NBA fans talking themselves into replacement-level free agents being the final piece of their team’s puzzle is an integral part of mid-July. Rarely does a bargain bin signing draw immediate scorn or ridicule. Hope lingers around the 2016 Jared Sullingers of the world until it doesn’t. But more often than not, the players signed after the initial flurry of free agency action wind up somewhere between “fine” and “waived by March,” and rarely impact winning in a meaningful way.
Fortunately for the Raptors, the roster for next season isn’t in need of some saviour on a cheapo deal. Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and DeMar DeRozan form a perfectly adequate core in the depressed Eastern Conference. Norman Powell might be considered part of that core a year from now. C.J. Miles was a tidy addition who plasters over multiple holes that were present a week ago, while the team’s youthful back of the bench might produce a steady rotation player or four by season’s end. Aside from DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, there are no glaringly bad defenders. If the Raptors wanted to enter the 2017-18 season with this exact roster, it’s probably good enough to hang around the 50-win ballpark for the third-straight year.
In fact, you can make the argument that it’s in the Raptors’ best interest to steer clear of whatever’s left of the free agent market. Yes, Toronto’s roster looks thin at the moment — that’s the reality of locking in a competitive core. The Raptors have made a bet with themselves that the depth chart won’t look so sketchy for long. As the three year window the Raptors have defined for themselves progresses, the eightsome of rookie scale players on the roster are going to have to morph into reliable rotation pieces who can capably augment Toronto’s top-three. Developing that youth — from Norman Powell to OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam to Bruno Caboclo — is going to require more than piddly garbage time minutes at the end of blowouts. Adding an experienced-but-marginal free agent to push the kids down the depth chart might cost the Raptors valuable developmental opportunities.
For the first time in what feels like ages, the coming season doesn’t feel like a compete-or-bust exercise. Toronto has no pending unrestricted free agents heading into next summer, and the rumblings of LeBron James’ potential flight from Cleveland leaves the possibility of a post-2018 Eastern Conference in which the Cavs aren’t a source of constant existential dread. If the Raptors are going to commit themselves to molding and refining their young talent, 2017-18 is the season to do it before the stakes are once again raised for the 2018-19 campaign.
Toronto can be patient, too. As was announced by the team today, the Cory Joseph-for-Miles swap won’t go down as originally expected. Instead of preserving their Mid-level Exception with a sign-and-trade, the Raptors are expected to trade Joseph into Indiana’s cap space, then use the MLE to sign Miles. As those moves pass through the hopper, a $7.6 million Traded Player Exception will be created, joining the $11.8 million TPE the Raptors received in the now-official DeMarre Carroll trade. Those TPE’s can be used at any time before they expire next July.
That time frame gives the Raptors some leeway. Instead of adding a minute-sucking value signing in the next week or two, the Raptors have the option of assessing their chances as the coming season plays out. If injury or chemistry problems befall one of Cleveland or Boston, or if the Raptors’ second and third-year players perform beyond expectations, Toronto can accelerate their window if they so choose, adding a piece or two via those exceptions (although being so close to the hard cap, they may only be able to use a portion of one of those TPEs) to bolster themselves closer to the deadline for a serious run at the East crown. Last year, the decision to go “all-in” wasn’t as much a choice as it was necessity; the medium-term stability this summer’s activity promises gives Toronto’s front office more agency over its path this coming year.
If Masai Ujiri and company do want to beef up the roster with one more veteran piece before the season starts, their pool options is limited to players willing to come to Toronto on the cheap. Being hard-capped, and with just the biannual and minimum exceptions left to work with means making another high-priced addition is virtually impossible. Jamychal Green is a tantalizing pipe dream — Toronto doesn’t have the money to even entertain an offer-sheet large enough to make the Grizzlies sweat. Utah scooped up Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko — originally the second and third-ranked free agents on the list you’re about to read — earlier this week. Left on the board are a collection of imperfect, possibly too-expensive fliers who may not be worth playing ahead of Toronto’s cache of young guys anyway. But if you’re the kind of person who can’t stop scrolling the available free agent list as the NBA calendar’s dead zone encroaches, here are some names to half-assedly feign interest in.
1. Luc Richard Mbah a Mouté
Until their youth pops, the Raptors are notably thin on the wing — particulary when it comes to wings who can slide down to the four in smaller looks. Miles is currently the only player on the roster with that ability, and he might be the smallest small-ball four you can survive with. Another hybrid forward would be a plus, and Mbah a Mouté is probably the best such player still available. He would instantly become one of the Raptors’ best one-on-one defenders, and he’s coming off a season in which he shot a career-high 39 percent from deep. You could even envision a world in which Mbah a Mouté would potentially fit into some crunch time units as a four between Miles and Ibaka — although rebounding would be a serious concern.
Mbah a Mouté earned some shine in his two seasons with the Clippers. He might have been the closest thing to a passable starting small forward Doc Rivers could muster during the Lob City era. It’s easy to forget though, that before his two year stint in LA, Mbah a Mouté was teetering on being out of the league, spending a year essentially as a role model for his countryman Joel Embiid on a putrid, Processing Sixers team. Last season was the first in which he flashed any sort of three-point stroke; his eight prior seasons saw him shoot a combined 99/328 from three, good for just north of 30 percent on minimal volume. Penciling in last year’s spike to be his new normal would be a risky assumption.
Mbah a Mouté is probably the most attractive fit within Toronto’s price range left on the market. There’s also no guarantee OG Anunoby won’t be able to provide a similar skill-set in the back half of the season.
2. Boris Diaw
Diaw was waived by the Jazz yesterday shortly after rumours circulated that the Raptors had some interest in acquiring him. Passing is his most attractive quality at this point. Toronto’s offense sputtered in the playoffs in part because its secondary players couldn’t make life-restoring passes. Diaw can do that.
He also can’t do much else at this point. Last season in Utah, he shot just 24.7 percent on just over one attempt from distance per game. He’s 35, and his most effective years with San Antonio are a couple years in the rear view.
From a personality perspective, a Diaw pick-up would be a delight. On the court, he’d likely be relegated to a Luis Scola-esque ceremonial starter role. At that point, it might be more prudent to give the more explosive Siakam a chance to reprise his starting role from the first half of 2016-17.
3. Shabazz Muhammad
Yes, the list of available free agents who might fall in the Raptors price range has dwindled this quickly. Muhammad’s thick enough to potentially play both forward spots, and he would offer a bit of self-creation to the Raptors reserves — some insurance in the event Powell continues to struggle when asked to carry the second unit offense. He’s a decent scorer from inside, and does have one season on his resumé in which he was a near-40 percent three-point shooter. If Toronto is truly desperate for some extra scoring, perhaps a one-year value-recovery deal could be palatable.
Then again, how much of an appetite is there for an even more volatile Terrence Ross? (As the world’s foremost Terrence Ross supporter, my personal answer to that question is: ample).
4. Gerald Henderson
If you can’t beat him sign him to a veteran’s minimum to ensure he no longer eviscerates you every time you match up.
5. Arron Afflalo
Yeah, the Raptors should probably just stand pat.