At just about this time last year, Bryan Colangelo sat before the media to introduce his biggest acquisition as the Raptors GM; big man Jermaine O'Neal. He spoke of his intent to steer his team through to the second round and beyond with his new twin towers being fed by freshly resigned point guard Jose Calderon.
Things didn't go exactly according to plan.
Since the start of that season the Raptors have waved goodbye to eleven players, four starters, one coach and their presence in the Playoffs. It's been a tumultuous twelve months that has hurt Colangelo's reputation professionally and has hurt the team's reputation publicly. Colangelo and the club, therefore, are eager to put the past season in the past and move forward as quickly and as decisively as possible.
Today the club retains only four players from last season's original roster and the (once again) new-look club is coming into clearer and clearer focus by the day. What the club has now is an offensive anchor (Chris Bosh), two sweet-shooting bigs who can penetrate and pass (Hedo Turkoglu and Andrea Bargnani), a heady pass-first point guard (Jose Calderon), an über-athletic wing with boatloads of potential (DeMar DeRozan) and a rugged rebounding specialist (Reggie Evans). So far, those are the only sure-fire rotation players currently employed by the club. Depending on how the rest of free agency shakes out, newly acquired wing Antoine Wright could find his way into the rotation if the team feels his strong defensive skills can overcome his poor offensive skills. Roko Ukic, Patrick O'Bryant, Devan George and Quincy Douby have yet to prove that they deserve anything more than spot minutes in the upcoming season. So what do the Raptors do now that they have the rights to their remaining free agents and all of the salary cap exceptions? Let's explore.
First, this team is not going to be the up-tempo outfit they were looking like only two weeks ago. While the club will look to get up the court on misses for easy baskets, as any good team should, the lack of explosiveness in the starting five would suggest a more mid-tempo offense. They'll utilize the pick-and-roll extensively to maximize the shooting and passing the club has available to them, as well as working to take advantage of the mismatches provided by having a frontcourt average that averages 6'11” in height. Beyond that, there are decisions to be made.
At the top of that list is what do with the team's own free agents; Carlos Delfino, Anthony Parker and Pops Mensah-Bonsu. In all likelihood Parker is bolting to Cleveland and is out of the club's plans (though as Turkoglu proved, no deal is done until the ink is dry). Delfino has been expected back with the club since around December, but Turkoglu's arrival might complicate that matter.
When Delfino was close to resigning last week, it was under the assumption that Shawn Marion would be the team's starting small forward. In that scenario, Delfino was needed as another ball handler and shooter in the starting five. With Turk handling that role now, it might be prudent to at least consider a more defensive-minded option for the starting two-guard spot to help provide some measure of stopping-power in a very defensively limited starting five. The problem for the Raptors is that no such option appears to be available in the open market. Does Wright, a part-time starter for the Mavericks, have the chops to nail down the spot? Probably not, considering the team is going to need their starting shooting guard to be able to hit open three's that come as a result of perimeter swinging sequences (a staple of Raptors offense new and old).
That would appear to preclude DeRozan, as well, though his shooting is still untested at the NBA level. Delfino, then, might be a by-default option for the club who will then have to rely heavily of team-defense schemes to try and stop opposing clubs.
The benefit to having Delfino in with the starting group, though, is that his 4.4 rebounds per game (in 23.5 minutes) two years ago could be in demand without Marion around to account for Bargnani's rebounding deficiencies.
Pops could also be brought back into the fold to replace the outgoing Kris Humphries, but with Reggie Evans aboard it still seems to create redundancy. If he can be had cheap enough it's possible, but keep in mind the team currently has only three open roster spots (though waiving Douby could easily up that total to four).
Talking about returning free agents, though, is not exactly exciting for a fan base of a team with money to spend. It is truly unprecedented for the Raptors to add a marquee free agent for $53-million, extend one of their own for $50-million and still be looking to add salary all in one summer. The lure of attracting another high-profile free agent with the mid-level exception has got the Raptors' nation salivating after a week of scouring through lists of who might be available for the minimum allowable salary. Now that there is a clearer idea of who is going to have to settle for mid-level money, as well as there being a clearer idea of what the Raptors will look like next season, let's revisit the possibilities for a club with money to spend in a buyer's market.
