This summer the Raptors talked a coveted free agent from the best regular season team in the Eastern Conference into cancelling the rest of his scheduled meetings and committing to Toronto on the first day after the July Moratorium. Now that’s something you won’t remember hearing before. So how did Toronto suddenly become a free agent destination?
In an interesting Grantland article, Good Charlotte? The Hornets and the Sliding Scale of NBA Mediocrity, Zach Lowe nails the biggest fear of NBA franchises and their fans. Charlotte is too good to tank, but not good enough to escape mediocrity and every summer they risk losing their hard won talent to other teams that provide better opportunities.
Batum’s people have already made noise about how much Batum would like to play in Toronto
Lowe goes on about how Toronto appeals to international players, it does and it should. Central Canada has always had that feel of being somewhere in-between the typical US city and a more cosmopolitan and safer European locale. Lots of American born players like to visit Toronto in the summers, it’s a fun place to go as a tourist, but in the end, just about every NBA player wants to be on a franchise that can win a chip, if not now, at least the ultimate goal should seem possible.
A chance at a Championship was the not so subtle explanation 35-year-old NBA veteran and top international player Luis Scola gave as to why he’s in Toronto now. A chance to play on a good team that he could envision getting to the Championship before he’s done playing.
“To me it was also important that I could be on a team that is strong, a good place (standings) team with chances to grow and hopefully chase a ring at some point down the line, but also be a part, be important on the team and I felt that this was the situation (here),” Scola explained upon his arrival in Toronto.
In order to get a very good veteran player with options to pick your franchise, teams are either going to have to open the vault or be seen as a winner and just opening the vault doesn’t always work. The Raptors are back-to-back Atlantic Division champions that surpassed their old franchise record for wins last season – don’t for a minute believe those facts have gone unnoticed by players around the NBA.
President and General Manager Masai Ujiri’s big signing was, of course, the 60-win Atlanta Hawks starting small forward DeMarre Carroll. It happened fast and Carroll, with the Pistons waiting in the hotel lobby, immediately cancelled the competition. The opportunity to play beside a couple of All-Stars on a winning program was just too much to pass up.
“We got a deal done,” Carroll explained. “But Detroit was in the hotel waiting to have their meeting. I felt kind of bad to call those teams and tell them I wasn’t going to visit.
“I drooled at the mouth just to play alongside guys like Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Those two All-Star guys, they bring a lot. It was really just deciding to be able to come to a winning program and to help this team as much as I can.”
Players like Lowry and DeRozan have raised the profile of the Raptors with what they have accomplished on the court and they’ve boosted Toronto’s chances of landing free agents by letting everyone know they like it there. A year after-the-fact, it’s easy to forget Lowry was very recently being courted as a free agent, but he opted to stay amid rumors of better financial opportunities elsewhere. A winning team and a comfortable environment go a long ways when negotiating a contract.
“From food to different activities for me and my family,” Carroll said. “So, I feel like this was the best opportunity for me and my family. I know my wife in Atlanta, she didn’t get out a lot, but I think just walking around the city here, she loves it. She likes everything there is to do here. Happy wife, happy life.”
Toronto also lost some free agents this summer, but it wasn’t like what has happened in prior years. This time, the Raptors let them walk, and it came as a surprise. The NBA Sixth Man award winner Lou Williams has admitted surprise on several occasions that the Raptors didn’t even try to get a deal done with him. He gave every indication of liking it in Toronto and wanting to return. Amir Johnson got big money to sign with the Celtics, but there were no indications Toronto even tried to get him back and the very popular Johnson was open in his desire to return.
“I would love to come back,” Johnson told Pro Bball Report at the end of the season. “My daughter was born and raised here so I would love to stay just because my family is here.”
In the end there is nothing subtle about why Toronto’s fortunes in attracting NBA free agents have improved. The team is winning and winning attracts winners. Then all those nice amenities the city provides can help close the deal.
In his sixth season in Toronto, Amir Johnson is about to become an unrestricted free agent for the second time in his NBA career and he has strong personal reasons for wanting to re-sign with the Raptors. Toronto has become home for his family and family is everything to him.