Still, Johnson had value. Despite an image as a bit of a mercurial player and the slight misstep of tweeting his displeasure (something he owned up to really well), Johnson was an important presence around the team. Entrusted with helping mold the team’s younger players, it was usually Johnson staying into the latest portions of practice to work out with Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Bruno Caboclo, and Lucas Nogueira. Johnson was also a regular presence supporting the D-League detachment in Mississauga, essentially functioning as a sort of player-slash-development coach.
His legacy with the team is complicated given this mixed bag. When used in a smaller role, his play screamed for a bigger one. When entrusted with more responsibility, his play wasn’t quite as up to the task. All the while, it was difficult to separate Johnson’s own play from his awkward fit as a non-shooter on a roster that desperately needed shooting from his positions. And, of course, he wasn’t always deployed optimally, sometimes sitting against the exact player type he was theoretically on the roster to help with, negating his biggest value, or asked to spot up instead of working as a secondary ball-handler in second units. Johnson is the definition of imperfect, but there was always a sense he could perhaps do a little more, he just wasn’t able to.
The problem for Toronto is a lot of teams would like to add more three-point shooting and a big man. One dimensional veterans like forward Ryan Anderson just signed for $20 million a season because he is a good three-point shooter. Fortunately for Toronto, the money is starting to run out and it won’t be long before the guys who are left in free agency will become more amenable to the relatively merger salary cap space and exceptions the Raptors (and almost every other team now) have to work with.
If you are trying to read the tea leaves in Toronto, you could lean a bit on what Ujiri was saying or wasn’t saying.
He wasn’t saying the Raptors are looking for three-point shooting in free agency, so maybe he’s hoping to find a cheap shooter in Summer League or overseas? Also, it would seem putting Terrence Ross on the trade block would be counterproductive at this time as well.
The big man pickings in free agency are starting to get thin, but there are some interesting players still available, although for how much longer isn’t certain. The list keeps getting shorter.
In effect, Johnson got a modest raise after his two years in Toronto making $2.5 million each year. It proves Johnson still has some utility — as an adaptable forward, as a ball handler and playmaker, as an (under-reported) good locker room guy. Still, not bad for a player whose numbers took a dip to 5.0 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists; also not bad for a dude whose sense of elan seemed to leak out of him as the season wore on. Or, yes, OK, maybe I’m projecting.
As some of you know, I had something of a thing going with James Johnson. Not an actual thing, mind you. He probably would not be able to point me out in a lineup. I only spoke to him a few times in the two years he was on the team. But I did write about him. A lot. And while I’m at something of a loss to explain what exactly I was doing with the James Johnson Watch, I like to think it stands as a singular testament to a unique basketball player and person. I still don’t know what makes Johnson tick, but then again: do we really ever know anybody?
Johnson’s time on the Raptors never quite ascended to the heights we (and presumably he) hoped for.
The Raptors held Minnesota without a point for the first 3:37 of the fourth, with a three-guard look proving too much pressure for a Dunn-less Wolves unit. Yanick Moreira, who had a really solid showing, used his length well as the lone natural big for a long stretch, while Drew Crawford’s heady play helped ease the tempo, and Fred Van Vleet scored six points in short order to help tie the game.
“I told the team at the end that Fred really turned the game around for us,” Mahlalela said. “He was the key for us…I told the team, Fred was a difference maker.”
When Dunn checked back in with 5:36 left, the game was once again tied, and Mahlalela called on Powell to surround Moreira (and then Jakob Poeltl) with four guards in a manic switch-everywhere track lineup. Caboclo, who had another up-and-down game but showed some new wrinkles he’s at least getting comfortable trying out, later returned to close things out, more necessary experience for the third-year forward.
“Our goal is to develop our young players, and anything we can do to put them in different, unique situations to try to test them, it’s better for us,” Mahlalela said of the funkier lineups and tight-game exposure. “As a coach, you don’t want close games. But for their growth and development, it was great for us.”
For the game, Powell finished with 29 points on 7-for-15 shooting, including 4-for-8 from three and 11-for-12 from the line. He also grabbed eight rebounds and had three assists. Then add on top of that the fact that Powell had to check Dunn for the majority of the game. It was Dunn who largely powered the T-Wolves, finishing with 21 points (on 9-for-17 shooting), 9 rebounds and 4 assists of his own. By that tally, the second year man Powell — particularly with some late dagger threes — got the better of the matchup.
The story for the rest of the Raptors was a mix of rookie learning experience and relative composure. For the former, we turn to Jakob Poeltl who had an up and down game for the day. The positives: Poeltl blocked three shots, grabbed five boards and had six points; he also refused to back down even as Adreian Payne went at him relentlessly, and, in the second quarter, Dunn gave him a shot to the mouth with his shoulder that drew blood. Poeltl checked out for a second and then came right back, God love him.
