Tuesday marks yet another first in this offseason of firsts for the Toronto Raptors: After hiring a Canadian head coach for the first time, landing a top-tier free agent for the first time and extending a first-round pick before free agency for less then a max-deal for the first time (okay, that one's a stretch), the Raptors can now add 'inking someone else's restricted free agent and not having them match' to that list.
Unlike in 2005, when the Raptors tried to add point guard Chris Duhon to the fold only to have his offer matched by Chicago, the Raptors have secured Jarrett Jack after Indiana declined their right to match Jack's contract on Monday night. The Raptors now return to having one of the NBA's best point guard tandems (along with New Jersey and Chicago), as well as coming one step closer to finishing an extensive remodeling job on their roster. While Jack's addition may not bring with it the same fanfare as the signing of Hedo Turkoglu, it does bring a significant boost to a part of the roster that was severely limited in Toronto a season ago: the bench.
When the Raptors opted to take on the contract of Jermaine O'Neal last summer, they did so at the expense of T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Maceo Baston, Roy Hibbert and all available space below the luxury tax threshold. This is well covered territory at this point, but the lack of depth that four-for-one (the Raptors receiving Nathan Jawai in the deal hardly aided the team's depth during the season) produced was probably the single greatest limitation that the club experienced when trying to compete over 82 games. The team had next-to-zero reserve contributors and when injuries struck the team early in the season, the year was effectively lost before it began.
This summer, the name of the game has been rectifying that limitation by adding talent and adding depth. So far the club has already added rotation players like DeMar DeRozan, Antoine Wright, Reggie Evans and Turkoglu to a core of Andrea Bargnani, Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon, and today's (official) addition of Jack brings the summer makeover to the brink of completion. On the depth chart Jack will stand as simply a backup point guard behind Calderon, but in practice he brings much more than that to the club.
Of course, first and foremost Jack is, in fact, the team's new backup point guard. For the last three seasons Jack has been perhaps the league's best in that role (challenged only by Toronto's Calderon when he played in reserve) and he offers much to the Raptors in that capacity. He brings a lot of qualities to the table that Calderon does not as a starter, chief among those being his defence. Last season the Raptors were routinely torched on the perimeter by lackadaisical guard defence, and regrettably for the team they had no personnel in reserve who could come into the game to alter that reality. Jack is a player who can give the Raptors a significantly different look defensively in the backcourt by actually playing defence, and doing it at both guard spots, affording head coach Jay Triano options on the floor when dealing with particularly aggressive opponents in the backcourt. The fact that Jack is also comfortable as a shooting guard will help him share the court at times with Calderon in a small backcourt, the kind of which is becoming increasingly common for teams with multiple ball-handlers that don't sacrifice too much defensively.
Another trait of Jack's that will effectively give the team a different look off of the bench is his propensity for playing reckless at times. While rarely is that a trait to be considered a plus, the Raptors at times feel that Calderon, the high-efficiency player that he is, plays too safe with the ball, taking too few risks. Jack, conversely, has a tendency to teeter in-and-out of control during games, forcing his way into the paint or throwing passes with low odds for success. He's not to be confused with a high-mistake player; he's simply a guy who plays aggressive basketball and sometimes he winds up playing too aggressively. Mind you, after witnessing such a lackadaisical roster slog through games last season, Triano would probably take Jack's aggressiveness any day of the week.
This can be especially mitigated, though, with the presence of Hedo Turkoglu: point-forward extraordinaire. When Jack comes into the game for Calderon, it would make a lot of sense to play him and Turkoglu like Orlando played Jameer Nelson and Turkoglu: have Jack to bring the ball up the court, but allow Turkoglu to actually run the point in the halfcourt. Turkoglu has a tendency to disappear in games where he isn't allowed to handle the ball frequently, and Jack is not exactly a playmaker at the point. However, Turkoglu is a tremendous playmaker and Jack is a very aggressive finisher, especially going to the rim, and so the duo might actually make for a unique tandem that utilizes both of their distinctive skill sets in a manner that will be of benefit to the team as a whole. Colangelo is a GM who prizes multi-skilled players and it would seem a waste to ignore the full gamut of skills that his acquisitions bring to the table.
In a lot of ways Jack evokes memories of Chris Childs, the bullish veteran that the Raptors employed during their heyday in 2001. He was a savvy player that was low on go-to skills but high on aggressiveness and leadership and Jack appears to fit into that mold nicely – with the added benefit of having much younger legs (and hopefully a keener sense of the game clock). While some see his 5-year, $20-million contract as excessive, his particular fit with the Raptors, as opposed to his empirical place in the NBA stratum, aid in explaining those figures. If Calderon goes down for any length of time this season, for instance, it's nice that the team can once again feel confident that they have a backup that won't be a liability to the club while they wait for their starter to mend. The fact that Jack can (and will) also log minutes at shooting guard should also help prevent the kind of tension over minutes that ultimately doomed the T.J. Ford/Jose Calderon partnership last summer. Both of these players will have significant roles with the team next year and neither one has to worry about being wholly overshadowed by the other. The Raptors will need what both bring next season to be successful, and Jack understands that or else he wouldn't have signed in Toronto in the first place.
