The way the Raptors are being run this year, an outsider would guess they’re pushing for one of the Eastern Conference’s top seeds, not preparing for another draft lottery. In January, Toronto traded Jose Calderon, promising youngster Ed Davis and a 2nd-round pick for Rudy Gay, due $17.88 million in 2013-14 and a $19.13 million player option in 2014-15. It was a cap-saving move, for Memphis, who unloaded one of the league’s unfriendliest contracts, acquired a nice young forward and maybe even bolstered their chances of short-term success.
Earlier this year, Toronto prematurely set the market on DeMar DeRozan, the 4th-year USC product, with a 4-year, $38 million extension he was probably unlikely to find on the open market. Now, Toronto’s presumably stuck with DeRozan and Gay, similar athletic types with limited outside shooting ability who need the ball to operate, through at least 2015. Hell, even Kyle Lowry, the team’s starter at 1-guard, is a slasher type, meaning a lot of guys who want to put up shots, but only 1 ball to go around in the Air Canada Centre.
The playoffs are out of the picture for the Raptors, now 23-36 and 5th in the Atlantic Division, who are riding a 3-game losing streak. Yet Toronto’s 7-6 since the Gay trade, with 2 wins against the Knicks, one at MSG, one in Indiana, and others against the playoff-bound Nuggets and Clippers. But 13 of the Raptors’ remaining 23 games come against likely playoff teams — they’ve only won 7 this season against above-.500 clubs.
The Gay, DeRozan and Lowry tandem could very well work — Gay’s averaging a team-high 20.4 points and 6.8 rebounds in his first 12 games with the Raptors, though he’s shooting a poor 38.4% from the field. DeRozan’s numbers are also respectable, at 17.9 points on 43.7% shooting. That’s a career-high scoring mark for DeMar, who’s also averaging personal bests in assists, rebounds, free throw attempts, free throw percentage, steals and minutes. Gay, though, is a 25.5% 3-point man, and DeRozan’s not much better at 26.1%.
Dwane Casey’s lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas is actually +37 in 69 minutes of play; more specifically, the Raptors are +49 in net points with Gay on the floor, but -116 with him either on the bench or back in Memphis.
But these stats gloss over the main critique of the Gay trade, one I eschewed hours after the NBA signed off — that the Raptors are indeed better in the short-term with Gay, but at the expense of developing their young prospects, as in the departed Davis or Terrence Ross. And with limited cap flexibility and more wins, the chances of the Raptors bringing in fresh, young talent, either via free agency, trade or, most likely of all, high lottery picks, are all but gone.
Back to this year’s team. I always thought DeRozan, the No. 9 overall pick in ’09, was a consistent jumper away from developing into a franchise talent; now, I’m not so sure he has not reached his ceiling. Davis, the No. 13 overall selection in 2010, is gone, as is Roy Hibbert, arguably the Raptors’ best selection since Chris Bosh in 2003, whom the Raptors dealt Hibbert a few days after the draft for Jermaine O’Neal.
Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 Draft that’s only produced 3 All Stars, is pretty safely done in Toronto. Fans are regularly booing the 7’0″ Italian, probably because he’s shooting 40% from the field, 28.4% from 3 and making $10 million this season. Gone are the days when we compared Andrea to Dirk Nowitzki, who’s never shot that poorly in his 15-year career, and hello to the days where GM Bryan Colangelo openly tells reporters he’s ready to deal Bargnani, but then fails to find a suitor before the trade deadline. (In fairness, Bargnani, who averaged 21.4 points in the 2010-11 season, has missed 29 games due to torn ligaments in his right elbow.)
Toronto does have some young pieces to be excited about, though. The 6’11” Valanciunas, 20, played overseas last year and is seeing his first NBA action, averaging 7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 52.2% shooting in 21.4 minutes. Of course we’re only judging him off 40 games, so it remains too early to tell, but watching Jonas physically dominate Tyler Zeller on Wednesday, you do not have to worry about the ‘soft’ label that typically accompanies European bigs transitioning to the NBA. (But a lot of guys have manhandled Zeller this year.)
The rookie Ross, 22, is only seeing 16.4 minutes a night, but scores 6.4 points on 40% from the field. Personally, I would like to see Ross acquire some of Alan Anderson’s minutes; Anderson, 30, is averaging 11.3 points a night, but getting 24.6 minutes and has a below-average 12.6 player-efficiency rating. And I’m not so sure Anderson, an unrestricted free agent this summer, though only in his 4th year in the league, is part of Toronto’s long-term plans.
Amir Johnson, Toronto’s starting 4, is playing up to his $6 million contract. Aside from leading the team’s ‘Harlem Shake’ video, Johnson is compiling career-highs in points, 9.8; rebounds, 7.2 (also a team-high); free throw attempts, 2.5; and minutes, 27.6, all while shooting 55.5% from the field. Johnson’s been in the league 8 years now, but is only 25, meaning Toronto has a frontcourt to build around, with him and Jonas V.
In trading Calderon, the Raptors not only lost an $11 million expiring deal, but also their only consistent threat from distance, at 42.9%. As a team, Toronto’s 20th in 3-point percentage, at 34.9, and 16th in points scored, at 97.1. Defensively, Casey’s unit is equally mediocre, good for 17th in the NBA, at 98.6 points allowed per game. And they’re 28th in total rebounding, though that will improve with more minutes for Johnson and less for Bargnani.
Skipping ahead to this offseason, Toronto holds the cards on Lowry, who has a $6.2 million team option. But the Raptors are stuck with bad contracts in Linas Kleiza, who’s likely to pick up a $4.6 player option since he’s only appeared in 20 games this season; Landry Fields, Toronto’s ‘big-name’ offseason signing who’s making $5 million but only averaging 4.7 points a game; and Aaron Gray, who’s played in 32 games and has a $2.6 million player option.
In all, Toronto has about $70 million committed to 12 players next season, assuming Lowry’s option is picked up, which is likely enough to put Toronto in luxury tax territory. It may even get worse in 2014-15, when Gay’s deal ascends to $19+ million and the poison year of Fields’ contract, designed to discourage the Knicks from matching the offer in the summer of 2012, reaches $8.5 million.
This team, as constructed, is good enough to slip into the bottom half of the Eastern Conference’s playoff seeding next season, assuming full health, for the first time since 2007-08. But I would still bet against Toronto winning a playoff series, not until Gay’s deal is off the books and Toronto can start over with more cap-friendly faces, something the Raptors have not done since 2000-01.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.