Hello RaptorsHQ! I love the work Masai has done this offseason, and did a long-ish write up of his moves and where the team seems to be headed. I'd love some feedback from Raptors fans. Let me know what you think!
Heading into the offseason last year, the Toronto Raptors were sitting in a strange position. They had a new GM, having poached Masai Uriji from the great work he’d done in Denver by offering him a 5 year, $15 million deal. Coming off a 34 win season, they had no draft picks, a super talented, ornery point guard on an expiring contract, an intriguing 21 year old center, and filled out 2 through 4 with three shoot-first, poor defensive players making nearly $40 million per year, combined through 2014-2015. They were in NBA no man’s land, looking like that dreaded mediocre 40 win team, locked into an overpriced core and late lottery picks for the foreseeable future.
With the (then) vaunted 2014 draft class looming, the Raptors had to decide whether move their bloated contracts for space, solid player like Kyle Lowry for assets, and go into tank mode. Masai had avoided tanking in Denver, and insinuated its downsides to Zach Lowe: "You play ball to win… It’s difficult to teach winning by losing. There is value in winning. If it comes to a point where you feel like the team is not what you felt it was, then I think you can react. But I think the team will dictate where we go."
Still, even with the Masai hire, a profitable ownership, and solid fanbase, the organization felt listless, directionless: without picks or a core with potential stars, they seemed stuck, locked into fielding a decent team with bloated, immovable contracts. Then, a little over a year ago today, Masai struck, moving Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks for a 2016 1st round pick, two second rounders, and the contracts to Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, and Quinten Richardson. Six months later and 6-12 record later, he tossed Rudy Gay onto the Kings for a handful of rotation players – Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Greivis Vazquez.
Masai did indeed let the team dictate where they went. And despite those two trades, they didn’t go into tank mode – in fact, the opposite happened. Free of high usage, low efficiency players, and adding some important depth in the return for Gay, Toronto flourished as a passing, pick-and-roll based offense and tough defense – finishing 9th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Lowry turned in an All-Star caliber campaign, all aspects of DeMar DeRozen’s game improved, Amir Johnson continued as a no-stats-all-star, and Jonas Valanciunas took a few steps forward defensively and as a rebounder. They won the Atlantic at 48-34, losing in 7 games to the Nets, but created a buzz and rabid fan base in Toronto.
Looking back over the past year, the transformation is pretty remarkable. Heading into this offseason, though, they still had a lot of questions facing them - they had some core free agents, and while they played very well together, they lacked a star, or potential star to build around: Lowry is a very good point guard, but not the best player on a contender, DeRozen improved dramatically and is only 24, but is still a relatively inefficient scorer, and while Valanciunas, averaging 14.5 points and 11.3 rebounds per 36 minutes at age 21 has great potential, he likely lacks the athletic upside to become a true star. Again, the ceiling of the team was in question – an important question, with Lowry, Vazquez, and Patterson all free agents. With the salary cap rising and a new, lucrative TV deal looming, teams could throw a lot of money around in free agency to pry any or all three away, so Masai had to decide early whether it was worth keeping the core intact.
Looking at Masai’s work in Denver, you can see a few trends emerge: he doesn’t like to lose assets without compensation – he essentially resigned Nene in order to trade him; he’s a solid drafter, and gambles on talent and athletic upside (JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried, etc). So Masai would probably want to retain Lowry, Vazquez, and Patterson, even if it may be pricey. Lowry, in particular, had lots of suitors around the league, and, as Nate Duncan showed, there’s a silly amount of free agent money about to be tossed around the league once Lebron and ‘Melo chose their landing spots. Assuming Lowry returned, Zach Lowe identified three main needs: backup PG, backup big, and a big, rangy wing. I’ll add to this, one big need in the long-term team building sense: talent with star upside.
In free agency (I’ll get to the draft later), Masai struck quick and fast. He brought Lowry back at a flat 4 year $48 million deal – a great price in this new, bloated market. He moved Salmon’s unguaranteed deal to gamble on Lou Williams’ return from ACL surgery, and somehow heisted Bebe from Atlanta in the process – an athletic, rangy 7 footer who put up great numbers for his age in the ACB. I have no idea why Atlanta parted with him – there’s rumors of serious knee issues – but, still, he got a risky, high upside prospect for almost nothing. If Williams still has all of his explosiveness, he's a great combo guard off the bench that gets to the line often and can play next to any of Toronto's other three rotation guards.
Masai then brought back Patrick Patterson at 3 years/$18 million and Vazquez at 2 years/$13 million While both players have their warts – Patterson can’t rebound and Vazquez can’t guard anyone, especially opposing point guards – and some folks have called it mild overpays (which will probably change once we see the real overpays come soon), they filled their biggest needs with solid players in their prime. Patterson remains the third big, a floor stretcher who shot 37% from three for his career and 41% in Toronto, and Vazquez is one of the NBA’s best back-up PGs, an important piece in limiting Lowry’s minutes to keep him healthy, who, at 6’6", can also play alongside Lowry, Ross, and Williams.
