• Toronto Raptors
If there’s a team from this group that belongs on the “intriguing” list, it’s probably Toronto, which landed its franchise point guard in a fascinating trade with the Rockets after improving from cover-your-eyes awful to league average on defense in coach Dwane Casey’s first year. Kyle Lowry will serve as the team’s major free-agent prize because the Raptors reserved their rather significant cap space for a two-pronged pursuit of Steve Nash, a strategy that included both a sizable offer to the two-time MVP and a crazy offer sheet to Landry Fields designed to block the Knicks from a sign-and-trade deal for Nash.
Fields will make just shy of $6.5 million annually over the next three seasons, a drastic overpay for a wing who shot 25.6 percent from three-point range last season and struggles to defend quick shooting guards. Fields will likely begin the season as the starting small forward for a team that had one of the NBA’s worst wing rotations in 2011-12, when the likes of Rasual Butler and a slightly out-of-position James Johnson mostly started there. The 24-year-old Fields will represent an upgrade if he can shoot a league-average mark from deep, and his cutting game generally functioned much better before the Knicks dealt for Carmelo Anthony, the sort of dominant, ball-stopping scorer not present in Toronto. And it’s not as if Toronto missed an obvious gem in free agency;
the small-forward market was top-heavy, with the prime options being either restricted (Nicolas Batum) or aging/potentially overpriced (Gerald Wallace, Andrei Kirilenko), and the Raptors used the draft to find a potential replacement (Terrence Ross) for DeMar DeRozan at shooting guard.
The Fields deal will hurt the Raptors’ flexibility, but not fatally. Toronto is set to have about $11.5 million in cap space next summer before factoring in DeRozan’s $8.4 million cap hold
. DeRozan’s future is one of the interesting questions that Toronto faces. Ditto for the frontcourt, where the anticipated debut of Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas will make for a crowd of players who all want minutes. Andrea Bargnani is obviously a heavy-minutes starter, and he played the best ball of his career early last season before suffering a series of nagging leg injuries. The Raptors, who had the second-worst offense last season, actually scored at a league-average rate when Bargnani was around to spread the floor.
After that? Nothing but questions, with Amir Johnson, Ed Davis, Valanciunas and fellow Lithuanian Linas Kleiza, who can swing between both forward positions but probably works best in the NBA as a small-ball power forward. (The Raptors’ salary dump of Johnson to Sacramento cleared that precise role for Kleiza). And we haven’t mentioned Aaron Gray, a burly center for whom Casey has an affection.
Bottom line: With some internal growth and Lowry on board to upgrade the defense at the top of the arc, the Raptors have a chance to make some noise in the race for the No. 8 spot — especially if the Sixers slip after their own offseason makeover. Toronto also will be a team to watch on the trade and free-agency markets because of its glut of big men, decent cap flexibility, still-available amnesty provision and point guard Jose Calderon’s expiring deal.