TORONTO – Khem Birch didn’t have much to think about when free agency opened earlier this week. His decision was an easy one.
The 28-year-old centre and Montreal native grew up watching the Toronto Raptors. Not only did he realize a childhood dream when he signed with his favourite team after being waived by Orlando last April, but it worked out even better than he had imagined.
So, when he hit the open market again on Monday evening, there was little doubt where he wanted to end up.
“Oh man, it feels like a dream come true,” said Birch, who put pen to paper on a new three-year contract with the Raptors Friday. “It's so surreal right now. I just can't put it into words… I knew where I wanted to go. I don't even know what other teams were interested in me. I just wanted to come here regardless of the price or the years or anything. I just knew this was a great fit. I'm just happy I'm here.”
A commendable sentiment, to be sure, but it’s a good thing Birch didn’t negotiate his own deal. He’ll make a reported $20 million over the next three years, a nice and well-deserved raise for a player that earned just north of $8 million in his first four NBA seasons combined. It’s a fair deal and one that makes complete sense for both player and team.
Birch’s passport wasn’t the only reason why he identified Toronto as an ideal landing spot when he became available late last season. With a major hole in the frontcourt, they could offer him a chance to play meaningful minutes, contribute and showcase himself ahead of summer free agency.
The Raptors were desperate for competent and consistent play at the centre position and Birch immediately filled that void. They gave him an opportunity to raise his value and to his credit, he ran with it.
Playing in Nick Nurse’s free-flowing offensive system, which he was already comfortable in because of their together with the Canadian national team, Birch showed he was capable of more than he ever could as a member of the Magic. Whether he was grabbing a rebound and leading the break, handling and passing the ball, shooting the corner-three or looking for opportunities to score around the rim, Birch both looked and felt like a different player.
Despite playing 188 games in Orlando over three and a half seasons, 12 of the 13 highest-scoring outings of Birch’s career came in 19 contests with Toronto. During his late-season run with the Raptors, he averaged 11.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals and 1.2 blocks in 30.4 minutes.
“I learned that I have more in my game than I thought and probably more than what other people thought about my game,” Birch said.
“People saw how well he fit with the group, not just on the offensive end, defensive end, but he was able to expand his game a bit and show some more of what he felt he could always do,” said Raptors general manager Bobby Webster. “So that was obviously good to continue that momentum.”
Birch doesn’t spread the floor like most modern NBA big men, although he did hit 9-of-his 31 three-point attempts with the Raptors last year and is working to extend his range. However, he brought a few key attributes that last off-season’s centre signees, Aron Baynes and Alex Len, lacked – mobility on defence and a comfort level catching and finishing around the basket.
By the time Birch arrived, the Raptors season was already on life support. Surely, their underperforming centres weren’t the only reason for that, they probably weren’t even the biggest reason, but it did make you wonder, could Birch have helped them salvage their disappointing campaign if they had acquired him earlier?
Although he’s already in his prime years, the belief is that Birch is still growing as a player. The Raptors are excited to see what he can do with an off-season in their development program, followed by a full training camp.
Some salary cap minutiae needed to be figured out before the Raptors could finalize their agreement with Birch. The details of the Lowry sign-and-trade with Miami – and what was coming back to Toronto – would determine how they structured the contract. In taking back the $19.4 million left on Goran Dragic’s expiring deal, they’re now operating as an above-cap team, meaning they used most of the roughly $9 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception on Birch.
The cost to bring him back – $6.7 million annually – comes in a bit higher than some had projected, but it’s a reasonable investment given Birch’s expected role. It’s still early in the off-season, too early to know what Nurse’s rotation will look like when the season tips off in mid-October, but barring a major addition in the frontcourt, Birch should have a chance to compete for the starting centre job in camp. At minimum, he’ll split minutes at the position with Precious Achiuwa, who came over in the Lowry deal, and fellow Montrealer Chris Boucher.
Birch looked like a good fit as a starter last season but so much of that was tied to the instant chemistry he built with Lowry, who joked that he was going to help the undrafted centre get paid. Mission accomplished.
“If he remembers me, hopefully I can take him out to dinner,” Birch joked. “You saw what he made, so hopefully he remembers us people over here in Toronto. Kyle, he’s a great guy. He’s a legend out here. I’m looking at his pictures right now with the trophy, and it’s just so sad seeing him go. I appreciate him for what he said and I’ll always appreciate him. It’s funny because my mom talks to his mom like all the time.”
Birch had family – including his mom, Wendy Sparks – with him as he signed his new contract at OVO Centre in Toronto on Friday afternoon.
“My mom was crying with joy,” he said. “She cried with joy on my last deal, so you can only imagine this one.”
A dream come true, indeed.