In the most ominous and portentous voice we can summon, it is time to announce that the NBA’s free agency speculation period is finally here. Yes, the playoffs are still going on, but we’re down to the final four teams of that competition, which means there are far more franchises looking to cut deals, pull off trades, and generally make moves to improve. This includes even our beloved Toronto Raptors.
On that front, (the husk of) Sports Illustrated’s Sam Amico let fly with our first major free agent rumour involving the Raptors. According to him, Toronto is interested in testing the Montrezl Harrell market. The pertinent section (because SI’s side is ugly as hell now):
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Clippers and Harrell share a “mutual interest” in re-joining forces next season. Along with Clippers and Mavericks, the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks are all expected to have interest.
Now, I included that first sentence to make it clear that the Los Angeles Clippers, the team that acquired Harrell as part of their massive Chris Paul deal back in June 2017, are still the frontrunners to keep Harrell on the team. The 26-year-old forward/centre, listed at 6’7” and 240 pounds, spent the last two seasons in LA after signing a two-year deal worth $12 million. Last season, Harrell averaged 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in 27.8 minutes off the bench for the Clippers, while shooting a robust 58 percent from the field. All told, these numbers were good enough to earn him the 2020 Sixth Man of the Year award. And as a result, it makes sense for a bunch of teams to be interested in Harrell.
Of course, there’s a flip-side argument to make here that Harrell’s numbers are a lot of noise, that the team breaks even (or better), when he’s not on the floor. The Clippers were recently dispatched from the second round of the NBA playoffs (like the Raptors), which was not something people were predicting at the start of the season (unlike with the Raptors). In fact, many assumed the Kawhi and PG-led Clippers would easily march to the Finals and win the NBA title — with Harrell playing no small part in that idea. That it didn’t work out, and that Harrell spent chunks of the playoffs getting casually belittled first by Luka Doncic and then Nikola Jokic speaks to the truth of those concerns with him. There’s no doubt Harrell brings talent and energy to an NBA roster — but is that enough to pay him the big money he will quite likely request this off-season?
The Raptors have an obvious need in their frontcourt. All three of the team’s most used centres — Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and, sure, Chris Boucher — are set to become free agents, which means Toronto would have, uh, Dewan Hernandez starting at centre if the season began today. While it remains to be seen if the Raptors will be able to bring back any of those three players, there is some thinking to at least kicking the tires on a player like Harrell. The holes in his game have been noted — he’s not a shooter, passer, or particularly heady defender — but he’s a solid ball-handler for his size and can definitely finish plays hard on the pick-and-roll. In a reserve role for Toronto, Harrell would likely represent an upgrade over Boucher. But Harrell may also be looking for twice as much salary as Boucher could command on the open market.
Ultimately, even at their advanced ages and with their noted limitations, I’d prefer if the Raptors just brought back Ibaka and Gasol and let some other team overpay for Harrell. I suspect this will be the Raptors’ conclusion too. They likely do not want to sign a player like Harrell to a pricey, multi-year deal now, not with management’s clear goal of keeping their cap sheet as clean as possible for next year’s off-season (whenever it may actually happen). Again, Harrell is a serviceable player, but given the current context, he just doesn’t make sense for the Raptors. (Even if, approximately one million years ago, they did run him through a pre-draft workout in Toronto.)
Still, it would be funny if Raptors fans — having spent years fantasizing about trade deals to get Kenneth Faried to Toronto — convinced themselves that a different, loud, too-busy, dreadlocked big man was the answer to the team’s frontcourt issues.