Just as quickly as you read the articles excoriating the Toronto Raptors’ playoff collapse against the Washington Wizards, media attention shifted to the off-season, setting the stage for what should be a fascinating, high-stakes summer with so many things in play.
There are a confluence of factors that seem to be coming together at the same time, making for what could be a perfect storm. Beyond the sheer disappointment surrounding the Raptors’ sweep at the hands of the Wizards lies questions of whether the current core is good enough to move forward with. Remember, General Manager Masai Ujiri did not draft DeMar DeRozan or Jonas Valanciunas, did not trade for Kyle Lowry or Amir Johnson and did not tab Dwane Casey as his head coach. In other words, this is a team that hasn’t been fully impacted by its highly regarded GM.
The current landscape facing the Raps is one that allows for considerable change. If the club were to cut ties with all of their pending free agents, they will have just under $30 million in cap space heading into a free agency period that, while not stacked like the 2016 class, still includes a pretty impressive roster of names. Of course, with Johnson and Lou Williams headlining the Raps’ own pending free agents, the decision to relinquish all UFA’s isn’t a simple one. Nor, for that matter, is attaching long-term money to anyone at a time when the cap is about to explode alongside the league’s lucrative new TV deal, just in time for 2016’s Kevin Durant-led free agent bonanza.
The long-term plan has to be coupled with a short-term acknowledgment that the East, and in particular the Atlantic division, is still very much ripe for the taking. While significant change looks to be on the horizon, blowing it all up without returning similar talent would be effectively walking away from at least one more division title. You add in a coaching decision, contract options for Valanciunas and Terrence Ross and a roster full of movable parts without anyone, aside from maybe Bruno Caboclo, off limits and things are going to get interesting in a hurry for Ujiri and the club’s front office.
Ujiri’s off-season work has already begun with the announcement of the club’s pending acquisition of its own NBA Development League team. However, the GM will surely take his time with most of the big decisions forthcoming. Luckily for him, I’ve made it easier by outlining an aggressive 10-step plan for a club clearly in need of change but still carrying hope for future success:
1. Nice knowing you, Amir and Lou
There aren’t many positives to take from the Raps’ dismantling at the hands of Washington, but you could argue that it makes releasing the club’s own free agents easier to swallow emotionally. Johnson will still be tough to say goodbye to, but the soon-to-be 28-year-old has over 600 games of wear and tear on his banged up body and worrisome, on-going knee/ankle/foot problems that make him a risky long-term investment. Williams, meanwhile, saw his value go up in winning the Sixth Man of the Year award and might have been a negative influence, on the whole, for the jump shot-happy and defensively passive Raptors. The rest of the team’s pending free agents – Tyler Hansbrough, Chuck Hayes, Landry Fields, Greg Stiemsma and the Marcus Camby cap hold – can all be relinquished without much second-guessing (although Hansbrough on a fair deal could still be an asset).
2. Time for a coaching change
I’m a big fan of Casey and his coaching staff, but someone needs to answer for a late season swoon that saw Toronto go 12-20 (playoffs included) over their last 32 games. Casey forged his reputation on the defensive side of the ball, so his overseeing of a club that went from a top-10 defence to a bottom-10 also shouldn’t go unnoticed. I’m not sure whether Casey can be the guy who elevates the Raps to the next level, but coaches in the NBA have been fired for less. Chief among them is Mike Malone, formerly of the Sacramento Kings, who I believe would be a fantastic fit in Toronto.
3. Peruse the power forward market
I already addressed the notion of this off-season representing a perfect storm of change and the power forward situation could be a significant microcosm of that. The Raps have cap space, desperately need rebounding and interior help and could see Johnson and Hansbrough, who started a combined 80 games at the four this season, both fly the coop this summer. Meanwhile, the power forward position just happens to be loaded among pending free agents. It’s hard to see Toronto luring any big names, most of whom currently find themselves in pretty good situations, but now is the time for Ujiri to get aggressive with guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Paul Millsap and Greg Monroe available. At the five, centers like Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan and Brook Lopez will all be looking for new deals. Even the trade market could be flush with guys like DeMarcus Cousins and Al Jefferson potentially available.
