As Toronto Raptors fans watch a collection of D-League call-ups, injured players and unimagined line-ups to closeout the current season, the obvious question is where do the Raptors go from here? For those who were paying close attention at the start of the season, it looks like everything is unfolding according to President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo’s plan.
“We have a number of different options we can pursue here, but one thing I will tell you is we have a plan in place,” Colangelo said at the start of the season. “And I think you have all heard me say this, we are going to stick to that plan and that plan is to basically remain as flexible as possible. We want to develop our young players, we want to preserve that cap flexibility moving forward and we want to continue to add pieces, pieces that we think are parts of a championship puzzle.
“There is so much to be excited about beyond this year. Adding to the players we have right now, adding Jonas Valanciunas next season, adding another draft pick that we have plugged in at a placeholder number. We are going to have a lot of cap flexibility, anywhere from $10 million to $20 million. That is a significant opportunity in and of itself but to say we have good young talent, adding two more significant pieces and potentially a significant free agent or two, it really does lend itself to the thought that this plan is in place and we shouldn’t alter that plan, we shouldn’t detract from that.”
A cautious Colangelo has jealously protected his future salary cap space and, toward the trade deadline, he made moves to further increase his flexibility to acquire players by trade or free agency after the end of the season.
New head coach Dwane Casey has balanced fielding a competitive defensive team with the development of his young players to achieve Colangelo’s planned draft lottery position while creating confidence this team could be much improved next season. Casey took a twenty-sixth ranked Raptors’ defense that allowed 105.4 points per game a year ago to a respectable twelfth-best defensive team that gives up less than 95 points.
As planned, the Raptors are in a position to begin to revamp this roster with future championship aspirations in mind.
The Raptors’ Next Steps
Before the season, Colangelo was looking for a point guard of the future and another big man who could fill the hole at center until Jonas Valanciunas arrived and adapted to the NBA game. As the season has progressed, the Raptors have identified their biggest needs coming into next season. Coach Casey was surprised by how much the Raptors have struggled offensively, even taking Andrea Bargnani’s injury into account and the team will be looking to add some offensive talent for next season.
The draft lottery and the players available when the Raptors select will have a big influence on future moves. Potential future star players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Thomas Robinson, Bradley Beal and Harrison Barnes could be available when the Raptors make their draft selection and even the likely latter lottery picks Jeremy Lamb, Damian Lillard and Kendall Marshall could be in the mix. Any of these young prospects would be expected to significantly impact the Raptors’ decision-making during free agency in July and the Leandro Barbosa trade has put Colangelo in a position to make a huge draft-day splash. As planned, expect at least three or four new faces in next season’s rotation before it’s all done.
Jose Calderon wasn’t the point guard of the future at the start of this season, but he is definitely the point guard of the present now. Coming off his best season as a Raptor and firmly entrenched as a Casey favorite, it will take a special player coming in to move Calderon to the bench or out in a trade.
The backup and third string point guards are question marks for next season. When he played, Jerryd Bayless was an effective and promising future point guard solution. The issue has been untimely injuries, including Bayless’ habit of playing hurt. It’s a tough call as the Raptors have played well with Bayless, but Colangelo wasn’t sold on him as a point guard of the future last year and he hasn’t played enough this season to change that opinion.
The free agent to watch is Canadian Steve Nash. If the two-time MVP can be convinced to finish his career in Toronto, Calderon becomes redundant. Based on potential ticket sales alone, the Raptors will make a pitch for Nash and this unlikely acquisition would change everything for Toronto next season.
After an atrocious start, DeMar DeRozan started to get his game back on track and has continued the seemingly slow but noticeable improvement that was witnessed last season. The 22-year-old hit a bump in the road and no one is untouchable on this roster, but the starting shooting guard spot will be DeRozan’s to lose again next season.
There are several highly rated wing prospects in this year’s draft who could challenge DeRozan for his spot in the rotation, not to mention a handful of attractive free agent prospects. The Raptors need depth at the wing and someone who can legitimately challenge DeRozan if his development stalls over the summer. Expect another quality wing player on the Raptors when the season starts.
Until his recent internal spat with Casey, James Johnson was earning himself a spot as a favorite for his athletic defensive play and modest offensive contributions. The Raptors need an upgrade at the wing and Johnson could be the odd man out, but with a summer of decent coaching, Johnson could still turn out to be the upgrade the team needs.
Linas Kleiza will be spending this summer with his national teammate Jonas Valanciunas. As much of the Raptors’ future success hinges on integrating Valanciunas into the NBA as quickly and smoothly as possible, Kleiza isn’t going anywhere.
Both Johnson and Kleiza are combo forwards who can comfortably spend time at either forward spot depending on match-ups, therefore the Raptors will be putting a priority on getting another wing that can play small forward in the mix.
Colangelo has believed in Bargnani’s potential to be the face-of-the-franchise since he drafted the big Italian in 2006 and this season Bargnani earned Coach Casey’s endorsement.
“Pre-injury he was rolling. He was playing like an All-Star,” Casey said. “I said that and I meant it. Offensively and defensively, he was a great surprise to me at the beginning of the year.”
The starting spot is taken and the Raptors currently feature Amir Johnson, Ed Davis, James Johnson and Kleiza who could all eat up the backup minutes behind a healthy Bargnani. The Raptors clearly have some decisions to make and the situation could become exacerbated if the best player available when the Raptors draft is Robinson.
Amir Johnson is a solid reserve big man under contract for three more seasons, Ed Davis is still on his rookie deal and either player could fit into the team’s long range plans. In Colangelo’s wheeling and dealing to improve his team, one of his big men could be moved.
Since Valanciunas won the MVP at the FIBA under-19 world championships and played for his senior national team this past summer, the expectations from the Raptors’ future rookie have skyrocketed. As much as Casey and Colangelo have attempted to moderate the enthusiasm, Valanciunas continues to raise the bar by starring for his club team in Lithuania. A lot will be expected from him next season.
Aaron Gray has been getting a season long tryout with the Raptors and has shown he is a very serviceable center with the necessary size and strength to be an effective backup. Gray is a free agent, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him return to Toronto next season.
Amir Johnson and Ed Davis have provided minutes as undersized centers this season but neither player represents an ideal long term solution at center. If Gray isn’t back, Colangelo will be looking for a backup.
Colangelo has followed his plan faithfully since the start of the season and resisted the temptation to grab a few more mid-season wins in favor of preserving his salary cap space and desired lottery pick. This summer, the Raptors have the space to add Valanciunas, this year’s lottery pick and a significant free agent without making any further moves with the players they have under contract. Colangelo has also positioned the Raptors to take advantage of opportunities at the draft or take back additional salary in trades to further his goals.
The Raptors will head into next season with a defense-oriented culture and a significant upgrade in talent on their roster. After four years in the NBA draft lottery, things are starting to look up in Toronto.