Report: Raptors signing Jason Thompson, cutting Anthony Bennett

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The Toronto Raptors are signing Jason Thompson for the remainder of the season, according to a report from Shams Charania of The Vertical. The Raptors will waive Anthony Bennett in order to clear a roster spot.

I suggested this as a possibility last week and broke down what Thompson could bring to the table.

League-wide, the bigger news here is going to be the Raptors pulling the plug on Bennett, the former No. 1 overall pick who was signed as a potential make-good project at the end of the bench. Selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers out of UNLV, Bennett struggled with sleep apnea, a shoulder injury, vision issues, and conditioning problems as a rookie, posting one of the worst freshman campaigns for a top pick in recent memory. He was included alongside Andrew Wiggins in the return for Kevin Love – as salary ballast, not a prospect – and he improved only marginally in Minnesota as a sophomore. The Timberwolves made the bold and unprecedented move of buying out the third year on his rookie-scale contract, and the Raptors signed him once he went through waivers unclaimed.

Bennett saw action in 19 games for the Raptors this season, totaling just 84 minutes. He was generally holstered until garbage time, though he was called on for spot duty opposite Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James, to predictable results. He averaged 1.5 points and 1.2 rebounds, shooting 30.8 percent from the floor and 3-of-14 from long-range.

What’s worse, he failed to impress in six D-League outings, too. The first No. 1 pick ever sent to the D-League, Bennett averaged 9.2 points and 3.2 rebounds in 17.9 minutes with Raptors 905, shooting 33.9 percent and hitting just 6-of-24 on threes. His shot selection was poor, his defensive effort inconsistent, and his rebounding, thought to be his biggest strength, unimpressive. Perhaps it was a motivation or comfort issue despite the team claiming Bennett asked to be assigned, but he just didn’t click in Mississauga.

That may be his next stop, now. Bennett will likely clear waivers, and the Raptors would then have the option to make him an in-season affiliate player with the 905. That wouldn’t give the Raptors any claim over his NBA rights – he’d be free to sign anywhere – but if they’re truly committed to him as a long-term project, he could continue developing under the organization’s purview. General manager Masai Ujiri said in the preseason that Bennett’s development was not a one-year project, and whether they opt to keep him in-house will speak to whether that was true.

Assuming, of course, Bennett is willing to follow that plan. He’s still just 22 and could conceivably continue to grow to the point where he gets another NBA look, but he’s going to have to show an awful lot for that to happen. Whether or not he cares to continue to fight is yet to be seen, and international leagues would represent a more lucrative career path if proximity to the NBA (and home) aren’t a major factor for him. He couldn’t be faulted for either path. If there’s an NBA team willing to kick the tires on him, it could be Portland, who employ Canadian national team head coach Jay Triano, but they’re in a playoff race of their own and don’t have a roster spot. Philadelphia and Phoenix are out-of-it teams who could conceivably take a flier, but there are a handful of D-League names worth a look ahead of Bennett.

As it stands, Bennett is likely the worst No. 1 pick of the modern era, which is pretty sad. The Raptors tried to give him a chance and it just didn’t work out, which is also sad.

But the Raptors are a playoff-bound team and can’t afford to waste a roster spot on a non-prospect if an upgrade presents itself.

In Thompson, the Raptors found such an upgrade. The Golden State Warriors waived Thompson to make room for Anderson Varejao last week, using the stretch provision on the $2.65 million in guaranteed money owed to Thompson for next season. That made the 29-year-old power forward a free agent, and the Raptors, as a team lacking depth at the four, make sense as a home.

Rather than rewriting what he brings to the table, here’s the bulk of what I wrote in arguing for a Thompson signing last week:

While Thompson has played sparingly with the Warriors, that can hardly be seen as an indictment on his current level of play. Given where Golden State stood in the offseason and how much they value continuity, it’s a little surprising that he even remained on the roster after being acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers for Gerald Wallace’s heftier contract. Prior to that, the Sixers had been paid by the Sacramento Kings to take on the salary of Thompson and others, freeing them to make free agent runs at Kosta Koufos and Rajon Rondo. In Oakland, Thompson’s totaled just 179 minutes in 28 appearances, barely registering on the box score.