Meanwhile, Bruno Caboclo continued his, hmmm, uneasy (?) campaign for relevance. As per usual, the three ball was there for Bruno — he made 2-for-5 on the day — but he also tried to mix it up by putting the ball on the floor a few times.
For the second consecutive game, Norman Powell showed why he earned the trust of Toronto’s coaching staff in this year’s postseason run. Powell looked fantastic against the Timberwolves, getting to the line at will and coming up with nine big points in a close fourth quarter as the Raptors came back from an eight-point deficit after three quarters.
Much like he did at Utah, Poeltl didn’t force himself on the game. And in many ways, that’s one of his finest assets. He let the action come to him, figured out what his strengths were on that particular night, and played to them. He was one of the main reasons the Raptors blew the Kings out, winning 88-47 in a game that truthfully wasn’t that close.
Poeltl accomplished all of this in 21 minutes of action. Most impressive, he finished with a game-high plus-39, representing how much his team outscored Sacramento when he was on the floor.
“I thought he rebounded the ball really well and he was very active,” Wright said. “It was definitely a good, nice first game for him. That’s what we’re going to need from him.”
The type of game Poeltl played against the Kings is what the Raptors are going to need from him over the long term. Biyombo was so successful because he offered rim protection, he became an elite rebounder and he cleaned up messes with dives and finishes at the basket.
Toronto is counting on Poeltl to do some of the same things. At the same stage, the 7-foot-1 center is more skilled than Biyombo, although not quite as strong or athletic. But Poeltl showed in game one that he has potential to step into the rotation for the Raptors almost instantly.
And if Toronto is going to figure out a way to stay near the top of the east, Poeltl is going to have to factor into the equation, even if his role is 15-20 minutes a night off the bench. Poeltl knows it will all be a blur. But he also knows he has the ability to settle down and find a second wind.
In the end, though, France was a better team. They were a deeper team. A more talented team. Boris Diaw is a remarkable passer, Nicolas Batum a terrific defender, Tony Parker a cold-hearted killer. There’s a reason why they were the favorite and why, despite turning in a solid tournament to this point, we said Canada needed to play a perfect game to upset the powerhouse.
Canada played a good game, a spirited game, but an imperfect one, and so France came away with a 83-74 victory and a ticket to Rio in August (Box Score).
Cory Joseph, as you’d expect having watched this tournament so far, wasn’t willing to go quietly. He turned in another artful performance, scoring 20 points and dishing six dimes, playing 36 minutes and trying his damnedest to lead the charge. With France able to collapse in the paint, unafraid of Canada’s shooting – they went 7-of-19 from outside but were clearly shy to let fly after three games of ice-cold heaving – Joseph was operating without much space. That, and the inclination to try to do some very difficult things to help the team, resulted in seven turnovers.
Canada won the rebounding battle and scored more points in the paint, but once again struggled to hit the long ball, shooting 37% on the night, but missing many attempts that should have opened up the floor. Canada’s Brady Heslip and Phil Scrubb never quite found the touch and Melvin Ejim was the surprise distance threat, hitting all four of his three-point shots.
Ejim was a bright spot throughout the tournament for Canada as he looks to find his way onto an NBA roster for next season. He finished with an efficient 19 points and three rebounds.
His presence and the defensive efforts of Thomas Scrubb nearly negated the loss of Andrew Wiggins and Nik Stauskas, who fans were quick to blame for Canada’s shortfall after they declined spots on the national team this summer. Those same fans are now left wondering what a full team could have accomplished.
Former Raptor and French guard Nando De Colo scored 22 in the win and was named tournament MVP, Parker scored 26 and France got important contributions from NBA players Nic Batum and Boris Diaw.
There are two possibly answers. First, the Raptors could have been pursuing a trade to clear more cap space and offer more money (say, $10 million or more) to a free agent. With the market shrinking and very few difference makers still out there, I think this scenario is unlikely.
The second option where the small amount of cap room is more valuable than the MLE is in small money trades. When a team sends out a lot of salary in a trade (more than $10 million) they can bring back at least $5 million in excess salary even if they are over the cap. But in smaller trades, they are limited to roughly a 150% return on their outgoing salary (if they are over the cap). If a team is under the cap, they can instead use their cap space to absorb excess salary coming back.
So for example, if the team wanted to trade a $2 million player, they would only be able to absorb a $3.1 million player in return if they are over the cap. But, prior to signing the rookies, the Raptors had $5.5 million in cap room, so could instead absorb back a $7.6 million player using the same trade piece (the outgoing $2 million in salary plus the $5.5 million in cap room, plus a $100 thousand buffer the league allows on such trades).
So if the Raptors were looking for a way to trade, say, Lucas Nogueira ($1.9 million) or Delon Wright ($1.6 million) — and I’m not saying they were — and absorb a medium-sized contract in return, keeping that cap space available would have been useful to them. Now that the rookies have signed, that cap space shrinks by $650,000, which means either the trade they are potentially considering doesn’t require as big a salary differential, or they have given up on these sorts of trades and are going to operate over the cap.
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