With all the free agents re-signed (and one added) the Raptors’ roster looks to be pretty much set. They will have fourteen of fifteen roster spots accounted for (after waiving Dwight Buycks, which they are expected to do before his contract becomes guaranteed on July 20th, and officially signing James Johnson), and are right up to the luxury tax threshold.
Ujiri has been able to re-sign Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez to respectable deals, considering the market, but the only addition to the roster, outside of the draft, was James Johnson, who is on his second tour of duty with the Raptors.
While they only have a few players that are dramatically overpaid (Landry Fields, Chuck Hayes and Lou Williams, depending on how much he regains his pre-injury form), and none of them have offensively bad contracts, they are also slowly running out of low-priced assets. Only Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are on rookie contracts1. The fewer lower priced assets, the more difficult it is to make trades to upgrade the roster.
Some fans were expecting (or hoping for) the Raptors to use the full MLE (approximately $5.3 million) or one of the other exceptions the team still has on an impact veteran, but that would have taken the team above the luxury tax threshold. And while fans may feel whether or not ownership is willing to pay luxury tax as an indication of just how committed ownership is to winning, the problem with going over the threshold too early in the process is that it limits the team’s ability to improve.
Brooklyn went beyond the tax threshold like they were a contender, but they weren’t, and their ability to improve the roster is now so limited that they’ll likely not be able to improve much until 2016, when Joe Johnson’s offensively large salary will come off the books.
Even Miami’s roster languished after a couple of years over the threshold until they started having to take chances on gambles like Michael Beasley and Greg Oden because they didn’t have the means to compete for impact free agents and were restricted in trades possibilities.
Right now, the Raptors are a good team. They have talent and depth. And with the East as weak as it is, there are many who feel that now is the time for the Raptors to try and take advantage and make a run.
While the Raptors are a good team, in the East they are still behind Cleveland, Chicago (with a healthy Rose) and Indiana (it’s far too early to pronounce them dead). Washington could leapfrog the Raptors with the signing of Paul Pierce and Charlotte should also take another step forward. Brooklyn2 and Miami3 also might not be quite done yet, although the buzzards are circling. Ujiri doesn’t have a good enough roster to rest on his laurels and expect this roster to grow into an elite team. There simply isn’t enough high-level talent there.
And the NBA isn’t a fifteen team league residing east of the Mississippi. It’s made up of thirty teams, and any team that hopes to contend needs to be measuring itself against the better teams in the West.
GOOD IS THE ENEMY OF GREAT
While the Spurs showed the advantages of roster stability, it’s much easier to keep a roster stable when you’ve got three Hall of Fame players on the roster and are title contenders every year. No one should want to go back to Bryan Colangelo’s free-wheeling days with the Raptors, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick with a roster that simply isn’t at an elite level.
When you’re playing poker, you don’t stick with a pair of sixes when you know that other players have better hands.
Ujiri will have to upgrade the roster at some point if he truly wants the team to compete for a title and not just be competitive.
There are various ways for him to do it:
Obviously the team can improve through the draft, but this year’s has passed and it’s unlikely the Raptors will be drafting in the lottery for a while, unless Ujiri decides to blow things up, which is doubtful. Caboclo has some potential, and the more I see him the more I like the pick, but you’re far, far more likely to find a role player in the latter half of the draft than a star.
The Raptors have one of the youngest rosters in the league, with Lowry being the oldest starter and he just turned 28 in March. Valanciunas is barely 22 years old with Ross not being much older, and DeRozan is a year older than him. And that doesn’t even include Bruno Caboclo, who won’t even turn 19 until September.
DeRozan is just 24, but he’s been in the league five years already, and while he’ll likely improve due to his work ethic, most guards tend to start peaking after their fifth year.
Ross may have announced himself to the league when he went for 51 points, but he simply doesn’t have the tools to be much more than a very good role player. And while Ross could end up being an excellent “three-and-D” wing player and a valuable contributor, it’s difficult to see him being anything more than that.
Valanciunas is the player with the highest ceiling, but after two seasons expectations for him have started to become a little clearer. He’s got the potential to be a good offensive and defensive player, but he simply hasn’t exhibited a feel for the game, on either end, to expect him becoming an elite scorer or defensive player.