So, with Calderon contracted to the Raptors for the next four seasons and Jack for the next five, where does that leave last year's backup Roko Ukic? As was discussed in my weekend entry, Ukic now seems to be lost in the shuffle of all of these offseason transactions. Currently there are two players that are certain to eat up all of the relevant point guard minutes next year and yet Ukic still needs a lot of on-court development to hone his very-raw abilities to run a team effectively. To worsen Ukic's situation, Quincy Douby had an electric Summer League and if he can carry over some of his scoring prowess into preseason (still a significant 'if'), then he probably fits better as a scoring guard behind Jack than Ukic does as an inconsistent playmaker. Even if Ukic can develop his skills behind-the-scenes in Toronto, when in the next four years will he ever get a chance to demonstrate them? The NBA is a league where third-string point guards are often left griping over inability to get minutes (Beno Udrih in San Antonio, Jerryd Bayless in Portland, Javaris Crittenton in Washington) and Ukic looks poised to join their ranks. He's still owed another $2.8-million over the next two years, any maybe now would be a time to explore moving him to open up a roster spot for depth at another position. Some may bemoan the loss, since he still could grow into a solid contributor, but if the minutes simply aren't going to be there in Toronto then they aren't going to be there. Plus, let's face it; third string guards can come a lot cheaper (and can bring a lot more consistency) than Ukic does for the Raptors.
Now that the Jack deal is done and the Raptors have basically spent their mid-level exception, precious few moves remain before the offseason winds-up for Toronto. The team still has their bi-annual exception of just under $2-million, and that is probably earmarked for Rasho Nesterovic, or some comparable seven-foot veteran who can step in and play minutes in a still-shallow frontcourt. The team has to decide about the fates of their end-of-benchers like Ukic, Marcus Banks and Patrick O'Bryant, and they have to settle the one transaction that was supposed to be the most sure-fire move of the summer: signing Carlos Delfino.
Recent reports claim that the guard wants $5-million-per-year to leave his Russian contract with Khimki – which would put him near the pay scale of Ron Artest and Trevor Ariza. He's got a shoulder injury that, by his estimation, could take one-to-six months to heal (as per his interview with Raptors Republic), he's got only one relevant NBA season as an inconsistent back-up on his résumé, not stellar justification for such a lofty salary demand. Plus, with the arrival of Jack and Wright, he's simply not as desperately needed by the Raptors as he was a few weeks ago. His salary demands seem wholly out of touch with the circumstances surrounding his situation, yet the team still hasn't officially closed the book on his fate. While the team could afford to toss any salary to him that they wanted, versus only minimum-level deals to someone on the open market (due to complex 'Bird rights' parameters in the CBA), the reasoning behind doing so is becoming harder to pin down. When Colagnelo first spoke of bringing him back, he did so excitedly discussing his grit and versatility. Well, Reggie Evans and Jarrett Jack have been added to the bench since then, both of whom bring some grit to the club, and Jack and Turkoglu can both better the versatility that Delfino possesses. While some see a lack of depth at small forward behind Turkoglu as a concern – and rightfully so – getting a contributing asset for that slot, who will have to split the roughly eleven non-Turk minutes with DeRozen and Wright, who will see some time there, can be done for fall less then what Delfino is asking for. Heck, Joey Graham posted pretty similar numbers to Delfino once Triano took over and he's not likely to get anything above a minimum deal, just food for thought.
At this point the team might even consider bringing a small handful of forwards to training camp and allowing someone to actually earn the spot, rather than just handing it to someone and overpaying him to do it. Swingmen are truly a dime-a-dozen in the NBA, even useful ones. Last year guys like Flip Murray, Dahntay Jones, Anthony Morrow, Jamario Moon and Matt Barnes all played for minimum salaries and all did about as well as the Raptors could expect Delfino to do next season.
Today, though, is about Jarrett Jack and the fortification of the Raptors backcourt. With Calderon, Jack, DeRozan and Wright, the team has a good blend of passing, shooting, penetrating, defence, savvy, grit and potential at the guard spots. Considering how recently the fear was that the Raptors were going to be scouring the depths of the free agent pool after the Turkoglu rumours began surfacing, Tuesday stands as a pretty positive one in Raptor land. By the end of the month the roster should be more or less set and Raptors fans can sit back and relax until training camp (yeah right!).