Who Are the Keepers: Toronto Raptors

Kyle_Lowry_Raptors_2014_USAT1

The 2013-14 season has been notable for the number of teams in a clear rebuilding mode. The first step in a rebuilding process, and one that must continue as long as the rebuild does, is to take stock of what talent the team has. There is one major question that should dominate the inquiry: Which of these players will be a part of our next good team? The player’s skill, age, contract and fit all enter into this discussion, as well as a realistic understanding of when the team can hope to be competitive again. This can generally be defined as the date a team’s young core is collectively projected to provide the greatest production. Finally, teams also need to consider the need to maintain flexibility rather than locking up a mediocre core.

The players are split into three different categories: “Buy His Jersey,” “Maybe, It Depends” and “Don’t Get Too Attached.” Players in the “Buy His Jersey” category are those who almost certainly should be in the team’s long-term plans, unless they are absolutely blown away by a trade offer for a superstar. Such players must either be under team control for quite a while longer on a cheap contract, or project to be a championship-level starter or better once their contract ends. The “Maybe, It Depends” category is reserved for players who have shown some promise, but are not necessarily locks to still be in town when the team is next ready to compete. It all depends on how these players develop and their contract situation. Many players in this category are on rookie contracts; once those end, they can become relative albatrosses if re-signed for more than their production would warrant. “Don’t Get Too Attached” is for players who are very unlikely to be a part of franchise’s next good team. In some cases it is because these players have demonstrated that they aren’t very good and don’t really have the potential to improve. But even solid players can appear on this list due to their age, contract status or fit.

Today we look at perhaps the most intriguing team in the league approaching the trade deadline, the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors appeared to have few long-term pieces coming into the season. Deposed general manager Bryan Colangelo had bequeathed little long-term flexibility on replacement Masai Ujiri. After the Raptors started the year looking like an also-ran even in the terrible Eastern Conference, Ujiri traded small forward Rudy Gay, center Aaron Gray and power forward Quincy Acy to Sacramento for point guard Greivis Vasquez, power forward Patrick Patterson, small forward John Salmons and center Chuck Hayes. The plan appeared to be to let Toronto’s younger players grow into larger roles while shopping Toronto’s remaining veterans and gleaning a top 2014 draft pick.

But a funny thing happened after the trade: the Raptors started playing really well. Since the Gay trade on December 8, the Raptors have a plus 5.1 point differential and a 23-12 record. In that time frame, Toronto ranks ninth in offense, fifth in defense and fourth in overall scoring margin per 100 possessions. Sporting a 28-24 overall record, they are the clear favorite for the third seed in the East. One would think a first-year general manager would be ecstatic at turning a lottery team into the third seed in the conference while simultaneously dumping long-term salary. Clearly, Ujiri is to be lauded for doing so. But on the other hand, the team’s success may well have made his long-term mission far more complicated. Fans of Toronto’s perpetually downtrodden franchise would likely bristle at any moves that hurt a team on track for a long-awaited playoff berth—and they might be right to bristle, given the way the team has played the last two months. There is some possibility that this performance could be real, and the Raptors should be looking to add to this core.

Yet despite their statistical success, it is hard to see this core competing for a championship sans superstar.* What’s worse, the Raptors’ success this year hurt their chances of acquiring such a player in the draft. In this context, identifying the keepers on the Raptors is especially difficult. Despite their success this year, they are in some ways closer to a lottery team in terms of the timeline for the keepers on their roster. Indeed, there are few three seeds in history that one would even write this analysis for.

*Toronto may be more likely than some teams to underperform their regular season results in the playoffs due to the fact that their bench has been a key to their post-Gay success, an advantage that is mitigated in the playoff crucible as starters play more minutes for opposing teams.

That said, being fourth in the league in net rating with a team that is young enough to provide internal growth in the coming years is no joke. While retaining free agent point guard Kyle Lowry is a risk because he may bolt after the season, it is also a risk to trade him and not find out what this team may become. This is especially so since Lowry is unlikely to return much in trade due to his free agent status. After much thought, I believe the best course of action is to keep this team together through the playoffs and find out how good it actually is. While the answer to that question is likely “a distant third in the East,” there are enough indicators to make it worthwhile to explore the possibility that the upside may be higher. It will be much easier to determine how to approach the offseason armed with more information than the 35 games since the Gay trade.