First, Nate Robinson, Jarrett Jack, Andre Miller, Ray Felton and Ramon Sessions are out because this team no longer needs playmaking help with Turkoglu on board (he was a very successful point forward in Orlando at times with Nelson playing off of the ball). Marvin Williams and David Lee would see a mid-level deal matched in a heartbeat, so don't count on them, and Allen Iverson is just too combustible for someone like Bryan Colangelo to ink. It would also appear that the wooing of Grant Hill is too far along in New York, Boston and Phoenix to get involved. The minutes simply wouldn't be plentiful enough for him in Toronto behind Turkoglu.
The Raps took a good look at him before the Turkoglu rumors started surfacing, and they may make contact again. A potential roadblock could be that the team is really running high on offensively-minded bigs right now and Kleiza may have a hard time finding a role. The situation has changed with Toronto since last week and he may no longer be an ideal fit – especially not at the money it could take to keep Denver from matching a contract offer after losing Dahntay Jones.
Childress is a restricted free agent of Atlanta's, and really more of a small forward than a two-guard, but he's a heady player that could allow the team to run a three-wing rotation of Turkoglu, DeRozan and Childress that would offer enviable size and skill combinations.
Warrick is a potent and athletic forward who would be a nice fit off of the bench for Toronto. He's not a great shooter but he can rebound the ball and has been fairly consistent the last three years in Memphis despite a fluctuating role. It's unclear how much Memphis would spend to retain him, but he'd be a different look off of the bench for the Raps and would make for a fun reserve unit with the high-flying DeRozan.
'Big Baby' would be a fit in Toronto, too. He's aggressive, he plays defense and he gets to the line. His improved mid-range game makes him a much more useful player than he was in his rookie year, but his tepid rebounding numbers could sour a deal. So could the possibility of Boston matching or the chance his weight balloons.
This signing would have risk involved, since Powe is recovering from knee surgery and will be out until at least the start of 2010, but if he can regain his pre-surgery form he'd be an ideal addition to the club. How much it would take to get him could be a stumbling block, as his value is very fluid right now, but if the club only uses part of the mid-level for an immediate need, perhaps the rest could be dog-eared for Powe. A two-year partial guarantee could mitigate the risk for the Raps while also providing insurance enough for Powe. We'll see.
Now that the team can use its Bi-Annual Exception for certain, and has a need for a legit centre that can guard legit big men, Rasho is such an obvious choice it's ridiculous. His fit with the Bosh and Bargnani is already proven and he's a low-maintenance guy who keeps himself ready even if he's only playing spot minutes. It's hard to come up with reasons why ol' number 12 shouldn't be back with the team this fall.
Of course, there are plenty of options for the club, as there was at the start of free agency, but certainly the team's needs have been clarified since then. The team needs a scorer off of the bench, depth at forward and defense. Matt Barnes still makes terrific sense on the wing, and James Singleton is a great forward defender, but the club has a lot of directional decisions to make before they dive headfirst back into free agency. Just because their money was unexpectedly available to them again does not mean that it needs to be wantonly exercised.
At this point, though, the team finally looks poised to combine starting talent with reserve depth at reasonable cost to the club for the first time since 2001. There is still a lot of maneuvering that the club can choose to do but they won't have to do it out of a sense of desperation. Had the club simply landed Turkoglu and some minimum-salaried free agents they would have called their summer a success. Instead they've got Turkoglu, two low-cost expiring contracts (Wright and George) that can add depth to the wings or can be swapped in a trade, and over $7-million still available to spend on free agents. That's more than they could have ever reasonably hoped for when the wretched '08-'09 season came to a close, which means that despite all of the changes that have happened since then, there is still ten more weeks of dealing to do before training camp opens.