They also added James Johnson at $5 million over two years. While Johnson is a risk – he’s currently facing some pretty ugly domestic violence charges, and can be pretty undisciplined, but he’s a steals-and-blocks ninja and very solid defender on the wing. That role – big wing defender – was a hole for the Raptors in the playoffs as DeRozen and Ross both got exposed by Joe Johnson post ups. He also moved Steve Novak into Utah’s cap space. Novak’s a a great shooter, but barely played under Casey, and moving him frees up $7 million over the next two years.
In the draft, Masai shocked the world and took Bruno Caboclo 20th – a 6’9" Brazilian teenager who, apparently, has a 7’7" wingspan and can shoot from 3. He’s known as the Brazilian Durant. Pundits were shocked, as he wasn’t really on anyone’s board, and while he may have slipped to the Raptors at 37, it appears a few teams were looking at him before that. Since I don’t know enough to judge the pick, I’ll defer to Masai on it. But, in a sense, it’s the perfect pick: while there were many talented prospects available, Masai just missed on his target of Tyler Ennis, and since the Raptors look very deep at core positions for the next year or two, why not take a flyer on upside? Caboclo may, and probably will, fail. But long, super-skilled prospects don’t usually hang around to 20, so if you’re going to gamble, now’s the time. Their second round pick was similar – DeAndre Daniels is a 6’9" long SF who can shoot. I don’t particularly like him – he’s one of the worst passers in the draft – but long athletic wings seems to the Masai Special (he’s aquired, in Denver and Toronto, Iggy, Corey Brewer, Darius Miller, Demare Carroll, Anthony Randolph, Wilson Chandler, Austin Daye, Caboclo, Johnson, and Daniels).
By my (probably poor) numbers, they have $70.5 million committed next year – that number rises to 73.5 if they sign both Brazilians, which now seems likely, and another million or two depending on what they do with unguaranteed backup point guards. They’ve used $2.5 million of their MLE, so still have half of that and the BAE to use. They also have a few trade exceptions to add players during the season, and will probably be sitting about $3.5-4 million under the luxury tax if they want to make any more additions.
Masai moved quickly in free agency to bring back Toronto's core, and I’ll go out on a limb and guess that most of the these deals will look much better by the start of the season. Chandler Parsons just got a 3 year Max offer from Dallas, and the Lakers decided to throw $9 million per year at Jordan Hill and give Nick Young four years, so there's likely more carnage to come. Toronto has a rabid fan base craving a winning team and a profitable ownership willing to go into the luxury tax. They have all their 1st round picks and NY’s 1st in 2016. Lowry is a stud point guard in his prime, who seems engaged and maybe past his weight and personality issues. DeRozen showed promise as a pick-and-roll ball handler and defender last season, and if he can keep improving his shot and shot selection, he could significantly outperform his contract. Terrance Ross is a developing 3-and-D wing, who shot 40% on 7 threes/36. He’s 22 and if his offensive game keeps coming around, they could have a killer, deep backcourt. Amir Johnson is a solid all-around defender, pick and roll offensive player, great screen setter and plus-minus all-star in the final year of a reasonable contract.
Jonas Valanciunas is a big question mark for the team. 22 this season, he’s already a solid rebounder and decent positional defender for his age. He can score in the pick and roll, but his offensive game still needs lots of work. He’s the closest thing Toronto may have to a potential star, and his development this year may be a determining factor in how far the team goes. They’re a pick and roll, team oriented offense who’ll gun threes and play gritty defense. They have a solid roster that could move a little towards the very good spectrum if Johnson can contribute, Ross keeps developing, and Valanciunas improves. The Leastern Conference is wide open this year, and every team has tons of question marks, especially if Cleveland can’t land Love and Indiana loses Lance Stephenson. If Valanciunas shows marked improvement on both sides of the ball this year, Toronto could have a shot at the Conference Finals.
Which is a pretty remarkable shift from where they were a year ago. If everything breaks right – health, development from their young players, progression from DeRozen, continued engagement from Lowry – this team could make it out of the Eastern Conference. They’ve added some high-risk, high-potential assets, and have a pretty clean cap sheet starting next season – DeRozen’s the only player on the books besides rookie-scale contracts and this year’s signings. Apparently they’re making space to try a run at Durant in 2016 (who isn’t?), and so will probably maintain some serious flexibility.
In just over a year, Masai has turned this team from one going nowhere to an up-and-coming contender. They filled all their needs at reasonable prices this offseason, and shot for the moon on some Brazilian potential. It remains to be seen whether they have the star power to become a legitimate contender over the next few seasons, but if they don’t, it won’t be for lack of trying, and they can still be a very, very successful, profitable and fun team.