Chisholm: Raptors still have options to fill out roster depth

Tim Chisholm
7/4/2009 1:52:41 PM
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As the dust begins to settle on the Raptors acquisition of Hedo Turkoglu, the focus shifts from the ‘how' and ‘why' to the inevitable ‘what's next'. The team is making a bold play to load up their front line at the possible expense of their reserve crew, but that doesn't mean that the club has painted themselves into a corner just yet.

First, a quick revision of some facts I posted last night (I really should not be writing past midnight): While the team can still sign-and-trade renounced players, I obviously neglected the fact that they cannot sign a player to trade if it takes them over the salary cap if they don't have their Bird rights. Plus, they cannot eat into the $10-million or so earmarked for Hedo either, so sign-and-trade opportunities seem undoable at this point.

What I mean is this: To sign Hedo, the team needs roughly $10-million available to them below the salary cap. To get there the team will renounce their rights to Shawn Marion, Anthony Parker and Carlos Delfino – this is well-covered territory. However, a sign-and-trade scenario can only take one of two forms, neither of which appears available to Toronto.

The first is that before the Raptors sign Hedo, they sign-and-trade one (or more) of their free agents. They cannot do this because the money coming back their way would eat into the $10-million needed to sign Turkoglu. The second option would be that they sign Hedo, commit all available salary cap space to him, and then sign-and-trade one of their former players. This, too, does not work because the team has lost the Bird rights of their players and can therefore not exceed the salary cap to sign them in the first place. They also cannot trade one of these players pre-signing Turkoglu for a trade exception since all exceptions count against the team's cap.

There is, perhaps, some loophole that I'm neglecting but at this point the issue seems pretty cut and dry. If Orlando wanted to help facilitate a sign-and-trade for Hedo, matters could change, but given their roster situation it would make more sense for them to focus on retaining/replacing Marcin Gortat than Turkoglu.
So does that mean the team is screwed? No, it just means that they have to be creative.

Unlike when the Raptors acquired Jermaine O'Neal last year, the club is only up against the salary cap after signing Hedo, not the luxury tax. That means the team still has roughly $8-10 million to spend, depending on where the tax threshold is set next Wednesday. The trick is finding the most effective ways to eat into that money, since it cannot simply be used to outright sign new players.

The first way is the most obvious: the mid-level exception. This exception, worth roughly $5.5-million, can be used as a whole or in pieces to sign players even though the team is over the cap. What remains to be seen, though, is if the team will have access to this money. Typically the mid-level is applied as a salary hold to any team's cap structure even before they've used it. In order for a team below the cap to clear that hold and use all uncommitted money on a free agent, they have to renounce the right to use that exception. It is unclear at this point if the Raptors have chosen to renounce this exception. Things could be much more difficult (though not impossible) if they will or if they have.

If they can avoid renouncing that exception, the team could still design a fairly complete roster before October.
By renouncing Carlos Delfino, the benefits of resigning him become lessened significantly. Being able to go over the cap to sign him with Bird rights made him an attractive option, but having him stand as just another option at shooting guard on the free agent market sheds some desirability. He'd still be a reasonable asset at the right price, but if he requires eating into too much of the MLE, then perhaps the team should look elsewhere.

Consider this: With Turkoglu added to a starting five of Bargnani, Bosh and Calderon, scoring and ball handling are well-covered areas. What the team should look for in a starting shooting guard is a tenacious defender with a good basketball I.Q. To that end they should explore bringing in Denver free agent Dahntay Jones, a 6'6” workhorse who could be tasked with guarding the opposition's best offensive player. He played for a league-minimum salary last year, and with Denver committed to starting J.R. Smith next season, Jones might be available. It may take closer to $2-million to get him to leave Denver, but that's a small percentage of the MLE to commit to a starting shooting guard. The Raptors could get away with starting him, too, because they envision real minutes for rookie DeMar DeRozan right out of the gate, but having a savvy veteran playing in front of him would be a sound strategy this early in his career.

The other good thing about signing Jones is it takes advantage of one of Hedo's strengths as a point forward. While the team waits to see if reserve point guard Roko Ukic is ready for real NBA responsibility, they could use a perimeter rotation of Hedo, DeRozan and Jones when starting point guard Jose Calderon sits down. In that configuration, Hedo would be the team's primary playmaker – a role he is more than capable of inhabiting – and Jones and DeRozan would play off of him on the wings. This scenario also decreases the team's need to acquire a backup combo to alleviate the pressure applied to Ukic in his second season because Jones is easily capable of guarding both backcourt positions.

Having the backcourt situation cleared up somewhat, the team can look for bench scoring, and few in the league do it better and more cost effectively than Matt Barnes. Toss $2-million his way, which would be nearly double his 08-09 salary, and the club would have a solid defender, great shooter and savvy veteran to play when Hedo hits the bench. Barnes' services will be in demand from several teams looking to improve on the cheap, but if the Raptors could nab him for part of their MLE it would be a huge boon to their second unit.

Lastly, the team should explore signing James Singleton as a backup forward for either the remaining dollars of the MLE or for the league minimum (which he played for last year) with a really good sales pitch. Singleton is a tenacious rebounder and defender and is probably of more use to this team than Pops Mensah-Bonsu because of his ability to defend both forward positions. Losing Marion means this team needs defense at the forward position, and Singleton could provide that in spades, along with a healthy dose of athleticism for the reserve crew.

Going after players like this would see the Raptors employing a strategy similar to the one they used from 1999-2002 when savvy vets (Charles Oakley, Kevin Willis, Dee Brown, Dell Curry, Chris Childs) were used to surround the young bucks Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Alvin Williams. While the money available to toss at veteran types may not be quite as high as it was back then, the youthful crew (Bosh, Bargnani, Calderon) is not as green as those three were and that team did not have a mid-career veteran of Hedo's caliber to work with, either. So while the ideology is similar, the particulars are only partly so.

In fact, one could even compare the Raptors current situation with that of Colangelo's Suns team of 2004-2006, the one that handed max or near-max salaries to Amaré Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Steve Nash while surrounding them with a shallow bench of cheap vets like Jim Jackson, Eddie House, James Jones and Tim Thomas. It was a strategy that worked because of the quality and fit of the main guys and the exemplary coaching of Mike D'Antoni, and we'll see if the methodology works north of the border, as well.

Of course, it could turn out that the Raptors cannot, in fact, keep their mid-level exception as a result of needing every available cent to sign Hedo Turkoglu. In that scenario the Raptors will really have to rub their pennies together in a bid to get value while also leveraging what assets they have to fill out their rotation. Using the bi-annual exception of $2-million (assuming they haven't renounced that, as well) could get them an asset for the wing, though spending it thusly would almost assuredly mean that Rasho Nesterovic doesn't return to Toronto.

 The club could also attempt to parlay redundant assets like Kris Humphries or (if pigs happen to be flying) Marcus Banks into something more useful on the perimeter or reserve crew, but exactly how much they'd fetch in the open market is up for debate.

The point is this: While the Raptors are in an unexpected situation, having little money or leverage to fill out a roster after having gobs of it only yesterday, they are not in panic mode yet. Put another way, they are not in Will Solomon territory with regards to their financial structure. Yes, they are going to have to be creative, but if the club really sees Hedo Turkoglu as a difference-maker for the club (recent Tweets would suggest that Chris Bosh and DeMar DeRozan certainly do) then that's just the road they are going to have to traverse.

Of course, with all of the pick-and-rolls this team is going to be running again next year to keep Turkoglu involved, one could be persuaded into thinking that Sam Mitchell would be ideally suited to coaching this offense.

Hedo Turkoglu  (Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)


(Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
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