While the bulk of the NBA world is focused tightly on the NBA Finals and the culmination of the 2008-'09 season, those in Raptor-land are looking keenly towards the start of 2009-'10 with the hope that their team can get back into the post-season party that year. So, with six weeks passed since the end of the Raptors' season and three weeks until the proverbial offseason movement begins, now is as good a time as any to start looking at the groundwork being laid for the team's hopeful return to respectability.
Of course, one of the biggest moves has already happened with the controversial (in some parts) decision to ink head coach Jay Triano to a three-season deal. On Friday his support staff was partially assembled with the hiring of assistants Alex English (returning) and Marc Iavaroni (new). While the rest staff will be rounded out before October – Alvin Williams, anyone? – the core is in place as all eyes start to turn towards the roster and the NBA Draft and the subsequent summer free agent free-for-all meant to restore it. For the Raptors, who are about to enter one of the most important summers in their history, the decisions made in the next two months will do much to shape the next several years of Raptor basketball. Ultimately, it all comes down to whether or not the team can return to Playoff contention, giving All-Star Chris Bosh enough reasons to stay in the fold, or will they flounder and enter a new era with Andrea Bargnani as their centerpiece? The answer to that question is still a long way off, but clues abound as to the direction that President and GM Bryan Colangelo will be taking to try and ensure it is the former and not the latter that comes to pass.
The easiest way to start to get clarity to the picture of the forthcoming Raptor squad is to look at the absolutes with an aim towards whittling down the variables.
First and foremost are the cornerstones: Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon. Despite rampant speculation and inferences from all corners, Chris Bosh will be a Raptor when the new season tips-off. Those three are the anchors for the coming year year, and so putting a unit around those three that maximizes their strengths and mitigates their weaknesses is going to be priority number one.
Looking at that crew, defense and rebounding become immediate red flags. While Iavaroni will be responsible for redesigning the Raptors' defensive system, there will need to be appropriate personnel to execute it. To that end, who could be a better starting point than Shawn Marion, the Raptors free agent who worked with Iavaroni for five years in Phoenix? The Raptors and Marion are such an obvious marriage that it's hard to envision a scenario that sees them split up next season, so the smart money would appear to be on a mutually beneficial extension; Marion gets his financial security, while the Raptors retain the best small forward they've had since Tracy McGrady.
Re-signing Marion would complete four-fifths of Toronto's starting lineup, with only the shooting guard slot left to account for. Colangelo has repeatedly stated that it is his intention to bring back former Raptor guard Carlos Delfino next season, and if that happens then expect him to round out the starting five. Anthony Parker, the Raptors' starter for the last three seasons, is a free agent and has seen his skills erode dramatically over his time in Toronto. While having a savvy vet like Parker off of the bench makes some empirical sense, there are factors that point towards his permanent departure from Toronto. First is the fact that he and Delfino are very similar players, and typically one would prefer to have a different look come off of the bench to help shake up opposing defenses. As it pertains to the Raptors, specifically, they are in desperate need for athleticism, youth and potent bench scoring and Anthony Parker does not fit in any of those molds. It is unlikely that Parker is prepared to be a third-stringer on a rebuilding club, and there will no doubt be a market for his services elsewhere (either in the NBA or in Europe), so the odds of his returning look slim at best at this point. Plus, it must be asked, how many pieces of a 33-49 club would Toronto even want to reassemble when it has a chance to shed some of the fat for free?
That said, Delfino, while not an idyllic choice, is an economical option that can rebound and handle the ball (good for a team looking to get up the court), and he's a guy who can stick open looks and defend his position. The Raptors want a guy in this spot who can do things on the court without demanding shots (the ball already has to find Bosh and Bargnani for 16.4 and 12.3 shots each per game), and Delfino is a sensible fit in that regard.
Extending beyond that point for a minute; do not expect the Raptors to acquire a big-name free agent wing this summer like Ben Gordon, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom or Marvin Williams. The Raptors believe that they already have two 20-point scorers in Bosh and Bargnani and they are instead looking to juice the supporting roles rather than adding another name. The expense involved with signing one of those players would put the team into a financial crunch that would deny them any maneuverability to improve – which is only fine if you expect one of those guys to put the Raptors into the Finals next season…which you obviously shouldn't expect. It's never as sexy to improve the role players as it is the marquee names, but after injuries it was those guys that killed the Raptors' chances last year. Had any supporting piece (Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, Jason Kapono, Joey Graham, Roko Ukic, Kris Humphries, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Marcus Banks, et al.) been able to achieve season-long consistency it would have helped the team's cause immensely in a weak Eastern Conference. If the team flounders with an improved support crew next year, though, then one should expect the team to go after sexier names in the open market.
But I digress…
Beyond the starting five the Raptors need bushels of help off of the bench, and the team will look to reshape that crew as thoroughly as possible going into next season. Colangelo has stated that he sees Delfino in a role similar to Parker's last season where he handled some of the duties as a reserve point guard. However, history would seem to dictate that the Raptors plan for a more suitable solution should Jose Calderon again be forced to miss time due to injury. That brings us to this year's Draft. Basically, between now and June 25th the team is going to need to compile a list of their nine favorite players and wait to see which one is available when they pick. Given the lack of need for a project big like Jordan Hill and the injury reports from DeJuan Blair, their list will probably look something like this:
All three will obviously be off the board at nine.
It says here that one of those guys will be wearing Raptors red come October. In fact, given that Harden is a virtual certainty to be gone by nine, and that Curry will not slip past the Knicks at eight, that narrows the list to four. In all likelihood, Evans won't slip past Sacramento, Minnesota AND Golden State, either, so the list is down to three. Basically, DeRozen remains the obvious choice, with a sensible line of logic justifying a pick of Holiday or Flynn. DeRozen, an athletic wing in the Vince Carter mold, is very raw at this stage but could be brought along slowly off of the Raptors bench in an attempt to avoid his high bust potential while maxing out his limitless skill set. Holiday can play both backcourt slots, but has no single NBA skill that team's usually like a player to have this high in the Draft, so the Raptors would have to fall in love with him to grab him here. Flynn is a T.J. Ford-esque guard, with leadership to spare, but his offense comes and goes with the wind. Taking him would means that the team has four players that are exclusively point guards (Calderon, Ukic and Banks are the others) and Colangelo would have to be confident he could pare that list down if he is going to use his pick on Flynn.
In essence, it boils down to the Raptors selecting a wing and subsequently needing a point guard reserve, or the team grabs a point guard and needs some scoring on the perimeter. Either way, the Draft will help give tremendous clarity to the Raptors' summer free agent/trading plans.
If the team manages to get the second first round pick they covet, perhaps by dangling Kris Humphries and cash for a pick in the late 20s, they could attempt to address multiple areas of need in one evening.
At this juncture, the rest remains a mystery. The outcome of the Draft will likely give clarity to the future of Pops in Toronto (if they grab James Jordan or B.J. Mullins, for instance, they'll let Pops walk), and the return of Rasho Nesterovic to add some veteran savvy to the reserve crew seems an obvious enough move. The Raptors will have their work cut out for them dealing with the contracts possessed by Kapono, Humphries and Banks, but if a GM can unload Rafael Araujo he's got to be given a fair chance to unload one of those guys. Each passing day gives a bit more transparency to the Raptors thinking going forward, and I'll check back in closer to the Draft for a more thorough examination on that front.