By Frank McLean
July 1st, 2015 will be remembered as the day the remake of the Toronto Raptors began. It was a day of addition and subtraction. The addition is forward DeMarre Carroll from the Atlanta Hawks.
Carroll is a surprise addition in that the word on the street was that the Raptors were setting their sights on LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trailblazers. But Carroll was someone who definitely fits the criteria of this Raptors rebuild to improve defense.
Thought of as one of the NBA’s best defenders on the perimeter, Carroll is also dangerous from 3-point territory hitting on 39.5 % of his shots behind the arch. He gives the team toughness at the small forward position.
The Carroll signing fits the improve defense theme of draft night too as the clubs first round pick of a both-ends-of-the-court point guard Delon Wright of Utah and second round pick of Norman Powell of UCLA fit the bill.
Carroll was arguably the Atlanta Hawks best performer in this past spring’s playoffs. He had 7-games of 20-or-more points and 5 games of 8-or-more rebounds. Unfortunately he injured his knee in the first game of the Eastern Conference Final versus the Cleveland Cavaliers, which affected his shooting ability and pretty well contributed the Hawks demise.
If the Raptors had him this year, you know they would not have bowed out 4-straight to the Washington Wizards.
Carroll does not come cheap. USA Today confirmed with one of their league sources that the deal is worth 4-year 60-million dollars and that would make the Carroll contract the most expensive free agent contract in Raptors history. (NBA rules state that any free agent signings cannot be made official until midnight on July 9th.)
The subtraction is that of forward Amir Johnson.
Reports Monday afternoon had Johnson inking a 2-year deal for 24-million dollars with the Boston Celtics. That’s not bad for a player who has been playing hurt with bad ankles the last couple of seasons and struggles to stay healthy enough to play 60-games a season.
In his 6-seasons in Toronto he became one of the city’s all time fan favorites in any of the major pro sports teams. A friend of mine who just moved to Toronto this past year and is a big basketball fan asked me what the big deal is with Johnson and why do the fans love him. I told my friend that Toronto fans love the underdog over the superstars, the guy with limited abilities and a big heart.
When it came to hockey’s Toronto Maple Leafs no one was bigger than Tie Domi when it came to being a fan favorite. His limited hockey skills were made up with his David versus Goliath attitude and when the few times he actually put the puck in the net you would have thought the Leafs won the Stanley Cup.
Raptors fans knew how much pain Johnson played in with the bad ankles. When he made a big rebound and slam dunk they knew that it didn’t come easy and the roar of the crowd was always a little louder than others. That’s why they loved him.
Johnson was a guy who never turned down an autograph request from a fan. For us in the media he always had time for us even if we had a dumb question.
He loved the fact the Toronto was one of the safer places you could live in compared to most big cities in the United States. With a young family that was most important. He actually told us media hounds one night in a postgame scrum that his all-time favorite store to shop in was Canadian Tire.
“There’s nothing like that in the States” Johnson said.
He became one of us, because when you talk to Raptors fans they are still bitter the way Damon Stoudamire, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady couldn’t leave Toronto fast enough thinking the grass was greener playing with a US based team. That’s why they loved him.
It was tough decision for GM Masai Ujiri to let him go. Not only did the fans love Johnson, but there was not one employee of the Toronto Raptors that has a bad word to say about him.
But Ujiri could not let his heart stand in the way of making this basketball team better. He hinted that days before the draft when he brought up being swept in the first round of the playoffs meant changes were coming. This is why GMs are paid big bucks to make the tough decisions. He needed younger healthier players, cue DeMarre Carroll.
Ujiri is familiar with Carroll and knows what he’s getting. When Ujiri was running the Denver Nuggets he once brought him in as a training camp invitee. Although he had waive him later during the season, GMs have long memories and his body of work in Atlanta makes him a fit for this Raptors team.
Meanwhile in Boston, Celtics GM Danny Ainge and Coach Brad Stevens get a veteran player in Johnson who will be an extra coach to guide a very young club to next level. He will be a mentor to a young team about the ways of life in the NBA, the same way Kevin Garnett was at one time for Doc Rivers when he was the coach. Just don’t expect him to be a bully like Garnett, there will always be a hug with every tough love lecture from Johnson.
He won’t have to start games. All the Celtics should want from him is to come off the bench and give the starters a break. That will help with the wear and tear on a bum ankle.
So the remake has begun in Raptorsland. The team right now has just-under 8 million dollars left in cap space. If they can make a minor trade they just might be able to get it to around 10-million.
The Raptors are a better team now than they were the night the Washington Wizards ended their season. There is still more to be done in this rebuild and it will be fun to watch.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.
“I would love to come back,” Johnson said. “My daughter was born and raised here so I would love to stay just because my family is here, but we’ll see what happens at the end of the season. Family is always the key to everybody’s moves. You do what is best for your family. Family is everything.”