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Chisholm: DeRozan could have serious off-season value

Tim Chisholm, TSN.ca
3/28/2013 10:33:25 AM
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It's very hard to find people outside of the walls of MLSE that agree with the decision to lock DeMar DeRozan up to a long-term extension before this season started. He would have been a restricted free agent this summer and as such the Raptors would have controlled his fate no matter what kind of offers he received on the open market.

It's well-covered territory at this point and DeRozan hasn't done enough this season to quiet the chorus of ire directed at his extension.

However, could it be that Bryan Colangelo was playing the long game here? The assumption has always been that he was so infatuated with DeRozan that he blindly threw a bucket of cash at him regardless of whether or not the market forces dictated it prudent, but what if there was more that went into the move than that? What if Colangelo was looking nine months out to a free agent market he didn't feel he could participate in and bought himself a chip that could get him a seat at the table?

I'll grant at the outset that this is a far-flung supposition, but it should be noted that this is the kind of thinking that general managers are paid to do. One of the chief responsibilities of a management team in any company is to look as far down the road as possible and so that they can make strategic decisions that will keep their company competitive further down the line. Sometimes there is a myopia in sports that comes as a result of the nightly evaluations (wins and losses), but long-term thinking is what separates the Oklahoma City's from the Sacramento's in the NBA and the Raptors need some of it if they are going to pull themselves out of the muck.

So, if we are to give Colangelo the benefit of the doubt on this occasion, what might his end-game be? Well, let's flash-forward to July to find out.

When July 1 rolls around, a bevy of NBA teams will be armed with cap space to use in their hunt for free agent help to bolster their rosters. Utah, Washington, Houston, Cleveland, Atlanta, Charlotte and Detroit are all poised to have max space under the cap, and Milwaukee could join those ranks if they amnesty Drew Gooden, Monta Ellis opts out of his deal and/or the team decides against re-signing Brandon Jennings.

On top of that, teams like Sacramento, Philadelphia, Orlando, Phoenix and Dallas could all have some money to spend depending on how the handle their respective player options and cap holds. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of teams with money to spend in the NBA this summer.

Who, then, will these teams be chasing? Well, obviously they'd love to snag Chris Paul or Dwight Howard, but it is highly unlikely either will be departing the Los Angeles area this summer. That leaves 'gettable' restricted free agents like Jennings, Tyreke Evans and Nikola Pekovic and veterans like Josh Smith, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and Kevin Martin at the top of the free agent crop - hardly a glittering array for all of that cap space that'll be floating around this summer. Even if someone goes all-in on Andrew Bynum this summer, that still leaves a lot of money for a lot of unappealing assets.

I believe it was this very scenario that prompted the Raptors to secure DeRozan last summer, with the pervading worry being that some jilted franchise would throw an insane offer at DeRozan in an attempt to pry him away from Toronto, whether the move was well-considered or not.

There are going to be several organizations that have sold the virtues of cap space to their fan bases that are going to come up empty in free agency this summer. It is basic supply and demand.

While savvier teams will step back and regroup, others will scurry for the flashiest, face-saving transaction they can execute. If a team was going to go that route with DeRozan, at least now the Raptors are in the driver's seat.

The Raptors can now wait for the first week or two of free agency to go by, see who was unable to make use of their cap space, and offer to help them make use of their cash hoard by figuring out a workable trade for DeRozan.

This way the Raptors control the teams that they'd engage with and what kind of return they are seeking. Whether that means the Raptors try and pull picks, veterans that fit the team better or simply some cap flexibility of their own, there will be no shortage of teams to call after the dust settles on the initial flurry of free agent action.

As the roster is currently assembled, the club is well-positioned to lose DeRozan without getting a starting shooting guard back in return. The Raptors could easily slide Landry Fields in alongside Rudy Gay (his off-ball movement would be a great counterattack for the kind of attention Gay gets from opposing defences), it would open up more minutes for Terrence Ross in his second year and it would make Gay the primary scorer and would - rightly - shift Kyle Lowry into a more prominent scoring roll.

In a way what the Raptors would be doing in this scenario is exactly what, in hindsight, they should have done with Andrea Bargnani but neglected to: capitalize on the chance that DeRozan could still take it to another level (despite relatively stagnant production over the last three years) while leaving someone else holding the bag if he doesn't.

At his price (roughly $9.5-million per year) DeRozan has to take it to another level to avoid being considered overpaid, and it would behoove the Raptors to make that someone else's problem like they did with Jason Kapono and Hedo Turkoglu.

This is actually a strategy that Denver's Masai Ujiri - a former Colangelo disciple - has used to perfection on more than on occasion while improving his Nuggets squad. He inked Nene to a massive deal and dealt him for JaVale McGee a few months later. He gave Arron Afflalo a healthy new deal only to trade him as part of the package that got Andre Iguodala. Heck, more than a few pundits expect the Nuggets to go that route again after seeing the dollars they threw at McGee last summer. Denver has had great success using this method of asset management and Toronto could certainly stand to steal a page out of that play book.

While this may not sound like a particularly exciting brand of team-building - certainly when compared against the draft or free agency - it is what the Raptors have left to work with. They have no first round pick in this draft, no cap space to play with and yet they still have a lot of problems that need addressing.

Colangelo needs a chip that he can bring to the table and he may have had the foresight to buy it last fall, anticipating at least the chance that he may need it in the near future.

Of course, this could also all be wild over-speculation. The Raptors have never been shy about espousing their praise for DeRozan, nor have they made any indication that he isn't in their longterm plans. That said, whether it was intentional or not, the club has made him redundant and overpaid and even if it wasn't in their plans, they may be forced to shop him this summer, regardless.

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