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HQ Mailbag: Free agency’s over. What now?

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The off-season is about to plunge into darkness. Let’s take stock of team in another HQ mailbag.

NBA: Miami Heat at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It took me two days, but the latest edition of the Raptors HQ Mailbag is here. We’re entering into the most silent part of the NBA off-season, and the Raptors look to be just about finished with their off-season maneuvering. Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka are returning, C.J. Miles has landed, a benchful of role players are headed to play elsewhere, and all that’s left to do is over-analyze every detail of the upcoming season. It’s going to be a long two-plus months until training camp opens up. Reading my inane ramblings here will get you about 10 minutes closer. Let’s get to it.

Wrapping up free agency

As the days progress, an extra addition through free agency feels increasingly unlikely. I wrote about why that might not be such a bad thing earlier this week, but I’ll reiterate in a compressed form here.

Because the Raptors used the Mid-level Exception on Miles, they have triggered the hard cap of just over $125 million. Under no circumstance can they exceed that payroll figure this season. Factoring in the unlikely incentives built into Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan’s deals, the Raptors have somewhere between $3.5 and $5 million of wiggle room beneath the hard cap; the biannual exception and veteran’s minimums are the remaining ways in which the Raptors can add pieces. Toronto has the two trade exceptions created in the DeMarre Caroll and Cory Joseph deals are, but those can’t be used in full unless some significant salary is shed, or until the new league year begins next July.

All of these factors leave the pool of available and affordable targets looking more like a muddy puddle. Boris Diaw and Shabazz Muhammad may have their selling points, but none of them are difference-makers. With the Raptors having invested so much in their development program, giving minutes to fringy veterans over young players in need of seasoning might not be worth whatever small sum of money it may cost. Toronto has the leeway to focus on training up its youth while also staying competitive in a weak Eastern Conference. Sacrificing a few wins this year in exchange for the long-term benefits of real NBA minutes for the kids will almost certainly be worth hanging back from the remaining free agent market.

To this, I’ll reiterate my response above. Mbah a Mouté and Diaw looked/look attractive because they’re the least flawed options left in the bargain bin. The former has had one strong shooting season in nearly a decade in the NBA, while the latter is 35 with little more than passing acumen left to offer.

It wouldn’t be mid-July if fans weren’t talking themselves into scrap heap free agents.

Calling Alfonzo McKinnie useless before having ever seen him hit an NBA floor is premature. He may amount to nothing as a player in the league, but a 24-year-old, 6’8 combo forward with springy athleticism is at least worth a look on a team that has a track record of turning unheralded prospects into bit contributors.

Play the damned kids.

Let the endless season previewing begin

This is of course subject to change once we can get an impression of how the Raptors plan to use Jonas Valanciunas this season, but here’s my best guess for what the depth chart will look like when the season opens, not including any additional pick-ups that may take place this summer.

PG: Kyle Lowry / Delon Wright / Fred VanVleet

SG: DeMar DeRozan / Norman Powell / Delon Wright

SF: C.J. Miles / Norman Powell / Alfonzo McKinnie / OG Anunoby (Injured)

PF: Serge Ibaka / Pascal Siakam / C.J. Miles / Bruno Caboclo

C: Jonas Valanciunas / Jakob Poeltl / Serge Ibaka / Lucas Nogueira

Ibaka is a better centre than he is a power forward at this point in his career. He’s not quick enough to hang with speedier fours on the perimeter, and his rim-protection skills are best put to work around the rim. Still, inertia is powerful. If Valanciunas is going to come off the bench in the mold of an old-school, new-age sixth man to open up more minutes at the five for Ibaka, the change may come in the form of a mid-season switch.

Dwane Casey has proven that starting doesn’t always guarantee a player will finish tight games. Ibaka will likely be the crunch time centre — unless the match-up calls for Valanciunas’ rebounding prowess — much like he was after the Raptors picked him up last year. Valanciunas starting probably isn’t ideal, and much of this summer’s rosterbating has been done with visions of Ibaka playing 20-plus minutes at centre. That said, limiting the wear and tear on Ibaka by having him soak up minutes at the four might have benefits late in the year and into the playoffs. In a season that should be about slowly building towards a post-season peak, deftly sprinkling in Ibaka’s minutes at centre instead of forcing them might be a sound strategy.

The front court rotation is the most obvious area of uncertainty as of this moment. On the wings, Miles, Powell and DeRozan could all average over 30 minutes a night (Wright playing next to Lowry in bench units could alleviate the load on that trio some), and in some match-ups, that three-wing look might make for an intriguing closing group alongside Lowry and Ibaka. That unit would have rebounding concerns, but as more teams skew small, it could be passable for stretches.

Regardless of the minutia, the Raptors have plenty of different types of lineups they can test out, and Dwane Casey may have to expand upon the creativity he dabbled in last season.