Buy His Jersey:

DeMar DeRozan
Age: 24
Contract: 4 years, $38,000,000, includes player option for 2016-17

DeRozan’s rookie extension, which kicked in this year, was initially panned by most analysts. But he has lived up to that contract so far this year. While he still has a slightly below average .522 True Shooting Percentage, he is still a valuable player because he soaks up 28 percent of Toronto’s possessions with a low 9.1 percent turnover rate. The Raptors have outscored opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions in DeRozan’s minutes since the Gay trade, and he has amassed an 18.2 PER on the year that ranks fifth among shooting guards. With that position in particular experiencing a dearth of star players, DeRozan is even more valuable. While he was lumped in with Toronto’s albatross contracts when Ujiri took office, DeRozan has proved worth his salary so far in 2013-14. He is just beginning his prime and has proved very durable so far in his career. He should be around for the long haul.

Jonas Valanciunas
Age: 21
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2016.

Much was expected of the Lithuanian after a dominant Summer League, but he has been a mild disappointment in nearly all areas. His 14.7 PER is a little below average, and his league-average True Shooting percentage is also below expectations. He has not been particularly effective defending the rim either, a disappointment considering his enormous size and reasonable quickness for his position. Overall, the Raptors have been 6.4 points/100 worse defensively in Valanciunas’ minutes since the Gay trade, although the offense has ticked up by 3.1 points/100 when he plays.

That said, Valanciunas is clearly a keeper. He has two more years on his rookie deal and is only 21. Given his physical profile and tools, he should develop into an upper-echelon center. If he does not appear on that path in two years, the Raptors will have an interesting decision to make on how much to pay him. But all indications right now is that he is part of the plan for the future, and rightly so despite the somewhat disappointing results this year.

Maybe, It Depends

Amir Johnson
Age: 26
Contract: 2 years, $13,500,000, last year $5 million guaranteed.
Projected New Contract: 3-4 years, $7-11 million AAV

Despite a slight decline in his box score statistics (mostly his rebounding rate), Johnson may be having his best season. He has been a key to the Raptors’ excellent post-Gay defense, allowing opponents to shoot only 46.1 percent on the 7.4 field goals per game he contests around the basket. He has also started to flash three-point range this season; although he shoots only 26 percent from out there on 1.2 attempts per game his 43.7 percent midrange shooting makes one believe he could eventually be a threat out there. His shooting has also allowed him to play with Valanciunas as a power forward, and he is mobile enough to stay with most fours defensively. The only question regarding Johnson’s long-term future in Toronto is the fact that his contract expires at the end of next season.

Kyle Lowry
Age: 27
Contract: $6,210,000.
New Contract: 2-4 years, $7-11 Million AAV

Lowry really is the fulcrum of the Raptors’ team-building conundrum. He is a free agent this summer, and his ultimate fate in Toronto will be the bellwether for the direction of the franchise. The bulldog point guard out of Villanova is having a career year and absolutely should have made the All-Star team, but there are major questions about whether he can sustain this performance going forward and how much he will cost to retain.

A long-term deal in Toronto at over $10 million per year could kill any cap flexibility the Raptors may have in the future after Ujiri did such great work to remove the millstones on the roster. Plus, he could be just good enough to prevent them from obtaining a superstar in the draft, but exiting his prime and well overpaid once players like DeRozan, Valanciunas and Ross enter theirs (and the latter two require extensions).

Lowry could also leave in free agency, although it seems unlikely any of the teams with cap space would pay him eight figures over a four-year deal. Perhaps the ultimate outcome will be a Paul Millsap-type two-year, $20 million or so deal that would enable the Raptors to lock two more years at a fair price without killing their future. Much of course depends on how the Raptors do in the playoffs and whether it appears this team could potentially contend with internal improvement alone. If, as is likely, that is not the case, then Ujiri may have to swallow hard and let Lowry go.

Patrick Patterson
Age: 24
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2014.
Projected New Contract: 3-4 years, $3-7 Million AAV.

Patterson has been excellent with Toronto in advance of restricted free agency, sporting a 58 TS% and hitting 43.9 percent of his threes on the way to an 18.5 PER. He too has been a key for Toronto’s bench success, with a 9.5 net rating. His floor spacing clearly opens up the offense, as the Raptors score at a rate that would rank fourth best in the league with him on the floor. Meanwhile, they have also defended at a top three rate in his minutes.

Patterson has clearly been a big part of the team’s success since his arrival, but as a restricted free agent could easily be overpaid. Some team may really value his shooting and passable defense and rebounding at the four as he enters his prime and decide to overpay, in which case the Raptors will have a very difficult decision to make. One thought for keeping Patterson is that he can play big minutes as a third big man alongside either Johnson or Valanciunas, both of whom can play center while he stretches the floor at power forward. His free agency will certainly be an interesting litmus test of how much the new breed of NBA general managers really values shooting.

