NBA free agency is a wonderful and unpredictable beast.
Just last week it seemed as though the 2013-14 season would be defined by a split between teams looking to win now and teams gleefully hopping onto the tanking/rebuilding train.I argued that the Raptors should take the latter approach, but conceded there would be many other teams with similar plans.
Well, what a difference a week makes. Several teams that seemed primed to bottom out next year have improved themselves via free agency: Detroit (Josh Smith), Atlanta (Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver), Charlotte (Al Jefferson), Cleveland (Jarrett Jack/maybe Andrew Bynum) Sacramento (Carl Landry) and Milwaukee (Carlos Delfino, OJ Mayo) have all added players that should help them to varying degrees. New Orleans is clearly committed to making a run at the playoffs next year and even lowly Orlando boasts some intriguing young talent, including Canadian Andrew Nicholson and double-double machine Nikola Vucevic. Only Phoenix, Philadelphia, Boston and possibly Utah seem truly destined for hopelessness.
Where does this leave the Raptors? Let's just say Masai Ujiri has his hands full. Shedding the contracts necessary for a serious rebuild will be difficult. If Ujiri opts to roll out largely the same roster, securing one of the last three playoff spots in the East has gotten tougher. (I'm assuming Miami, Indiana, New York, Brooklyn and Chicago will snag the top five spots, in some order.) Atlanta is probably next, followed by the jumbled mess of Cleveland, Washington, Detroit and Toronto. As the rosters currently stand, Toronto isn't clearly better than any of those teams and probably boasts the least amount of young talent. Cleveland has Irving, Thompson, Bennett and even Waiters; Washington's perimeter trio of Wall, Beal and Porter is bubbling over with potential, and Detroit's young frontline of Monroe and Drummond could be the best in the league in two or three years. The Raptors' only blue-chip prospect is Jonas Valanciunas, though Terrence Ross certainly shows flashes. Gay, DeRozan, Lowry and Amir Johnson are 27 or younger but aren't likely to make dramatic improvements and are all signed to contracts ranging from fair to horrifying.
Unlike the Sixers or Celtics, Toronto can't easily transition to lose-now mode. They can't offer a young All-Star or future Hall of Famers in exchange for the picks and cap space necessary to accelerate the rebuilding process. The proposed Stuckey-Villanueva package for Gay and the DeRozan for Bledsoe rumours seem to indicate that Ujiri is at least willing to listen to offers, and that's a good thing. Nonetheless it seems unlikely that management will be able to offload enough talent/salary to challenge the Boston-Philly-Phoenix-Utah-Charlotte pentagon of losing.
Over the past 12 seasons, the Raptors have averaged 33 wins a year, a truly pedestrian total. They have attracted no major free agents and have had a top five pick three times, netting them Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas. Bosh and Valanciunas are probably the team's two most important players over that time period, and both were acquired through the draft. Those who advocate a "build slow" approach often point to the Indiana Pacers as a model, but even they had to strike gold in the late lottery with Paul George to transition from also-ran to true contender.
Unfortunately the signs are pointing toward another season in the 33-win range. (Vegas in fact had the Raptors pegged for 34.5 wins based on a few reports last week.) Even if the team earns a playoff berth it will be as no more than a sacrificial lamb. My sense is that Ujiri and Tim Leiweke want to tear this roster down, but have been dealt an impossible hand by the (in retrospect) increasingly ridiculous last year of Bryan Colangelo's tenure. Hence Wednesday's presser where Ujiri made it clear that he's not showing his cards, and doesn't care if you don't like it.
Like so many seasons before, the Raptors will probably enter this season in the NBA's version of no-man's land. They aren't good enough to be a playoff lock nor bad enough to enjoy the spoils of next year's draft.
They might be just good enough to squeeze out - you guessed it - 33 wins.