4. DeRozan or Lowry – pick one
And now things get real. The fact is, meaningful change can only be facilitated by getting rid of key cogs in the machine. Valanciunas (more on him shortly) shouldn’t go anywhere barring a trade offer that Ujiri can’t refuse, so that leaves DeRozan and/or Lowry as the biggest dominoes to fall. Raps fans proudly trumpeted the team’s starting back court as one of the league’s best, but they were easily outplayed by John Wall and Bradley Beal in the playoffs. DeRozan has the higher ceiling and is four years younger, but Lowry is more closely linked to the identity and soul of the team. Both men’s futures come with some degree of risk, as DeRozan will likely turn down his player option after the 2015-16 season and become a free agent, while Lowry showed his own limitations as back woes and foul problems turned him into a postseason liability. The difference would likely come down to trade value and seeing just what each man could return in a deal.
5. Upgrade the SF spot
It won’t come as a shock to suggest that Ross’ production at the three wasn’t cutting it as a starter on a playoff contender. Teams like the Hawks (DeMarre Carroll) and the Clippers (Matt Barnes) show that you don’t need all-star production at the small forward spot, but you certainly need more than the 41% shooting and ineffective defence that Ross was offering. Heading into his fourth year, the University of Washington product has had enough chances to prove himself. It’s time to look elsewhere – an offer sheet for pending RFA Draymond Green, perhaps?
6. Extend JV, let Ross’ deal play out
The Raps have picked up the fourth-year rookie deal options on both Valanciunas and Ross, so the question becomes what to do once their rookie deals expire. There is less urgency here, as both would remain under team control even after the fourth year (they would become RFA’s at the end of next year). Still, decisions will need to be made and right now those decision seem obvious. While a long-term extension for Valanciunas should be a priority, there’s no reason to do much with Ross for the time being. If they do add a new starting small forward, it would be interesting to see whether Ross could embrace a full-time roll as an off-the-bench shooter.
7. Add a veteran leader
For the second year in a row, the Raps got Pierce’d once the playoffs rolled around. In his season-ending press conference, Ujiri paid lip service to Pierce and expressed the importance of having a battle-worn, playoff-tested vet like the Truth on your roster. Some interesting force-of-personality guys that could fill that role include Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry, David West, Kevin Garnett, Luol Deng and Tayshaun Prince.
8. Explore a Greivis Vasquez deal
This could be a tricky proposition, both considering Ujiri just inked his back-up point guard to a new deal last summer and because Vasquez will be highly visible this summer as the ambassador for the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. Still, aside from a big shot at the end of Game 1 to force overtime, Vasquez’s game fell a few notches from his 2013-14 performance. After seeing Ramon Sessions effectively handle the back-up duties on the Wizards for a mere $2 million, it seems increasingly evident that the Vasquez contract was ill-advised (to be fair, Ujiri was in the tough spot of trying to ‘keep the gang together’) and that the same production can be had for far less than the $6.6 million he is due to make next season.
9. Test the value of the NYK/Denver 2016 pick
The franchise’s biggest trade asset might be DeRozan or Lowry and it might be Valanciunas. It also, however, might be the 2016 first rounder they own from the Andrea Bargnani trade, the value of which will be determined based on who has the better record between the New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets. Although Denver owns the more desirable of the picks, Toronto could have a pretty valuable selection on their hands. Looking at this year’s draft selection (assuming no changes in the lottery range), they would have gotten the No. 7 over-all pick. With a young roster already in place and long-term projects Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira in tow (both of whom need to find a way to get on court, by the way), the pick looks poised to be a major trade asset.
10. Spruce up the on-court video display
This isn’t exactly in the realm of either Ujiri or his front office, but the ballyhooed on-court video projection that was introduced at the start of last season wasn’t really utilized all that well. Compare the production values to the crisp, clear on-ice picture that the Leafs offer while using the same technology and the stunning 3D display that the Clippers offer at Staples Center and it’s evident that the Raps, despite otherwise solid in-game entertainment, still have a ways to go. Perhaps video projection upgrades could be squeezed in to ambitious off-season ACC renovation plans that are currently slated to include new seating and a brand new video board.