And with that, after a brief delay, Peja is gone and Ajinca is in. Obviously when the Raptors secured Peja's massive expiring contract, everyone's mind immediately went to Dallas's third-string center as the most obvious target. It was just a natural fit.
Kidding aside, yesterday's maneuvering said as much about the value of Peja's contract (and the other major expiring deals) in a pre-lockout NBA as it did about what Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo is looking for as he tears down and rebuilds this Raptors club. After all, New Orleans sniffed around for a few weeks looking for a talent boost back in the fall, dangling Stojakovic's $15-million expiring deal, and all they wound up getting was Jarrett Jack (and they had to sacrifice Jerryd Bayless, too, to get him).
Colangelo, by his own admission, spent a good number of weeks seeing if he could do any better than his compatriots in The Big Easy, but he too was underwhelmed by the options Peja's contract provided in the trade market. While many fans had hoped that such a large expiring deal would be Toronto's ticket to nabbing a major piece in the team's rebuilding project, the kind of pieces that were actually available simply didn't fit into Toronto's long-term goals. The fact is that when a handful of teams have the cap space to absorb large salaries whole, while others – like Toronto – have large Traded Player Exceptions that they can use to absorb large salaries, themselves, the value of an expiring contract is significantly diminished. Unless Toronto was willing to take on some long-term salary (like Richard Hamilton or Elton Brand) they weren't going to get a ton of value out of Peja's deal, and so they instead opted to buy him out.
Now the timing of the buyout has some scratching their heads, since a better trade may have arisen closer to the trade deadline, but it can be assumed that Dallas offered Toronto a little sweetener (Alexis Ajinca, a player that intrigued the Raptors two drafts ago, and the return of their 2013 second-round draft pick) to cut Peja loose now rather than waiting until the deadline to do so. It gives Dallas a chance to start someone other than Sasha Pavlovic at small forward until they can swing a bigger deal and it furthers Toronto's mission to acquire young assets as they retool post-Chris Bosh – it's a win-win, it would appear.
In fact, for Toronto it follows a pretty consistent recent mandate: ditch the veterans for youth and/or draft picks, regardless of the perceived value of either, and try to free up some money if at all possible. Buying out Peja ensured that his entire salary will come off of the books this summer (as opposed to having that salary swapped for a longer pact in a trade), and the Raptors also get a free look at Ajinca before he becomes a free agent this summer. While Ajinca may or may not be able to find a way into the Raptors' rotation – he certainly offers raw size that no one else on the club can match – this deal is really more about reinforcing what the team's priorities are with their veterans than it is about their desire to nab Ajinca or get their 2013 second-rounder back.
This trade suggests that right now the Raptors aren't looking for major returns on veteran investment; they simply want cap flexibility, youth and draft picks – period. They aren't looking to take on any money and they aren't interested in a stop-gap roster that keeps them competitive while they bring along the youngsters. This is an organization focused squarely on the future, and that may mean that Leandro Barbosa and Reggie Evans could be the next ones to go.
At this point you'd have to wonder what the point in keeping either one would be. While Barbosa has offered everything the team could have expected as a sixth-man scorer this season, acquiring him was really more about shedding Hedo Turkoglu (and his four remaining years) than it was about getting Barbosa's skills to Toronto. Plus, with Bayless now on board, the Raptors have a younger version of Barbosa that they need to groom, and they'll need to free up Barbosa's minutes and touches to do so. While Barbosa is an eminently likeable guy, it isn't like he's helping the team along in their development. He's a scorer on a team full of offensive-minded players, and his abilities in the team's weak areas (defence and rebounding) are not exactly noteworthy. Considering how many playoff-bound teams could use his scoring off of the bench, and considering that prospects and picks are all the Raptors are in the market for, expect to see Barbosa moved before the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
Evans, meanwhile, is a slightly different matter. His rebounding effort to start the season was jaw-dropping (he still qualifies as the league-leader in rebound rate this season), and while he isn't a great lock-down defender, his sheer grit and tenacity gave the Raptors some measure of resistance down in the post. He exemplifies all of the traits that this team needs to improve in, and so moving him wouldn't seem as urgent as it might be for Barbosa. However, the club is trying to groom several other energy power forwards, like Amir Johnson, Ed Davis and Joey Dorsey, and that may make Evans redundant, even if he trumps them all at what they're being groomed to do. If the mandate is to play the kids and make them learn on the job, then there doesn't appear to be room in the rotation for Evans anymore. Plus, with the arrival of Ajinca, that's just another young body vying for minutes in Toronto's crowded frontcourt. As is the case with Barbosa, Evans' skill-set is going to draw interest from other teams (as will his $5-million expiring), so moving him shouldn't be a huge hassle for Colangelo. If he and the organization are all about youth, picks and cap space, then trading Evans would seem to be more of an eventuality than a question of if it should happen at all.
So while the buyout of Peja and the arrival of Ajinca may not exactly signal a seismic shift in Raptor-land, it does further reinforce the mandate that is currently guiding the organization this season: acquire and develop youth, veterans...and wins be damned. It's the first wholesale tear-down and rebuild job that the Raptors organization has undergone since 1998 and I have to say that there is a perverse curiosity in watching a club strip away all of it's competitive assets in the name of strengthening themselves for the future. Truly, it is the best way to go about setting a team up for the future, and it will be fascinating to see how far the club goes towards achieving that end.
But still, it's kind of hilarious to watch a team sacrifice talent and wins in an effort to acquire talent and wins.