Of course, this is why Ujiri took a flier on Caboclo in the draft. A team in need of internal development needs to raise the ceiling as much as possible, but he’s way too young and raw to even start thinking about what his future might be like.
The rest of the team, while young, is pretty much what they are. Lowry had a career year, but is 28 and is in his prime right now. Amir may be extending his range on his jumpshot, but he’s pretty much the same player he was when he first became a Raptors, except he’s fouling less.
The Raptors can become a better team without adding outside talent, but they’ll need more than internal development before they can think of becoming one of the elite teams.
Bryan Colangelo may have been the master of the trade (or at least that was his reputation), but it was free agency that he always seemed to think would be what would turn the Raptors into contenders. When he first took over the team, he added Anthony Parker and Jorge Garbajosa as lynchpins for the team’s return to the playoffs.
And when they needed another infusion of talent, Colangelo did everything he could in order to have the cap space to sign Hedo Turkoglu.
Needless to say, free agency has been a mixed bag for the Raptors during their NBA tenure. When Turkoglu remains the team’s biggest free agent acquisition, that says a lot about the team’s ability to sign free agents. This isn’t a Toronto problem, though. One just has to look around the league today to see the danger of trying to build through free agency.
Houston struck out with just about everyone, from Carmelo to Bosh and now have settled on bringing Trevor Ariza back for another go around, which is only slightly better than the Nets, when they were still in New Jersey, striking out on LeBron, Bosh, Amare and Boozer and overpaying Travis Outlaw, only to amnesty him a couple of years later. It’s arguable whether or not they have even improved their roster after letting Jeremy Lin go to clear cap room and then deciding not to match Chandler Parsons offer sheet by Dallas.
Charlotte went all in on Gordon Hayward, giving him a max offer-sheet only to see Utah re-sign him, and I’m not sure which team is better off because of it. The Hornets then turned to Marvin Williams, paying him the same as Amir Johnson will be making this season which is probably not the best use of cap space.
Chicago looked like the favourite for Carmelo, and then had thoughts about going after Wade and ended up settling on an aging Pau Gasol and hope his recent decline will be halted (or at least slowed) by playing on a winning team again.
I know a lot of Raptor fans have high hopes for signing Kevin Durant when he will becomes a free agent in 2016, but they’ll be bidding against half the league (at least) including his current team, the Thunder, and his hometown team, the Wizards (who will have plenty of cap room then), as well as, most likely, Miami, New York, the Lakers, Dallas and San Antonio. And that’s only counting the heavy hitters.
One big problem that is rarely discussed with having a free agent as the cornerstone of the franchise is you’re relying on a player who has already shown a willingness to leave a team if the situation is not optimal. Miami rented LeBron James for four years, but when he saw himself surrounded by a roster that he didn’t was feel good enough to continue to compete for a title, he felt no loyalty towards the organization that signed him away from another team.
While Bosh re-signed with the Heat, they had to pay him the max to do it after he had all but decided to sign with Houston if James left. Expecting to wait on Wiggins is an exercise in extreme patience, considering there’s little reason to believe he will even be a free agent until 2021. That’s simply too far in advance to even contemplate planning for.
What free agency is good for is to fill holes in a roster that already has most of the pieces in place. That’s how San Antonio became the deepest team in the league and how teams like the Clippers and Portland are attempting to get to the next level. Free agency is a good place to find role players, but beware of trying to find stars there.
The final way to improve a roster is through trades.
There’s a reason players, especially on non-contenders, are commonly referred to as assets. As I said earlier, the Raptors are a good team but in order to improve the roster and try and build a legitimate contender, Ujiri (or the fans) can’t get too emotionally attached to any player on the roster.
Because the team lacks an elite player, there isn’t a player on the team that should be off limits in a trade. Not DeRozan, Lowry, Ross, Amir or even Valanciunas4.
The way to build through trades is to buy low and sell high. Find undervalued players and trade away players whose value is at it’s highest. Unfortunately, Raptors history is full of doing the complete opposite.
