There are a lot of questions that surround the Toronto Raptors as they head into their 17th NBA season. However, from this vantage point, it seems like none are as immediately pressing as what they are going to do about the centre position this season. Whatever solution they choose will have ripple effects up and down the roster and could even spill into next year and help (or hinder) the development of prized draft pick Jonas Valanciunas. What is the issue at the centre position? I'm so glad you asked.
The issue breaks down like this: Andrea Bargnani played centre last season for the club and failed miserably. Opposing centers averaged 21.1 ppg against him, he ranked dead last amongst centres in rebound rate at 8.6 (a career-low) and his help defence would best be described as non-existent. Long term, both Bryan Colangelo and head coach Dwane Casey see him as power forward, and would like to get him plenty of minutes at that position this season to see how he fares there. That's the core of the issue, anyway. But wait, there's more.
The Raptors need to start Bargnani at power forward this season because they need to evaluate two things: one, how badly his lack of defence would hurt them if he wasn't the team's last line of defence, and two, how much would it affect his rebounding if he wasn't tasked with fending off the opposing team's biggest player.
Essentially, they need to gauge if he'd be a suitable frontcourt partner for Valanciunas going forward, and perhaps more broadly, they need to assess how realistic it is to believe this team could seriously compete with him in the starting lineup going forward. In other words, if the team designs its entire starting five around mitigating his limitations, does he provide enough positives to make it worthwhile?
So, simple solution, right? Go out and get a centre and try it out. Well, it's not that simple. Firstly, the team would have to consider how much money and how many years they'd be willing to commit to a centre with Valanciunas coming over in ten months time. Secondly, the team would have to consider the ramifications on the other young frontcourt players on this team if they were to shift Bargnani full-time to power forward in an attempt to assess the full measure of his game.
Remember, there are not only other power forwards on this team, but if Bargnani proves unable to elevate his quality of play this year, they may outlast him on the roster, which makes their development as much of a priority as Bargnani's evaluation.
So, that means that while the team needs to move Bargnani (and his roughly 36 minutes per game) over to the power forward position for at least a good chunk of those minutes, they also need to find regular, productive minutes for Ed Davis and Amir Johnson in the frontcourt as well, whether or not they import a new starting center. Davis, in particular, probably warrants more than the 24.6 minutes he averaged last season, especially after averaging 10.5 ppg and 8.2 rpg as a starter in 17 games.
Now is probably also a good time to point out that Linas Klezia, last summer's not-inexpensive pickup, is more of a natural power forward than a small forward. Just throwing that out there.
Also, one last point: Bryan Colangelo is aware of this problem. It's why he tried to trade for Tyson Chandler last summer. It's why he flirted with signing Erick Dampier last fall. It's why he drafted Solomon Alabi, it's why he traded for Alexis Ajinca. He knows this team needs a real centre that can play at least a few minutes per game, so if you want any insight on how management sees this situation, there's your answer.
So what's the solution going to be this year? Well, there is no one obvious way to go. One course of action would involve the team throwing money at Tyson Chandler or Sam Dalembert and working out the rotation this season and next season as needed. They'd both be big-minute players but both offer defensive and rebounding abilities that dwarf anyone else on the current roster.
Another option would be to pick up a cheap centre like Joel Przybilla, Jeff Foster or Jason Collins, use them at the start of each half for five-to-eight minutes, then shift Bargnani to centre for the rest of the time and play Davis and Johnson at power forward in whatever minutes are left over.
Yet another option would be to keep Bargnani at centre, Davis and Johnson as the power forwards, and wait to evaluate Bargnani and Valanciunas together next season, although that would seem like a significant waste of time and a season.
Those options, of course, are the least aggressive available to the Raptors. If they were open to trading Bargnani or Johnson, they could look to significantly reshuffle the deck this season in anticipation of next summer's big man heavy draft and the arrival of Valanciunas. You'd be hard pressed to find too many observers who see Bargnani in particular as a starter on a legitimate contending NBA team (which one assumes the Raptors are at least going to try and construct), and making him someone else's problem to work around may simply be an inevitability.
For now, though, the order of the day is probably the one with the least long-term ramifications. The team wants to keep a good chunk of cap space available to them next summer, with only $40 million in salary commitments (reduced to $29.5 million if they amnesty Jose Calderon) leaving them as big players in a huge free agent class if they play their cards right. The only fear with that plan is focusing too singularly on the future without given due consideration to the needs of today to help set up that future.
Figuring out this Bargnani thing is a huge part of that future, and the sooner it can get sorted out, the sooner the team can start to bring that future into focus. It's all well and good to have 2012 circled on the calendar, but there is still a season to play before we get there.