Terrence Ross
Age: 22
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2016.

As a former dunk champion and owner of a 51-point game, Ross might have one of the louder 11.5 PERs in league history. That said, not much has changed for Ross in his second year. He shoots a few more threes and is up to almost 40 percent on those, but he still never gets to the basket or the line in the halfcourt. He has by far the worst net rating (+2.8 points/100) of any of the Raptors’ main players since the Gay trade, and the worst defensive rating as well.

That said, Ross can shoot and can jump, and is only 22. The question is whether his ceiling is Gerald Green, or something more. He is under his rookie contract through 2016, so the Raptors have plenty of time to find out. But thus far is appears that stardom may not be in the cards, and he could certainly be traded if a deal for a better-defending veteran on the wing opens up in the next couple years.

Coach Dwane Casey

Casey is in the last year of his contract, but the way he has coached a team with average defensive talent to a number four league ranking in defense since the Gay trade is very impressive. If the Raptors had won all year at their post-Gay pace, he would be a leading candidate for Coach of the Year. He got a raw deal in Minnesota once upon a time, coaching one of the last Kevin Garnett teams to a .500 record and solid defensive showing before being fired. The team promptly went 12-30 under Randy Wittman after he was axed.

Casey has shown enough this season to prove he is an asset to the organization. One would think he would be retained, but Lionel Hollins can tell you that success in the last year of a contract is no guarantee of a return when new management is in place.

Don’t Get Too Attached

John Salmons
Age: 34
Contract: 2 years, $14,583,000, last year $1 million non-guaranteed.

Salmons is finally reaching the end of his horrendous contract signed with Milwaukee in the summer of 2010 after the much-loved Fear the Deer campaign. Considering his 9 PER this year, Toronto will surely cut him this summer to save approximately $6 million.

Landry Fields

Age: 25
Contract: 2 years, $12,500,000.

Fields’ three-year, $21 million contract signed in the summer of 2012 might be the absolute worst in the NBA right now. He has played only 274 minutes on the year with a 7.6 PER. His solid rookie year is looking like one of the great fluke seasons in NBA history.

Chuck Hayes

Age: 30
Contract: 2 years, $11,681,250.

Hayes is wildly overpaid under the full mid-level deal he was given by Sacramento immediately post-lockout in 2011, but he remains a player who is more than the sum of his box score parts. At the very least, he will forever star in every video tutorial graduate assistants compile for undersized post defenders.

Steve Novak
Age: 30
Contract: 3 years, $10,945,948.

Novak was the cost of doing business for getting Andrea Bargnani off Toronto’s books (and inexplicably picking up a first-round pick in the process from New York). He can shoot like crazy, but with a 5.8 percent total rebound percentage and three blocked shots on the season really doesn’t do the “four” part of the stretch four position. He is barely in the rotation and it only figures to get worse from here.

Tyler Hansbrough
Age: 28
Contract: 2 years, $6,509,235, last year non-guaranteed.

The story for Psycho-T has been much different this year than last, when he was part of the Pacers’ bench unit that single- (or perhaps five-) handedly lost the Eastern Conference Finals. In contrast to his terrible on/off numbers last year, since the Gay trade he has a better net rating than all but one Toronto starter. His True Shooting percentage is a career high by four points, as he has lowered his usage rate and increased his efficiency. Hansbrough’s activity has been much better defensively to the tune of the best post-Gay defensive rating on the team at 90.6 points/100. The next (and last) year of Hansbrough’s contract is only guaranteed for $1 million. While he might be worth the extra $2.3 million it would take to keep him in a vacuum, the Raptors have three superior free agents in Lowry, Patterson and Vasquez. With Hayes also under contract, paying so much for a fourth or fifth big man likely is not the most efficient use of that money. Whether he stays next year or not, the one-time college player of the year is not part of the Raptors’ long-term plans.

Greivis Vasquez

Age: 27
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2014.
Projected New Contract: 1-3 years, $2-3 Million AAV

General Greivis has now started at point guard for two NBA teams, and both could not trade him out of that role fast enough. While he runs the offense and has excellent vision, he is so bad defensively that he cannot really be a full-time starter. But he is a reasonable option as a higher-end backup who can step in and start in a pinch, and has been valuable in Toronto after D.J. Augustin, Julyan Stone and Dwight Buycks proved unable to provide competent backup point guard play. Vasquez may not be in Toronto for long, however, as he is a restricted free agent this summer and the money for his potential new contract may be needed elsewhere.


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