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Porter the latest in long line of Raptors’ free agency misses

Otto Porter Jr. Toronto Raptors Tyrese Haliburton Indiana Pacers Otto Porter Jr. Tyrese Haliburton - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – On paper, Otto Porter Jr. was made to be a Toronto Raptor.

At 6-foot-8 and with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he fit the archetype while bringing a mix of qualities that the organization is known to value (versatile, high IQ defence) and that it desperately needed (experience and three-point shooting). He even had a connection to the city – his wife is from Toronto.

So, when the Raptors made the veteran forward their highest profile free agent signing this past summer – fresh off a championship run with the Warriors – you didn’t have to squint too hard to see the appeal. It’s not that they expected him to move the needle in a significant way, but if he could just stay healthy and give them 20 or so good minutes off the bench in 50-60 games, he’d be the perfect complement to their returning core group.

But that’s not the way it panned out. On Tuesday morning, Porter underwent season-ending left foot surgery. His first, and maybe only, campaign with the Raptors is over after playing just eight games.

“It’s disappointing,” Nick Nurse said, with his team set to host the Charlotte Hornets Tuesday night. “We thought we were getting somebody who really fit what we needed: some length, some great shooting, some veteran experience, some solid defence, good rebounding. There are a lot of things. And he was fresh off a title… Disappointed for him. I know he’s disappointed. Disappointed for our team, too.”

Porter’s tenure didn’t get off to the best start. A sprained hamstring cost him the bulk of training camp and the first couple weeks of the season. After an excused personal absence for the birth of his daughter, he made his debut in San Antonio on Nov. 2. His eight-game run was mostly spent getting back in game shape and finding his place with a new team. Then, just as he was beginning to feel more comfortable, the 10-year vet dislocated the second toe on his left foot midway through a Nov. 14 win in Detroit.

He had hoped to avoid surgery, ramp up his on-court work and return to action sometime this month. After his progress stalled, he visited multiple foot specialists. Ultimately, undergoing the procedure was deemed to be the best option for his long-term health.

“He tried every other possible course of action,” said a source close to the player.

It’s not hard to imagine how Porter – a 40 per cent career three-point shooter – could’ve helped a team that’s been lacking for floor spacing and depth. Still, something like this had to be in the range of possible outcomes that the Raptors would’ve considered before recruiting him over the summer.

Since coming into the league with Washington in 2013, the former third-overall pick has missed at least 25 games in half of his 10 NBA seasons, including four of his last five. At a reasonable $12.3 million over two years – only part of their mid-level exception – the injury risk was baked into the cost. For Toronto, what stings the most about this loss, is it’s just the latest in a long line of misses in free agency.

Historically, the Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster-led Raptors’ front office has a pretty good track record in the draft, where they’ve hit home runs (Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby and Scottie Barnes) as well as a few singles and doubles (Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and, perhaps, Christian Koloko). Only a few clear whiffs come to mind (Bruno Caboclo, maybe Malachi Flynn and a few second-rounders). They’ve also found undrafted gems (Fred VanVleet and Terence Davis) and been near flawless in acquiring talent via trade. Where they’d receive a failing grade is in navigating the open market.

One important disclaimer is that they’ve been operating above the salary cap since the 2015-16 season. Without having cap space to spend in each of the past seven summers, they’ve had to use their mid-level exception and minimum-salary contracts to round out the roster. There’s obviously a higher degree of difficulty when you’re not in the running for the top free agents in any given off-season and, instead, have to let the market play out and hope to find a bargain later in the summer. Generally, these are journeymen, redraft candidates – young players who didn’t develop as expected in their first NBA stop and might excel in a different system – or guys at the tail end of their careers. The success rate is low for most teams, but the Raptors haven’t hit on one of those guys in a while.

In 2015, they used the bulk of their cap space on DeMarre Carroll, one of the most sought after free agents on the market, but an ill-fated signing thanks in large part to injuries. They would have to include a first-round pick to unload his salary a couple years later. Ironically, the three other players they added in 2015 were among their best signings ever. They gave Cory Joseph a four-year, $30 million deal to back up Kyle Lowry, while using veteran minimums on Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo.

Since then? It’s an uninspiring list, ranging from solid but unspectacular short-term contributors to complete busts: Jared Sullinger, C.J. Miles, Greg Monroe, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, Aron Baynes, Alex Len, DeAndre’ Bembry, Svi Mykhailiuk, Juancho Hernangomez and Porter.

Only two of those players – Miles and Johnson – were in Toronto for more than one year. In a season and a half, Miles was essentially what they hoped Porter could be – a good vet who brought leadership and shooting off the bench, before he was sent to Memphis in the trade that landed the Raptors Marc Gasol.

Hollis-Jefferson leads that group in win shares despite only playing 60 games with the club. Having only appeared in 11 games due to injury, Sullinger actually had negative win shares with the Raptors. Monroe didn’t make it through his lone season. Len didn’t even last a month before being waived. Baynes, Bembry and Mykhailiuk were also waived before their contracts could expire.

After consolidating so much of their depth to build a championship-winning team, they haven’t been able to restock the pipeline, resulting in an overextended starting lineup and, on most nights, a shallow bench.

Funny enough, on the day they lost Porter for the year, Toronto’s reserves totalled 40 points – more than they combined for in three games last week – in a 132-120 win over Charlotte. The Raptors also hit a season-high 20 three-pointers.

Precious Achiuwa – who had his best game since returning from injury – and Chris Boucher showed the chemistry that made them such a dynamic duo over the second half of last season. Koloko continued his recent run of strong play. Even the sparingly used Hernangomez – signed to a one-year minimum over the summer – hit a three and made a nice cut to the rim.

Nurse went with a unit of Gary Trent Jr. and four reserves to open the second quarter, as he did in Sunday’s win over Portland, and once again, it delivered. After a slow start to their shift, featuring some questionable shot selection from Achiuwa, they settled down. Achiuwa drained consecutive three-pointers, then blew by a couple of defenders for the slam-dunk. Koloko knocked down a rare 11-foot jumper, and Boucher made a pair of layups.

“I’m just trying to come up with a solution after we had such a rough stretch there with guys off the bench,” Nurse said after his team hit the halfway point of its season on Tuesday.

For the second time in as many games, that group looked like the bench unit Ujiri and Webster thought they had assembled in the off-season, even without Porter leading it.

Porter has a $6.3 million player option for next season. If he picks it up and if he comes back healthy – always a big IF with the veteran forward – there’s still a chance to make good on his contract. Alternatively, his deal could make for a helpful salary-matching tool ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

One thing is for certain, if the Raptors are going to put a disappointing first half behind them and build off a rare two-game winning streak entering the season’s second act, they’ll need a continued spark from the bench. Now, they know that spark won’t come from Porter.