He’s essentially been unloaded three times in less than a calendar year now, and so someone thinking he won’t move the needle much would be understandable. But he would. His path over the last several months doesn’t have much to do with him as a player and has more to do with the financial realities of the NBA. He was a little overpaid, and the Kings wanted to go with other options in the frontcourt. The Sixers are a clearinghouse for such contracts, and flipping him to the Warriors was almost strictly a financial move to lower the champs’ luxury tax hit. Getting cut for Varejao, who has played nearly as little and has looked even worse in returning from a serious Achilles injury at age 33, is somewhat of a bad look but one predicated by the Warriors losing Festus Ezeli for six weeks (and the fun of Varejao getting to team with Leandro Barbosa).

By swapping Bennett out for Thompson, the Raptors wouldn’t be taking a home run swing by any means, but they’d put themselves in a position to get far more utility out of that roster spot than they’re currently getting. Bennett’s only played 78 minutes on the season, but head coach Dwane Casey would ostensibly trust Thompson, an experienced veteran with the perceived toughness he likes, more. There still wouldn’t be a ton of minutes for him, but with Luis Scola struggling – more on that tomorrow – and how thin the team is at the four-spot, at least until DeMarre Carroll returns to health, it would be a worthwhile addition.

Right now, Casey doesn’t have a third option he trusts at the four, and while that’s not a huge deal when everything’s going well, the team would be rendered woefully thin if injury struck Scola or Patrick Patterson. None of the three centers can play together, and James Johnson is the only other wing on the roster who could conceivably slide over. A short-term dip would be tolerable given how the Raptors have insulated themselves in the two-seed, but running thin is an entirely avoidable scenario.

And this is all without addressing that Thompson is actually pretty solid. He wouldn’t just represent an upgrade on what’s essentially a wasted 14th roster spot on Bennett, but he could factor in to some matchups and push for the 10th or 11th spot in Casey’s rotation, giving the team a different look against larger frontcourts.

At 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, Thompson nearly has the size of a center but still moves well enough to cover ground defensively at the four. He’s not a lockdown guy, but similar to Patterson, he’s a smart team defender with good timing and help instincts. He’s also a plus-rebounder at the four, superior to Patterson and comparable to Scola, and is more of a threat to come with a weak-side block than the other two options. He’d offer more than Scola defensively, full stop, and he’s a little more matchup-proof despite being even larger, as he has better foot speed and lateral quickness. He could also probably man Scola’s occasional small-five role.

Offensively, Thompson doesn’t offer much over Scola or Patterson. He’s a solid screen-setter thanks to commitment and a strong lower half, and he can pop to the elbows, albeit maybe not enough for it to really matter (he shot 35 percent from beyond 10 feet last year). He’s a decent rim-runner but isn’t an elite finisher, and he’d cramp spacing alongside Jonas Valanciunas or Bismack Biyombo, even more than Scola does, because he’s no threat fading to the corners after setting a pick (he’s 1-of-27 from long-range in his career). He’s a strong offensive rebounder, again comparable with Scola, in part because he has good instincts and in part because he doesn’t venture far from the rim often. With the Raptors making a concerted effort over the last few months to crash less, that skill might be negated some, though he didn’t chase an inordinate amount in Sacramento last year, per data from Nylon Calculus.

So again, he’s not a panacea by any means, and any calls for him to take serious minutes from the incumbent power forwards would be reactionary. He’s barely played this year, and that’s in part due to being at the end of a loaded Golden State roster, but it’s worth keeping in mind. In the two seasons prior, he averaged 6.6 points and 6.5 rebounds in 24.5 minutes while shooting 48.9 percent from the floor, solid if unspectacular production. He’s still just 29, and so the time on the bench probably hasn’t taken too much off of his game, though he’s no longer the regular double-double threat he was earlier in his career.

Thompson would represent a solid depth piece, an appreciable upgrade on Bennett, and a defensive option in the matchups Scola struggles with, albeit one who could cramp spacing some. No buyout-season candidate is going to dramatically improve a team’s chances, but Thompson represents an opportunity to provide Casey with an additional matchup tool and improve the team’s depth at its weakest position.

So, hey, good on the Raptors. A chance to get better, even at the margins, presented itself, and they took it. it’s not going to change the team’s trajectory for the rest of the season, but it’s additional insurance, an extra matchup option, and the chance to get a struggling Luis Scola some rest without losing too much in the rotation. Those things aren’t insignificant in a playoff race.

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