It’s hard to predict exactly what wrinkles a guy might add to his game without knowing what he’s honing in on during the summer. That said, my hope is that Powell comes back with a bit more refinement in his driving game. His lefty finishes and dunks on the likes of Anthony Davis were incredible fun last year, and I’m not convinced there’s a defender in the league that can hang with his first step. When he gets to the rim with traffic around him, though, it gets dicey.

A bit of creativity in his finishes (keep the Cory Joseph corkscrew layups alive!!) and some willingness to survey and kick out when there’s a giant human in his way would turn him into one of the most dangerous slashers in the NBA. I’m reasonably confident his finishing will improve; whether or not one off-season is enough for him to boost his passing chops is less certain.

Assuming the starting five is Lowry-DeRozan-Miles-Ibaka-Valanciunas, that is absolutely a better unit than anything the Raptors threw out to open games last year. Miles is better than Carroll was at any point during his time with the Raptors, and his shooting will complement Lowry and DeRozan nicely. And if you remember, Siakam started 38 freaking games as a rookie. Ibaka is unquestionably an upgrade. Valanciunas and his spotty pick-and-roll defense remains the sore thumb of the group, but the talent and fit of this year’s starting five actually has a shot at not posting a -7.0 NET Rating.

Most of the Raptors role players are too early on in their careers for folk hero status to be attainable. First round picks still have a cloud of expectation hanging above them throughout the course of their rookie deals, whereas folk heroes tend to emerge in the face of low expectations. P.J. Tucker, for example, was not spoken of as a crunch-time staple when he was acquired on trade deadline day. It was expected that he’d slot in behind Toronto’s existing cache of wings and be deployed in specific match-ups. That he instantly became the team’s second-best wing and small-ball four was what endeared him to the hearts of Raptors fans.

Based on the current make-up of the roster, one player fits into the sweet spot from which fan-favourites propagate. If Bruno Caboclo contributes even a little bit on the outskirts of the rotation, Raptors fans are going to go bananas. Expectations for Bruno are at an all-time low. The opportunity for him to pick up some minutes is there, at least until OG Anunoby is healthy. And we already have proof of how raucous the Air Canada Centre can get when Bruno has a moment; albeit, the sample-size of Bruno moments is essentially this two-minute video.

Let Bruno into your lives. He’s barging his way into it this season regardless... maybe.

Speak of the devil! First off, Bruno wasn’t in Summer League because the Raptors didn’t send him — it wasn’t some bit of laziness on his part. On top of that, a fourth-straight year in Summer League would ultimately be redundant for Bruno. He looked more than comfortable in his run last summer, and was a key contributor for the 905 this season. Him not getting the call to go to Vegas indicates that the Raptors are comfortable with his development.

Scheduled viewing

Nothing beats a good League Pass gem. These might not be the three best or most important teams in the NBA landscape, but I’m pumped to watch them.

  1. Denver. Nikola Jokic, Paull Millsap and our collective son Jamal Murray? They might be one of the worst defensive teams in the league again, but I’m staunchly anti-defense when it comes to my League Pass viewing.
  2. Milwaukee. Colour me excited to watch Giannis do his thing again without the crippling fear that consumed me every time he touched the ball in the playoffs this year.
  3. New Orleans. Maybe the most fascinating experiment I can remember in my time watching the NBA. If one of their games is going well, it means Anthony Davis and Boogie Cousins are perfecting a zig to the NBA’s zag. If it’s going poorly, well, chaos is never not fun.

Ten teams get the call to play on Christmas each year. Personally, I hope the Raptors don’t get one because I’d rather hang out with my family and drink myself silly instead of, you know, working like a chump.

I also don’t think they’ll end up getting one of those five games. Let’s roll through the most likely potential teams and match-ups.

Golden State vs. Cleveland is an inevitability. I’d expect a Chris Paul return to Los Angeles in a Rockets vs. Clippers game (if those two don’t play each other, they’re definitely getting other games). If Minnesota got a Christmas game with Jimmy Butler last year, there’s no chance they’re getting snubbed with him. Oklahoma City will definitely play too; I’d put money on a Wolves-Thunder match-up lining up.

From there, both Boston and the Lakers will almost assuredly get a Christmas game, leaving eight spots filled. San Antonio is still high profile enough to earn the ninth spot, and I’d expect the 10th team will be one of the Knicks, Bucks, Wizards or Raptors, with my money on the Wizards in a second-round rematch against the Celtics.

There’s a chance Toronto gets in on the action, but the fact that Canadian ratings do little for the NBA or ESPN’s bottom line make it unlikely.

Thanks to those who sent in questions. Apologies if I didn’t get to yours, but come on, it’s July 17th. I’m only going to hustle so much.