It has been a quiet start to free agency for the Toronto Raptors, but this should not have come as a big surprise. The Raptors were technically a luxury tax team as of July 1st when the NBA failed to approve the trade of Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks on June 30th and delayed the transaction until after the moratorium ends on July 10th. Even post trade the Raptors will be solidly above the salary cap and limited to offering the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions to free agent prospects. They were not going to be actively pursuing the available top tier guys after midnight on Monday morning.
MLSE President and CEO Tim Leiweke provided the first clues about where the Raptors might be headed earlier in June. Leiweke didn’t want to hear about 18 years of Raptors futility ever again.
“I inherited, I didn’t create,” Leiweke said. “I think it’s time for this organization once and for all to stop spinning and just do our job and if we do our job with the right people and create the right environment, I won’t have this conversation (about futility) again.”
The “right people” was 2013 NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri who Leiweke convinced to come to Toronto and turn the Raptors prospects around. Ujiri had a very successful three year stint running the basketball side of the Denver Nuggets and he sees a similar challenge in Toronto.
“Why can’t I change it,” responded Ujiri to the Raptors situation. “It’s not all bad. There is plenty good about it. There are plenty of attractions. It is almost like when I went into the Denver situation. It is our job to make it better. It is our job to make it good. It is our job to create a winning environment. That is why I am here.”
However, other than stating a preference for using young guys to fill out the back end of his roster, Ujiri has been more than just a little cryptic about his future plans for the franchise.
“One of my philosophies is to grow young players – to develop young talent and maybe the back end of our roster has to be young guys that grow,” Ujiri said. “After we have analyzed this team, I think you guys (the media) will figure out the direction we are going.”
With his first big roster move, Ujiri sent Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks for what amounts to a backup combo forward and draft picks in what could be described as getting better by subtraction or a rather effective salary dump with benefits. This gives us a pretty good idea about where Ujiri will be taking this franchise in July.
It was former boss Bryan Colangelo who suggested the Raptors would be able to add talent on the cheap this summer because of the changes being implemented in the CBA for the coming season. That opportunistic approach is being followed by Ujiri now, but what are the Raptors needs?
Post Knicks trade, the Raptors roster will resemble this:
Point Guard: Kyle Lowry
Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross
Small Forward: Rudy Gay, Landry Fields, Steve Novak
Power Forward: Amir Johnson, Quincy Acy
Center: Jonas Valanciunas, Aaron Gray
Marcus Camby and Quentin Richardson from the Knicks are likely to be traded or bought out before they arrive in Toronto. Linas Kleiza is an amnesty candidate, but even if he is held onto as an expiring contract for trade purposes, his knees have kept him out of the lineup for much of the past three years.
The Raptors did not pick up the option on John Lucas making backup point guard the top priority and with Bargnani traded to the Knicks and Camby an unwilling mentor/backup, another big man is a close second.
Casey has made it clear he wants to add toughness and there will be players who won’t get paid what they are worth this summer. In the free agent pool, there are a couple of big men the Raptors could use one of their exceptions on. Samuel Dalembert is a superior rebounder and shot blocker who could fall through the free agent cracks and Jason Maxiell is a likely overlooked veteran who can provide defensive rebounding and shot blocking. There will be plenty of opportunities to acquire talent after the initial free agent flurry has run its course.
However, being opportunistic means taking advantage of other teams needs and issues. The Clippers really do need a shooting guard and the Raptors are willing to part with DeMar DeRozan if the trade fills a team need. The Eric Bledsoe trade rumors may be premature, but it really depends on what other moves Doc Rivers makes happen in Clipperland next week.
Sacramento currently has seven guards on their team and even if Tyreke Evans leaves in free agency, the Kings will have to seriously look at moving someone.
The Pelicans acquired Jrue Holiday in a trade at the draft making Greivis Vasquez surplus to their needs and they have until July 5th to release Robin Lopez or his $5 million salary over each of the next two years becomes fully guaranteed. The Pelicans have a lot of free agent irons in the fire and this could give the opportunistic Ujiri the chance to pick up a couple of young talents on the cheap.
The surprise factor in Toronto could come in the form of a bigger deal. Leiweke has opened MLSE’s massive wallet and given a green light to spend luxury tax dollars if Ujiri can acquire the player or players that would make the Raptors championship contenders. It just doesn’t look like that deal is out there for the Raptors at the moment.
So the Raptors appear to be on the same building plan they were following when Colangelo was running the show, just under new management. The biggest difference is Casey will get his “tough guys” to help build a more defensive oriented team and Ujiri likes to fill out the back end of his roster with young players he can develop. Where the team goes in free agency will depend on what opportunities are created by other team’s moves and a little more patience will be required before Ujiri lets us know what the Raptors will look like next season.
Stephen Brotherston has covered the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Center since 2009. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.