Andrea Bargnani was kept far, far too long until an overpaid three point shooter and a couple of conditional second round picks seemed like a steal for him. Vince Carter was traded a year too late. And the Raptors gave up a second pick in the draft, who went on to win Defensive Player of the Year and is still playing in the league today, for a 36 year old whose best days were behind him, only to trade him away for basically nothing three years later5.
While Raptor fans would obviously like to see trades like the Clippers did for Chris Paul, or what Houston did for James Harden, it’s uncommon that elite players come on the market, and it’s even rarer that those players don’t end up choosing their destination.
No one is going to trade for Kevin Love if he doesn’t express and interest in re-signing with them. Before LeBron James went back to Cleveland they weren’t in the running for Love, yet now they’re a favourite. But that’s not to say trades aren’t a viable option to improve a roster. One just has to look at the Rudy Gay trade to see that.
The goal should be to find players who are undervalued for some reason. Indiana traded away a 31-year old Dale Davis for a 21-year old Jermaine O’Neal who couldn’t get off the bench in Portland. Even Toronto got Kyle Lowry at a discount. It’s always a gamble, and sometimes it doesn’t pay off, but it can pay off huge at times. O’Neal went on to play in six All Star games and appear on three All NBA teams. Davis was a decent veteran presence in Portland, but was nowhere near the player O’Neal became.
Anthony Bennett had one of the worst rookie seasons for a number one pick in NBA history, but surgery and other medical problems caused him to come into training camp overweight and Cleveland handled him extremely poorly, basically destroying any confidence he might have had. We’ve seen in the summer league how an in-shape Bennett could play, and he might be someone that could be had in a trade.
Of course there are other undervalued players out there that the Raptors should be looking at, like Terrence Jones or Perry Jones.
ARMCHAIR GM TIME
If there was a time for the Raptors to try and trade for Andrew Wiggins it would be right now. Draft picks like Wiggins are available so rarely it would be a crime for them not to go for it.
LeBron James choosing to go back to Cleveland might end up being the most fortunate thing to happen to Toronto. I realize that Cleveland’s new coach, David Blatt, recently stated that Wiggins won’t be traded, but that should be taken with a grain of salt. A trio of James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving would give any team a run for their money. Wiggins looks like he could be a special player, but Love IS a special player right now, and the Cavaliers won’t have to wait a few years for him to develop. James will turn 30 next season and I’m not sure Dan Gilbert would be comfortable waiting for Wiggins to turn into the player many assume he will.
As for Minnesota, they would definitely take Wiggins back if offered, but from what I gather Flip Saunders isn’t thrilled with the prospect of a) losing more games and waiting two or three more years to make the playoffs and b) gambling that Wiggins will turn into an elite player. While Cleveland doesn’t have an All Star that they would be willing to part with (Irving obviously isn’t going anywhere), Toronto does.
If the Raptors can facilitate a trade, giving up DeRozan, Amir (to Minnesota) and possibly Terrence Ross (and his rookie contract going to Cleveland) and get back Wiggins and either Bennett or Tristan Thompson (with the other going to Minnesota), as well as agree to take back Kevin Martin and possibly another oversized contract from Minnesota to sweeten the deal, the Raptors become a younger team with a higher ceiling. And they are still able to compete for a playoff spot6.
Minnesota can continue to compete for a playoff spot and get back a legitimate All Star in return for Love, and are able to hit the ground running next season with a deeper team.
Cleveland gets Love and a new superstar team, but also Terrence Ross, a young shooter who can play defense on an affordable contract and someone who would compliment James and Irving.
Would trading three-fifths of the starting lineup of a 48 win team for a rookie who hasn’t played a minute in the NBA and a few role players be a major gamble? Sure. But great teams become great through either incredible luck (like San Antonio missing the playoffs three times in 30 years and happen to win the lottery two of those times when David Robinson and Tim Duncan were available) or by taking huge risks (like Jerry West trading a top ten center in his prime for a rookie selected 13th in the draft AND trading away decent players for nothing on the off chance Shaquille ONeal would leave a contender in order to sign with his team), or a combination of both.
Trading away a well-liked and respected All Star in DeRozan, an efficient, athletic big man who loves the city in Amir, and a nice young prospect in Ross, for Wiggins and whoever else they would get would definitely be a risk. But it’s a risk I think the Raptors need to try and take.