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Where Do The Raptors Go from Here?
Posted By Stephen Brotherston On May 14, 2013 @ 12:00 pm In NBA | No Comments
Since the recent arrival of Tim Leiweke as the new President and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), the uncertain future of current Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo and his team’s head coach Dwane Casey has gone from maybe returning to complete unknown. The biggest question has become what will the former President and CEO of Los Angeles’ Anschutz Entertainment Group do now that he is in Toronto?
“It is more important from my standpoint to jump into the Raptors who have not had that success and begin to help the Board on the decision they have now with the leadership of the Raptors,” Leiweke said during his introduction to the Toronto media.
Leiweke wants a Raptors management team and coaching staff that is committed to winning championships and it would be a stretch to say that has been the case in Toronto before his arrival. In the past, the Raptors seemed happy to just compete for a playoff spot from time-to-time and content to let their very large market fill the coffers of MLSE. Leiweke believes MLSE and its owners will make even more money with a championship contender and this change in philosophy should take this also-ran franchise down a very different path.
“I always thought what made Staples Center and L.A. Live special was the content,” Leiweke said. “You had the Lakers winning six championships during that period of time. It makes you look a lot brighter and it makes the building look a lot better when you hanging those kind of banners and as an organization, I think we had so much credibility and respect because of that success. That is what we have to do at Maple Leaf Sports. We all agree that winning those championships and earning that respect and reputation makes whatever growth and whatever potential we have with the rest of the business units a lot more successful.”
A decision on Colangelo’s future is expected to come as soon as this week, but the roster isn’t going to magically change under the direction of a new general manager. Accessing the team’s current roster, evaluating opportunities at the draft and through trades and tapping the free agent market remain the means to a championship regardless of who is steering the ship. Believe it or not, the Raptors did have a plan before Leiweke arrived.
“I’ll tell you who went through a similar process with similar type athletes is Indiana,” Casey said at the end of the season. “If you notice they had Granger. They brought in George. They had Hibbert there. It took them a few years to get it going, to get it together. They added a few pieces and it took Stephenson a few years – he is a lot like Terrence Ross – to come in and gel together. They brought in a point guard in Hill to go in and glue it together, but it took them a while. It didn’t happen overnight. They did a lot of it organically. I look at Indiana as kind of the example that we should go by or can go by or are a lot like.”
What remains to be seen at this time is if Leiweke shares this vision for the Raptors future or wants to take the team in another direction.
Kyle Lowry was acquired as the team’s point guard of the future last summer and despite a rough season filled with minor injuries, the Raptors will pick up his $6.2 million non-guaranteed contract for next year. A healthy Lowry without the distraction of a point guard controversy with Jose Calderon is expected to return to the form he displayed with the Rockets. The Raptors have a team option on backup point John Lucas which they are expected to exercise, but Lucas was always envisioned to be a third string guard and Colangelo has identified obtaining a primary backup point guard as a priority.
After signing a four year $38 million extension, DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors shooting guard of the future and if he continues to improve his game over the summer, the consternation about his contract should begin to subside. DeRozan did average 22.9 points per game in April. Last year it was 30-year-old Alan Anderson coming off the bench more often than not to back up the wing positions, but the minimum salary veteran will be a free agent this summer and his return isn’t certain. Rookie Terrence Ross won the NBA Slam Dunk competition, but he was given minutes despite his play on the court rather than because of it. While Ross has a lot of potential, it is unknown if he’ll be ready to be a rotation player on a team with playoff aspirations next season.
Colangelo’s big mid-season trade was for small forward Rudy Gay. Gay is under contract for $17.9 million next season and has a player option for $19.3 million in 2014-2015. Colangelo has taken a lot of criticism for the trade, but Gay almost brought the Raptors back to the playoffs after their terrible start to the season and probably would have succeeded except for a brief period with back spasms. Landry Fields was another Colangelo addition last season, but a compressed nerve in Fields’ elbow required surgery and the 24-year-old wing couldn’t find his jump shot afterwards. If Fields can rebuild his jump shot in the summer, he is a good defensive rebounding wing that can backup both the shooting guard and small forward spots. Unfortunately, the Raptors probably won’t have a definitive answer about his progress until training camp. Linas Kleiza has a player option for next season, but his injury situation precludes relying on him for depth.
In his eighth NBA season, power forward Amir Johnson broke out setting career highs in points, rebounds and steals. Johnson has steadily improved in Toronto and now has a reliable 18-20 foot jump shot and much improved post defense in addition to his usual hustle. Whether he continues to start or comes off the bench, Johnson has become a solid rotation player at the four or five spot. Andrea Bargnani missed most of last season due to injury and Colangelo has made it pretty clear Bargnani is unlikely to be on the opening day roster. Rookie Quincy Acy made a ton of mistakes that he often made up for with effort when he was given a chance. He might be better than advertised, but it would be a huge risk if Acy was the primary backup power forward.
