The Toronto Raptors have been the bottom-feeders of the NBA for the majority of their 15—year existence. A large part of this issue can be attributed to the franchise's frequent loss of All-Star or superstar-caliber players.
Damon Stoudamire, the 1995-1996 NBA Rookie of the Year, was dealt to the Portland Trail Blazers. Marcus Camby, the second overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, was traded to the New York Knicks and proceeded to become one of the best shot-blockers in the NBA.
Of course, the Raptors unwillingness to match Orlando's offer to Tracy McGrady is still fresh in our minds, as well as Vince Carter's departure to the New Jersey Nets. And of course, most recently, Chris Bosh went the way of LeBron James and "took his talents to South Beach."
The underlying issue for the Raptors organization clearly is not an inability to acquire star talent, rather it is a failure to either: Surround that their stars with a supporting cast capable of challenging for the NBA championship OR keep those stars for long enough for them to actually become superstars (see Tracy McGrady).
This article is going to cover how the franchise can relinquish the stigma which has followed it for nearly its entire history. Toronto does have a solid group of players in place right now, and with the right moves over the next few years; could build a team capable of contending for and possibly winning the NBA Championship.
With the selection of Jonas Valanciunas with the 5th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, the Raptors don't need to go out in free agency and attempt to make a home-run signing at the center position. Valanciunas essentially eliminates the need for the Raptors to pursue the likes of Nene, Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, and Greg Oden this off season.
Jonas will not be coming over to the NBA until the 2011-2012 season, but it is very unlikely that the team or its fans will be willing to pull their hairs out at the sight of yet another 82 games of Andrea Bargnani's paltry weak-side defense and non-existent rebounding skills. "Il Mago" needs to be suited up at the power forward position for reasons which will be discussed later in this slideshow.
Of course, the currently the only center on the roster is Solomon Alabi from FSU, but his game clearly is not NBA-ready at the moment. He would be best suited in a backup role, or preferably, in Lake Erie with the Raptors D-League affiliate.
The Raptors need to sign a cheap, defensive veteran center as a placeholder for Valanciunas and could back him up when he gets here. Some available free agents include: Joel Pryzbilla (above), Samuel Dalembert, and Jeff Foster. None of these guys are elite players, but they would all provide a strong presence down-low, which would allow Bargnani to move to his (hopefully) more natural position at power forward.
The best part is, aside from Dalembert, none of these players would command more than the veteran's minimum.
Raptors point guard, Jose Calderon.
Jose Calderon is a very good offensive point guard who simply isn't worth the money he's being paid. In 2010-2011 he averaged 9.8 points and 8.9 assists in just over 30 minutes per game, but received a paycheck of nearly $9 million. He's currently slated to make nearly $10 million next season (if there is one) and over $10.5 million in 2012-2013.
As a rebuilding team, Toronto can't afford to have an aging, slightly-above-average point guard eating up nearly 20% of the salary cap space, which is why Calderon needs to be dealt. This would also free up additional playing time for the young Jerryd Bayless, and the Raptors brass to evaluate if he is truly capable of sustaining his starting pace last year (averaged 18.1 points and 6.7 assists in 14 games as a starter) over the course of an 82 game season.
Now obviously, trading Calderon won't be easy. Most teams in the league have one or more quality point guards, so chances are Toronto wouldn't entice them to absorb the over $20 million Calderon is owed over the next two seasons. That said, this trade could potentially allow the Raptors to rid themselves of Jose:
Calderon could act as a mentor to Ricky Rubio, and come on how hard would it be to convince Kahn to take a flyer on him?
If they're unable to trade Jose Calderon, if there's an amnesty cut provision in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, Toronto could use that to free up cap space by letting him go.
Jerryd Bayless, an explosive combo guard for Toronto
In order for young players to develop, they need significant playing time. Practice makes perfect, and you cannot become an elite player unless you have some experience playing elite-player-minutes. DeMar DeRozan was given a key role last year, and nearly doubled his point production last season as the number two guy on offense after Bargnani. With the improvements he has hopefully made to his shot this offseason, Raptors fans should expect increased output from him in 2011-2012.
Other young players like Jerryd Bayless, James Johnson, and Ed Davis are going to need more minutes in order to determine whether they are fits for the Raptors franchise in the future. Bayless and Davis played extremely well last year when given starters minutes, and James Johnson showed a lot of defensive tenacity and versatility. Ed should be allowed to play significant minutes off the bench, while Bayless and James Johnson should be given starting roles, playing upwards of 30 and 25 minutes per game respectively.
Essentially, by giving larger roles to the young players on the team, the Raptors franchise can speed up their maturation process while also gauging whether they are ideal fits for the future. Additionally, young guys are going to make a lot of mistakes, and likely struggle to win many games. This ensures that the Raptors do not subjugate themselves to the "treadmill effect" (finishing anywhere from 9th to about 12th in the conference and gaining nothing -- not even a good draft pick from the season). Toronto would likely have yet another top five pick heading into the 2012 NBA Draft.
Jonas Valanciunas, selected #5 overall by Toronto last year.
The 2012 NBA Draft is loaded with talent, and it is absolutely critical that the Raptors capitalize on the surplus of potential NBA stars.
This goes back to what I said earlier about Bargnani moving to a power forward role. The following NBA season should be make or break for Andrea, as it should decide whether or not he remains with the Raptors franchise for the foreseeable future.
