Chisholm: Weems season in Europe will benefit Raptors

Tim Chisholm
7/8/2011 8:29:31 PM
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I can't help but wonder if the Toronto Raptors knew that Sonny Weems would be playing overseas next season when they opted to tender him a qualifying offer that would make him their restricted free agent whenever he decides to return to the NBA.

I wonder because if they did, it would represent a very shrewd move in the days leading up to the lockout that is currently paralyzing the league. If they knew that they'd be securing the rights to Weems, without having to worry about paying him next season, you'd have to give a tip o' the hat to Bryan Colangelo and his team in Raptors' management. 

There are basically three ways that this can go, and in each way the Raptors come out ahead. The obvious best case scenario is that Weems gets heavy minutes with Zalgiris Kaunas next season, significantly refines his game in those allotted minutes, and returns to the Raptors a season from now in a much better position to help the team than he was over the last two years.

Let's face it, if Weems came back to Toronto this season (assuming that there is a season) there is a good chance that he'd face an uphill battle to get anything more than the 18.2 mpg he was averaging after the Raptors acquired James Johnson at the trade deadline. He didn't show tremendous year-over-year growth in his two seasons with the club, and Johnson, Linas Kleiza and even DeMar DeRozan would have probably seen more minutes at small forward than Weems would have. By getting extended starters minutes in Lithuania, though, Weems could establish himself in the same manner that Anthony Parker or (more likely) Carlos Delfino did when they left the NBA for Europe. Both returned as much more valuable assets than they were when the left, and the Raptors are in a position to capitalize on any improvements Weems makes by retaining his restricted free agent rights. That's because that whenever Weems does decide to come back to the NBA, he has to do so through Toronto.

Of course, another way this could go is that Weems does not tremendously improve upon his game with Zalgiris, especially since his distance shooting and passing skills put him behind the eight-ball somewhat in terms of the FIBA style of play, and the Raps are no better off tomorrow than they are today. Should Weems wind up no better or worse after a year overseas, then Toronto could choose to sign him anyway, sign-and-trade him for an asset or simply renounce his rights altogether, depending on a lot of unknown factors that will come in to play over the next twelve months.

The last way that this could go is that Weems devalues himself by playing badly or getting injured, in which case Toronto probably just severs their ties to him and are left financially unchanged going forward. 

In truth, Weems was probably not going to be coming back to Toronto this season, lockout or otherwise. The team had other interests with their free agent money, and probably only extended a qualifying offer to him as leverage in case another team wanted his services. After all, Toronto was the team that took the risk by putting him on the court, and they aren't exactly going to allow another team to profit from that developmental time without compensation. If no team showed interest, of course, there is a perfectly good chance that Toronto would have simply renounced his rights so that they could free up his cap hold to sign whatever center they are going to be hot for in free agency, no loss no foul.

However, with him going to Europe, they are buying themselves time to see if an intriguing talent can put it all together on someone else's dime, while they stay in the position to reap the rewards of that development next summer. If nothing comes of it then they are no worse off than they are today, but if Weems can improve himself enough to unseat someone in Toronto's rotation or pique the interests of another team then this whole arrangement will work out splendidly for the club. Remember, it was a sign-and-trade with Delfino, another asset Toronto retained the rights to, that netted the club Amir Johnson in the dog days of summer in 2009, so there is a definite value to keeping Weems' rights while overseas even if he never again plays another game for the Raptors organization.

It's not often that restricted free agency yields this kind of flexibility for a club, but the lockout has caused all sorts of creative thinking from players who want to continue to develop (and get paid) if the upcoming season is impinged upon at all by an elongated stalemate. If Toronto knew that they'd be getting this flexibility before they tendered their qualifying offer to Weems, then good on them for pouncing on an opportunity. If they did not know, then it's their good fortune that Weems may still be of some use to the organization, even though it is unlikely that they were planning on bringing him back next season.

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