Ever since the NBA season has ended, Bryan Colangelo has been steadfast in his goal for this offseason: Get a centre and move Andrea Bargnani to his natural power forward position. He believes that last Thursday he got his centre of the future when he drafted Lithuanian big man Jonas Valanciunas fifth overall, but as has been reported again and again, Valanciunas won't be playing next season (assuming there is a season to play) in the NBA. So how committed is Colangelo to moving Bargnani to the four immediately? The day after the draft Colangelo was still telling all who'd listen that bringing in a centre NOW is the team's highest priority this offseason. He's said it could be via free agency, he said it could be via trade, but it would certainly appear at this point that if the Raptors were to open training camp without a new man in the middle that this offseason would be a failure by Colangelo's expectations.
For a long while fans of the team had hoped that when free agency came around Colangelo would open up the team's wallet to Memphis big man Marc Gasol. Gasol is a restricted free agent, meaning Memphis could match any offer Toronto bestowed, but Memphis has already inked big contracts with Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley, making a large salary difficult for Memphis to swallow should Toronto offer one.
Since Valanciunas was drafted, however, the advisability of throwing everything and the kitchen sink at Gasol makes a lot less sense. The theory behind pursing Gasol was that, at just 26-years-old, he'd blend in perfectly with Toronto's young core. While it would have taken a lucrative offer (perhaps even more than he was worth) to get Gasol, it was seen as worthwhile considering the team's need at centre. With Valanciunas coming over in 2012, though, the Raptors aren't in need of a younger player to grow with the club, but rather a veteran presence who can anchor the middle and possibly ease the adjustment into the NBA for Valanciunas when he arrives. While Gasol certainly doesn't need to be excised from the list of players Toronto will pursue, the idea that going all-in on him when there are so many holes up and down the roster just doesn't make as much sense as it might have just a week ago.
Of the slightly more veteran options for Toronto to pick from, Denver's Nenê is probably the best pure prospect out there. He's a difference maker on offense, a highly efficient scorer that can bang around the basket while also holding his own defensively in the paint. The problems with Nenê are twofold, however. One, Denver is highly motivated to keep him and may even work out an extension before free agency starts, and two, despite his size, Nenê is actually a very underwhelming rebounder. At just 7.6 rpg last year, Nenê was one of the least productive starting centres in the NBA in that area, and he ranked just 37th overall in rebound rate amongst centres a season ago. While some teams could hide this deficiency, the Raptors possess the worst rebounding centre in the NBA in Andrea Bargnani, and shifting him to power forward and letting Nenê start alongside him is a recipe for disaster. As good as Nenê is for Denver, he'd be the absolutely wrong choice for Toronto.
Next on the list is Tyson Chandler, the starting centre for the NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks who not only worked with Toronto's new head coach Dwane Casey in Dallas last year, but was also nearly acquired by Colangelo before getting traded to the Mavericks. Chandler was third in the NBA last season in rebound rate, was top-ten in PER for NBA centres and came to be known as the defensive force that transformed Dallas into championship contenders. He's still young at 28-years-old (thanks to entering the NBA out of high school), and one would have to figure he'll top Toronto's list of targets this summer. The problem is that Dallas is going to be pretty keen on keeping Chandler given their success with him on the team last season, and Chandler himself is going to have a hard time ditching a Championship outfit to head to one of the worst clubs in the NBA. Working in Toronto's favor may be a new CBA that impinges the ability of the Mavs to re-sign him, as the Mavs have a $62-million payroll next season owed to only ten players still under contract. Even if it's not outright impossible for the Mavs to re-sign Chandler, it might take a lot of maneuvering on their part to make it happen, which is surely the window that Colangelo is counting on after a new CBA is agreed upon.
If Dallas is in a position to retain Chandler, though, another option for Toronto may be Chandler's backup, Brendan Haywood. His visibility has been reduced somewhat since he had to come off of the bench last season, but he too is a strong defensive presence that would probably start on most teams in the NBA. His contract gets rather gnarly before it expires in 2015 (the '15-'16 season is non-guaranteed), but there may be a deal to be made there with additional assets, especially if Toronto is able to give Dallas the flexibility to re-sign Chandler by taking on Haywood's deal.
After those four the pickings become a lot slimmer for Colangelo and the Raptors. In terms of 'name' players, the Raptors could opt to pursue Sam Dalembert, a Canadian citizen who has rebounded and blocked shots at a rate even better than Chandler has over the last few years. Given that Sacramento has DeMarcus Cousins coming up in their ranks, their unwillingness to spend on Dalembert could work in Toronto's favor, but he's been known to pout when he doesn't get touches on offense and his work ethic has been called into question in the past (*cough*TeamCanada*cough*). However, the drop-off after Dalembert is steep, and that may heighten Toronto's interest if they are unable to gain traction with any of their other targets.
Beyond Dalembert you start looking at guys with some pretty big question marks going forward, too. Greg Oden and DeAndre Jordan aren't exactly the veterans that Colangelo is believed to be searching for, and either one would be hard to pry from their current teams anyway. Kwame Brown and Jason Collins are both serviceable in spot minutes, but if you start heading down that road you have to wonder if the journey is really worth the cost it will take to travel it. Really, this is about five players that Toronto can pursue this summer, and most of them will be very hard to acquire without a little bit of CBA luck coming down on their side.
There are plenty of other questions that surround this decision as well, of course. Like, in 2012 when Valanciunas does come over, having Bargnani, Ed Davis, Amir Johnson, a new centre and Valanciunas makes for a very crowded front court rotation, especially since everyone will be expecting regular minutes. There is also the question of how much money and resources go towards inking a centre when the wings look so barren behind DeMar DeRozan. Perhaps those areas will gain clarity as concrete roster decisions are made once the CBA situation is resolved, but for now they remain pertinent questions with no obvious answer heading into the summer. All we can deduce right now, as a matter of fact, is that if the Raptors cannot secure Gasol, Chandler, Haywood or Dalembert this offseason, then either Colangelo has pried away a player not thought to be readily available, or he has failed in his quest to shore up the team's starting centre spot. Given how frequently he cites that as an offseason goal, however, one has to assume that he's given himself a reason to believe he can nab one of the available names. Colangelo is not one to put ideas into the heads of the media and the fans that he cannot see through, so it will be fascinating to watch how he tackles this area once the league comes out if its expected lockout sometime in the next several months.