Six Moves The Toronto Raptors Should Make
The Toronto Raptors head into the 66-game lockout shortened 2011-12 season with only 10 players returning from last year’s 22-win effort. Some people might question if the team shouldn’t be making a lot more than six moves.
In Toronto however, the calls to blow the whole team up and start over have begun to die down as it has become obvious Raptors President and general manager Bryan Colangelo started the process last season. An incomplete process that saw a young Raptors team get even younger as injuries decimated the roster creating both needs and opportunities.
“We still have that hole in the middle that we have talked about being the center,” said Colangelo at the end of last season.
The Raptors new head coach Dwane Casey wasted no time confirming the Raptors immediate needs.
“We have umpteen million guards,” said Casey soon after his arrival in Toronto. “What we don’t have is rim protection, length, and athleticism in the middle.”
Casey may as well have said the Raptors don’t have defense, but that is why Colangelo hired the architect of the Mavericks’ defense as the team’s new head coach.
“So our number one goal in trades and free agency this off season is to address the need of a big man and maybe it’s a bridge to the future,” said Colangelo.
That bridge Colangelo describes is the time required to get the Raptors fifth overall pick of the 2011 NBA draft Jonas Valanciunas to Toronto from Lithuania. A top-rated center prospect, Valanciunas will not be able to join the Raptors until next season. Unfortunately for Toronto, a lot of NBA teams have serious needs at center right now. This isn’t going to be easy.
#1 Win the Marc Gasol sweepstakes
The top free agent prospect for any team looking at a multi-year time horizon and missing that key player in the middle is Marc Gasol. After three NBA seasons, the younger Gasol brother looks like a sure-fire long term All-Star, this kid is going to get paid in the coming frenzied free agent period.
Toronto does not have the salary cap space for a max offer so Colangelo will have to be on the phone immediately to both the Grizzlies front office and Gasol’s agent to convince the 26-year-old to come to Toronto and sell the Grizzlies on the sign and trade bait Toronto has to offer.
After waiving a maximum starting salary of $13.6 million in front of Gasol who was recently quoted as wanting at least nine million, and then selling the young Spaniard on the benefits of playing with his Spanish National teammate Jose Calderon, Colangelo will have to win over the Grizzlies with the only major trade asset he has, Andrea Bargnani.
Where other teams may be able to offer more depth to the Grizzlies in a sign and trade deal, no other team is in the position to offer a former first overall pick who scored over 20 points per game last season with a 16.5 PER. Bargnani is the same age as Gasol and gives the Grizzlies a player they need at the modest salary they should want. Bargnani is scheduled to make just $9.25 million this season. Also, the Grizzlies would be intrigued at the possibility of obtaining a player who drove Phil Jackson crazy as neither Lamar Odom nor Andrew Bynum have been able to guard this Raptor over the past two seasons.
There will be very few opportunities where Colangelo should trade Bargnani as the Italian big man has skills that are hard to find, but Marc Gasol is the type of player who could force Colangelo’s hand.
#2 Find the right center in free agency
If the Raptors lose the Gasol sweepstakes, they will be looking at other free agents to fill the void.
“The good thing about our situation is we do have flexibility in our budget,” said Casey. “We have some excellent free agents out there that I can’t talk about now that we are planning to target. We talked about that and there is a plan in place for that center position.”
The Raptors have approximately $10.9 million available before salary cap holds to utilize on free agents but this number drops to just $6.9 million after taking holds for Sonny Weems and Jonas Valanciunas into account. This isn’t enough for Toronto to take a direct run at any of the top-tier free agent centers, Nene, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler, or DeAndre Jordan. It may not even be enough to get Samuel Dalembert.
From the bargain-bin in free agency, Kwame Brown would provide a solid veteran presence in the middle until Jonas Valanciunas comes over from Europe next season or the 76ers restricted free agent Spencer Hawes could fill gap and possibly become a very good long-term backup.
Toronto might even be tempted to bring back free agent Reggie Evans. Evans does not provide any rim protection, but he was an extraordinarily effective rebounder when paired with Andrea Bargnani. Evans also has the respect of the young players on the Raptors and was a team leader.
The Raptors need to resist the temptation to bring a stop-gap veteran center like Brown in the hopes of squeezing out a few extra wins this season. A young prospect like Hawes is worth acquiring as he could grow with this young Raptors team, but adding a mediocre veteran who expects to play will only take away from the development of the Raptors other big men with no long term benefit to the team. Adding the right free agent center is critical.
#3 Improve the roster through trades
If free agency becomes a bust, Colangelo can turn his attention towards straight trades to fill the hole at center.
