball, clubs who fall under the jurisdiction of FIBA have a thing called a “Letter of Clearance”. This letter is essentially what frees a player up to sign with a new team. The wording reads:

“By applying for this letter of clearance and affixing my signature below, I hereby attest that I have fulfilled all contractual obligations stipulated in any and all contracts between myself and any team, club or national federation. I have read and fully understand all material within this application and have answered all questions truthfully and honestly.”

The second part of the first sentence is the most important line. In order to receive this Letter of Clearance to sign with Olympiacos, Vezenkov will have to prove he has fulfilled his contract with the Toronto Raptors. Simply walking away doesn’t fulfill that obligation.

Fine…How does Vezenkov get that Letter of Clearance?

Since NBA teams cannot trade, nor sell, contracts to non-NBA teams, Vezenkov’s options are limited. He can ask Toronto to waive him. They won’t do that, as simply eating his $6.6 million contract doesn’t make sense.

The other option is that Vezenkov asks the Raptors to work with him on a buyout. That’s a more reasonable path. He could offer to give up as much as all $6.6 million to get free of his contract with Toronto.

Walking away from $6.6 million is an awful lot to give up. But, if Vezenkov is that unhappy in the NBA, he may wish to.

In technical terms, working a buyout still results in a waiver. There is a bit of a challenge with that process, as another NBA could claim Vezenkov off waivers. At that point, that team would assume his full remaining contract, and we’d be right back in this same place.

Simply put: In order to obtain a Letter of Clearance, Vezenkov will need to get waived and then clear waivers to become a full free agent again.

Wait…Why won’t the Raptors just waive Vezenkov?

Toronto gets nothing out of simply waiving Vezenkov. They’d have $6.6 million in dead money on their cap sheet in that case.

Beyond that, the Raptors may like Vezenkov as a player. They may see a better path towards playing time, and a better roster fit with them, than the one Vezenkov had with the Kings.

Finally, if nothing else, $6.6 million is a valuable piece of salary-matching in future trades for Toronto. They aren’t likely to want to just give that up without getting back a significant return of salary through a buyout.

What if Vezenkov just left and signed with Olympiacos? What would happen?

It wouldn’t play out like this. FIBA wouldn’t approve his contract, because he hasn’t received a Letter of Clearance. That would mean he could not play for Olympiacos in any sanctioned competitions.

As for him just leaving the Raptors, he could try that path. That would be a from of holdout. That would begin to trigger some of the same things we talked about potentially happening with the James Harden and Ben Simmons situations.

Essentially, to keep it simple, if Vezenkov held out long enough, the Raptors could effectively pause his contract and could keep him from becoming a free agent.

What happens after this season? Is Vezenkov a free agent in 2025?

Kind of…The Raptors, or any NBA team that holds Vezenkov’s current contract, have a team option for the 2025-26 season. If that option is picked up by the team, Vezenkov will be on the roster for $6.9 million for the 2025-26 season.

If the team declines their option for Vezenkov next summer, he would be a free agent. The Raptors, or any NBA team that holds his contract at the time, could make Vezenkov a restricted free agent. That gives them the right to match any NBA contract he signs. But Vezenkov would be free and clear to sign with a non-NBA club, as his contract will have been fulfilled.

So, what exactly are Sasha Vezenkov’s options here?

There are a few:

  • Play out the 2024-25 season with the Toronto Raptors, or another team if traded again. Vezenkov could then become a free agent in 2025, if the Raptors, or any NBA team, declines their team option for him for the 2025-26 season. If that option is picked up, we could do this whole dance again next summer.
  • Work a straight waiver with the Toronto Raptors, upon which Toronto would eat $6.6 million in dead money on their cap sheet. If Vezenkov clears waivers, he could then be a free agent. If he was claimed off waivers, his contract would move in full to the new NBA team.
  • Work a buyout with the Toronto Raptors. In this scenario, Vezenkov would give back some or all of his $6.6 million contract for the 2024-25 season to become a free agent. He would still need to clear waivers upon a buyout, as listed above.

Sasha Vezenkov may yet return to Greece for Olympiacos for the 2024-25 season. That’s certainly possible. But that will require the Toronto Raptors assistance to happen. And that may require Vezenkov leaving a significant amount of money on the table in a buyout from Toronto.

This isn’t a simple situation with easy decisions, for Vezenkov or the Raptors. It’s going to require a good amount of patience, working together, and ultimately, it may result in Vezenkov having to delay a return to Europe for at least another season.