Bargnani has already demonstrated that he can score the ball effectively, scoring 21.4 points per game in his first full season as the number one scoring option for Toronto. Clearly, the offensive side of the ball is not an issue, as Bargnani has the potential to be a pseudo-Nowitzki if he can refine his low post game. The issue for Andrea lies in his rebounding. 5.4 rebounds per game is absolutely unacceptable for an athletic, 7'0 250 pound bigman. Ideally, Coach Dwane Casey should be able to toughen up Bargnani, and motivate him to crash the glass more on both sides of the ball.
If Bargnani can get his rebounding averages up to a more respectable range of about seven or eight per game while still maintaining his scoring at 20+ points per game, then that basically eliminates the need for Ed Davis on the Raptors roster. Amir Johnson is already an excellent backup power forward who provides energy on offense and defense, and is actually more suited to a backup role than one in the starting lineup. Ed appears to have a ceiling as a two-way forward, in the Antonio Davis mold, and that simply is not not needed if a motivated Bargnani and Amir Johnson are in the rotation.
This gives the Raptors room to trade Ed Davis (who arguably should have been a top five pick in the 2010 NBA Draft) to another lottery team for an additional lottery pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. In the event that Dwane Casey is unable to increase Bargnani's rebounding tenacity, then the Raptors should instead choose to trade Andrea for a similar draft pick. This would give Toronto a lot of maneuverability in the upcoming draft.
The 2012 NBA Draft currently projects to be loaded with potential all-stars. That being said, there appear to be three players in the draft with franchise-changing potential: Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, and Harrison Barnes.
Because of this it is essential that the Raptors get lucky in the draft lottery in 2012, and obtain a top three selection with their pick. It also would not hurt at all for the pick that they acquire in exchange for Andrea Bargnani or Ed Davis, to end up being a top three pick. That scenario is unlikely though, and it will probably remain in the late lottery.
Having the ball bounce their way (pun intended) in the draft lottery would set the stage for the Raptors to make the following two selections in the NBA Draft.
Harrison Barnes of the UNC Tar Heels
Harrison Barnes is a perfect fit on the Toronto Raptors. As it currently stands, and as would likely still be the case following the 2011-2012 season; the Raptors weakest position by far is small forward. Enter Barnes; a 6'8 223 pound small forward from North Carolina, who currently projects to be the second pick in the 2011 draft (and likely would have been #1 overall in 2011).
Barnes projects to be anywhere from a Luol Deng type player, to a more athletic version of Paul Pierce; and could be an NBA superstar down the road. He is an excellent shooter with good mechanics, making him an ideal pairing on the wings with the slashing, DeMar DeRozan. Essentially, how good Barnes can be will depend on how much he is able to improve his shot creation ability and become a truly versatile scorer. He had a very slow start in his freshman season at North Carolina, but improved with experience, finishing the season averaging nearly 16 points and 6 rebounds per game. The highlight of Barnes' season was a 40 point (freshman record), 8 rebound game in an ACC Tournament game against Clemson. He also demonstrated his winning mentality and killer instinct, by hitting several clutch shots and playing very effectively during the NCAA tournament.
This is exactly the kind of franchise-altering player that the Raptors need if they ever plan to be in contention for the NBA Championship, and it is absolutely imperative that they select him in the 2012 NBA Draft if he is on the board.
Myck Kabongo has committed to play with the Texas Longhorns this season, and is yet another ideal pick for the Toronto Raptors in the 2012 NBA Draft. NBADraft.net currently projects Kabongo to be selected 17th, but expect his stock to rise to the late lottery throughout the course of the NCAA season.
Kabongo has all the makings of a true, pass-first point guard cut from the Steve Nash mold. He has excellent foot speed, ball handling ability, and incredible court vision with an uncanny ability to pass the ball. Currently, his only real weaknesses are his small stature (6'2, 160 pounds), and his indecisiveness and almost unwillingness to score the basketball. Nevertheless, he is an ideal pick for Toronto. His passing ability will make life easier for Toronto's scorers, and he is also a Toronto native (meaning we can all be less worried about another McGrady/Carter/Bosh scenario).
Some people may be wondering why the Raptors would select a point guard, when Jerryd Bayless appears to be the future for Toronto at that position. Well the reason why, is because Bayless really is not a true point guard, and would be best served in a backup role as a scoring, energy combo guard off the bench. Kabongo's skills as a distributor make him far more valuable to Toronto than Bayless, a shoot first guard, at the point guard position.
DeMar DeRozan - The Raptors future at shooting guard.
After following the previous steps, the Raptors would have a starting lineup that looks like the following:
PG: Myck Kabongo
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Harrison Barnes
PF: Andrea Bargnani
C: Jonas Valanciunas
Obviously, this lineup would not be capable of competing for a championship right away, but the Raptors would have a great group of players who will only continue to get better in the future. Kabongo could easily develop into a Nash-like point guard, while DeMar DeRozan and Harrison Barnes both have excellent potential as scorers. Andrea Bargnani has already demonstrated that he is a versatile scorer, and if Dwane Casey can motivate him on the other side of the ball; he can become a very productive player for Toronto. Of course, Valanciunas has been hailed by many analysts as having the highest ceiling of any player from the 2011 NBA Draft. If Jonas can get anywhere close to the Tyson Chandler-Pau Gasol hybrid that many have hailed him as, he will be a force to be reckoned with at the center position for many years to come.
Additionally, Toronto would be bringing at least three high quality role players off the bench by the names of: Jerryd Bayless, James Johnson, and Amir Johnson. If Toronto is able to slowly add veteran talent to its young core, while their young guns continue to develop; the Raptors could very well become a true NBA Championship contender for the first time in their history.