Rookie center Jonas Valanciunas won Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in March and his play improved dramatically over the season as Casey gained more confidence in him and Valanciunas learned the NBA game via the school of hard knocks. Valanciunas is an up and coming talent and is expected to have a big impact in his sophomore season. The immoveable Aaron Gray has a $2.7 million player option for next season that he is very likely to exercise. While Gray is almost indispensible against bigger post players like Roy Hibbert, his lack of mobility makes him a specialist and the Raptors need more depth at center.
As constructed, the Raptors are a more talented group than the one that started last season and the core of this group, excluding Bargnani for most of the time, finished on a 30 and 29 win-loss run. In the NBA’s Eastern Conference, a .500 club is a playoff team.
2013 NBA Draft
Toronto traded their first round draft pick to Houston in the deal for Lowry and their second round pick to Memphis in the deal for Gay. Colangelo has made it clear that he was not looking to add a 2013 draft pick and that with three rookies returning from this past season, the Raptors have more than enough young talent in need of development already on the roster. The Raptors first round draft pick is protected through the first three picks and Colangelo has indicated they would keep their 2013 draft pick in the unlikely event the draft lottery goes in Toronto’s favor.
The Raptors have guaranteed $58.9 million in salaries to 12 players next season and for all practical purposes, they will only be able to get below the luxury tax threshold by amnestying someone. Kleiza has only seen limited action due to knee problems since he was acquired three seasons ago and unless he inexplicitly declines his $4.6 million player option for next season, Kleiza is the logical candidate to be amnestied.
At this level of guaranteed salaries Toronto will be very restricted in free agency and could well be limited to what Colangelo described as undervalued free agents that will have to accept minimum contracts. Just like last summer, there will be a number of free agents who can’t get the payday they would like as teams struggle with the provisions in the new collective bargaining agreement.
Players like Brooklyn Nets C.J. Watson and the Bulls Nate Robinson that ended up signing minimum deals last summer could find themselves back in the same position this time around and fill the Raptors need at backup point guard. Also, the Raptors could wait for a veteran center like Samuel Dalembert to be passed over in free agency as a backup for Valanciunas.
Depending on what moves the team makes with amnesty and trades, the Raptors could have various exceptions available to pursue free agents with as well.
After a rough start to the season, Colangelo told Andrea Bargnani’s agent that the former number one overall draft pick might benefit from a change of scenery, but for the third year in a row Bargnani’s season was cut short by injury and this time, it cost the Raptors big man two months right before the trade deadline. There were active trade discussions involving Bargnani during the season and several speculative rumors, but Colangelo indicated it wasn’t possible to get a deal done because of the injury concerns. It can very hard to actively shop a player and then bring him back to training camp in the fall, so moving Bargnani has become job one in the summer no matter who is sitting in the general manager’s chair.
Trading Bargnani will not be an easy task as the seven-foot center/forward has missed a significant number of games in each of his past three seasons and his scoring average has dropped from 21.4 points per game two seasons ago to 12.7 last year. However, this dented-can should still have significant value, even if it is only for some other team’s expensive dented-can and for the right player, the Raptors have a couple of interesting rookies in Ross and Acy to use as sweeteners.
The big move the Pacers made that Casey overlooked in his comparison to the Raptors was the acquisition of two-time All-Star power forward David West in the summer of 2011. West gave head coach Frank Vogel the big time veteran player to anchor and lead his defensive team while George, Hibbert and Stephenson mature. If Leiweke wants to continue with Casey’s vision for the future, the anticipated trade of Bargnani needs to bring back a proven veteran leader to anchor the Raptors relatively young group of players.
Also, with Leiweke now setting the team’s direction, Raptors management cannot have any sentimental ties to their players. If Leiweke believes a trade moves the Raptors another step closer towards becoming a perennial championship contender, every player should be considered available heading into this summer. From a roster standpoint, the mere presence of Leiweke suggests MLSE is willing to spend beyond the luxury tax limit and that greatly expands the team’s trade options and use of salary cap exceptions heading into next season. It is possible for Toronto’s roster to be significantly improved by the time training camp opens.
The presence of Leiweke at MLSE has changed the perception about what could happen in Toronto, but with so many decisions still to be made and no hard evidence for which direction Leiweke will take this franchise, there are really more questions than answers about where the Raptors are headed at this time.
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