“I know we have some things that we are looking at with respect to some trade discussions to maybe make some changes to this roster that would bring in something else,” said Colangelo.
Toronto has an issue at power forward that needs to be addressed.
The Raptors leading scorer Bargnani is listed as a center but often plays like a power forward and the team has been trying to get a physical presence to compliment him for the last couple of years.
Last year’s rookie Ed Davis is a classic power forward who had a strong season after coming back from knee surgery. Davis finished with 13 double-doubles and needs regular and significant minutes this season to continue his development.
Last year’s returning free agent Amir Johnson played through back and foot problems all season but showed glimpses of what the Raptors should expect from him. Johnson collected 19 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks, and three steals in a head-to-head battle with Kevin Love as Toronto beat Minnesota at home in February. Johnson is just returning to the court after off season foot surgery and the 24-year-old six-year veteran should be part of Toronto’s long term plans.
A forgotten man from last year’s squad is the seven foot center Solomon Alabi. Alabi was recovering from injury through most of last season and only returned to full health after the season was over. A defensive star in college, the Raptors would like to see what Alabi can bring to the court.
If the Raptors add a center to the rotation, a power forward needs to be traded. There just aren’t enough minutes to go around long term.
If the Raptors move one of their power forwards, Colangelo has to ensure he gets full value in return. The obvious impact trade targets at center are Al Jefferson in Utah and the Clippers’ Chris Kaman.
#4 Look for bargains from amnesty
The number of teams actually taking advantage of the amnesty provisions will likely be small this season, but just like last time, Dallas may be the most likely team to use it. It is no secret that Dallas would like to re-sign Tyson Chandler, but the Mavericks have already committed over $60 million to just nine players, and to make another championship run, it might be advantageous to lighten the load.
With a number of teams looking to acquire centers, Dallas could consider releasing Brendan Haywood with the expectation that the acquiring team would bid for his services under the new amnesty provisions, significantly reducing the financial cost to the Mavs.
Teams using amnesty will be under no pressure to make players available until after they sort out their own situations so players may not become available until free agency has largely concluded or even after the season has started. Every general manager including Colangelo will be looking for these opportunities to fill holes in their rosters.
#5 Forget using amnesty
The calls to amnesty Jose Calderon or Linas Kleiza to create additional salary cap space are likely to fall on deaf ears in the Raptors front office and they should.
Calderon has played hurt in each of the past three seasons, but when he is close to 100 percent, Calderon can average a double-double in points and assists with a league best assist-to-turnover ratio, excellent shot selection, and impressive shooting percentages. Even if the Raptors hope to hand the keys to Jerryd Bayless as their starting point guard, the team couldn’t ask for a more professional team oriented veteran than Calderon to help guide their core of very young players. In short, the Raptors need Calderon or someone like him.
The Raptors never really got a good look at Kleiza last year as he injured his knee during preseason and played through pain until season ending surgery in February. Kleiza is still only 26-years-old and stands a good chance at a full recovery, bailing on one of the best forwards from the FIBA world championships of a year ago before he can show what he can do wouldn’t make any sense.
#6 Extend Leandro Barbosa
Leandro Barbosa was a warrior for the Raptors last season. After re-injuring his wrist during preseason, Barbosa played through it and a variety of other injuries. It is hard to remember any part of last season when Barbosa was not playing hurt, but those injuries are now behind him.
Barbosa played in 58 games for Toronto and averaged 13.3 points in 24.1 minutes. Head coach Jay Triano’s comments indicated Barbosa was one of the few wing players he had who could play the pressure defense he was trying to teach. The Brazilian blur was a positive force in the dressing room, never complained about playing time even when it was obvious he was the best player on the floor on a given night, and was always ready to support and teach his young teammates. On a team with few veterans and arguably no strong leadership, Barbosa is the kind of veteran that a young team needs to get through the rough patches.
Eight of the remaining 10 Raptors from last season are 26-years-old or younger. Colangelo invested in these young players last season and unless he believes they made a mistake, it is time to let them grow together as a unit. Colangelo should only consider trades if they make an obvious significant improvement to either the talent level or composition of the team.
There are five vacant spots on their roster so Colangelo does have work to do, but there is only one obvious need. The team needs the athletic rim-protecting center that Coach Casey requested on his way in. That center could arrive via free agency, trade, or amnesty, and depending on who they acquire, one of the Raptors current power forwards could be on his way out. If Colangelo wants to excite the Toronto fan base and instantly improve the Raptors defense, he will go all out to acquire restricted free agent Gasol from Memphis.