came into the 2008-2009 season with high hopes, as Toronto fans were optimistic that their team could return to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. However, the Raps stumbled out of gate, went into a tailspin, and never fully recovered as things rapidly accelerated from bad to worse. The disappointing '08-'09 campaign which saw coaches being fired and hired, the injury bug biting here and there, and losses pilling up at a dizzying pace. As the Raps headed into this offseason, there were far more questions than answers. Mid-season acquisition Shawn Marion was an unrestricted free-agent; as was starter Anthony Parker. And Andrea Bargnani
would become a restricted free-agent the following summer. Moreover, the significant specter of face-of-the-franchise superstar Chris Bosh's pending (potential) free-agency hung heavily over the entire organization...
A few short months later, and the roster has been remodeled and the fanbase has been revitalized. On the heels of a depressing season, things are looking up Toronto.
The major reason for optimism is the Raptors
biggest offseason addition, Hedo Turkoglu, formerly of the Orlando Magic, and arguably the premier talent on this summer's free agent market. Once the free agency period commenced, GM Bryan Colangelo made hard push to secure Hedo's services, but it appeared he had lost his man when Turkoglu had a handshake agreement to join the Portland Trailblazers. However, Hedo backed out at the last moment and ultimately decided to sign with the Raptors
for $53 million over 5 years. A tough blow for the Blazers – but Toronto certainly couldn't have been more pleased. (And as we all know, all is fair in love, war, and free-agency…)
As I noted last week, Colangelo is committing a lot of money over long period of time for a player that has already celebrated his 30th birthday. But, the upshot is the Raps are getting a 6'10" forward with infinite range and guard-like skills. Hedo's track record speaks for itself; he is a solid, versatile, consistent producer who has posted big numbers over the last few seasons in Orlando. In fact, during Turkoglu's breakout season in '07-'08 (which netted him the league's Most Improved Player award), he was one of only five players in the NBA to average at least 19.5 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. The other four players were Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. And although his individual numbers dipped a bit in '08-'09, he was a key cog on an Orlando team that advanced all the way to the NBA Finals. Just as importantly, the Magic entrusted Turk to take big shots in big games, and Hedo has knocked down some monster jumpers in huge playoff games over the past two postseasons.
And while the long-term value of the contract is questionable, this signing was about the here-and-now. It goes without saying that making sure Chris Bosh
remains in Toronto is the primary objective of the franchise. Losing a F/C that gives you 22 and 11 (with terrific percentages from both the floor and the stripe) nearly every time he steps on the floor would be a devastating blow to the organization. So, Turk may have a hard time justifying his paycheck once 2013 rolls around, but the Raptors
needed to show Chris Bosh
they are serious about winning right now. If Toronto got off to another slow start and scuffled through another disappointing playoff-less season, convincing Bosh
to stay could become increasingly difficult. Landing Hedo was a coup because he is as qualified as any player on the open market and clearly capable of making a positive impact right away.
Colangelo also secured another key cornerstone of the franchise when he agreed to five- year $50 million extension with former #1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani. Lost amid last season's many disappointments, the continued development of Bargnani
was undeniably encouraging. Over his first two seasons in the league, Bargnani
had shown flashes of the great potential that resulted in him being the first player taken in the 2006 draft. But, on the other hand, he would slump for prolonged periods of time and some whispered he wasn't tough enough to deal with the demands of the NBA grind.
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Well, this past season was a breakout campaign for the Italian Stallion. Bargnani
set career-highs across the board, averaging 15.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 three-pointers, and 1.2 assists per game. And AB got better and better as the season progressed – a credit to his budding relationship with Coach Jay Triano. In March, Andrea enjoyed his best stretch as a pro. Over 12 games that month, he averaged over 20 points (while shooting a scorching 51.8% from the floor and 87% from the stripe), to go along with 5.9 boards and 2.3 three-balls. Just as importantly, Bargnani
has improved by leaps and bounds as a defender. In fact, he led the team in blocked shots. Before last season started, if you would have told Colangelo that Bargnani
would lead the team in blocks and games played, he would have been ecstatic. Raptors
fans have to be tremendously encouraged that Bargnani
is starting to fulfill his vast potential and is hopefully on his way to becoming a legit star.
After adding Turkoglu and locking up Bargnani, the Raptors
were not finished with their summer spending spree. They also signed guard Jarrett Jack to a four-year, $20 million offer sheet. Because Jack was a restricted free-agent, his former team, the Indiana Pacers had the right to match, but decided to let him go. Jack's performance for Indy last year was impressive, as he eventually supplanted former Raptor T.J. Ford as the Pacer's starting point guard by January. And when given the opportunity to shine, Jarrett made the most of it. He played the best ball of his career over the season's second-half. In 28 post-All-Star break contests, he averaged 17.3 points, 4.9 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.4 steals – while shooting over 48% from the field and 85% from the free-throw line. In addition, keeping with the whole "Keep CB4 in TOR" theme, Jack played alongside Bosh
when they were both collegians and Georgia Tech, and have remained close over the years.
Lastly, the Raptors
recently agreed to a one-year deal with former Toronto fan-favorite, Rasho Nesterovic on a one-year, $2 million dollar deal – supplying some necessary depth up front.
However, in order to add the players noted above, Toronto was forced to part was with pieces as well. Shawn Marion departed for Dallas. Carlos Delfino and Pops Mensah-Bonsu remain unsigned as unrestricted free-agents - but the Raps retained Delfino's Bird Rights and would like have enough money to match another team's offer to Mensah-Bonsu. And Toronto was also left with a hole in their starting lineup when swingman Anthony Parker left Canada to play alongside LeBron James in Cleveland. (The Cavs inked Parker to bargain-priced two year, $6 million contract.) However, that is where the Jack signing becomes increasingly valuable, as Jack has the size (listed at 6'3") and defensive tenacity to play some off-guard. At least that is what the Raps are claiming.
Another option at shooting guard will be Toronto's other exciting offseason addition: DeMar DeRozan. The Raptors
selected the former USC Trojan with the ninth overall pick in June's draft. However, while DeRozan has intriguing upside, expecting the youngster to contribute right away could be asking for too much, too soon. While he is a certainly a top-notch athlete - as evidenced by his vertical-leap measurements and some of his highlight real dunks - the knock on DeRozan is that he doesn't necessary put all those skills to use on the floor consistently enough to help his team win games. For instance, he should be a very good defender, but his steal, block, and rebound totals in college were not impressive. Scariest of all, last year at USC he shot poorly from the free-throw stripe (64%) and from the three-point line (16.7%). Those are not encouraging statistics from a shooting guard. However, on the positive side, DeMar excelled during Summer League action earlier this month, averaging 17 points (on 48% shooting) and 4.8 rebounds per game in Las Vegas.
Toronto can also plug in the newly acquired Antoine Wright at the SG spot as well. We shall see how this plays out once training camp and preseason rolls around…
So, with all this offseason activity, what does Toronto's future hold?
Last winter/spring, with the team struggling and the organizational culture seemingly polluted, some claimed it was forgone conclusion that Chris Bosh's days as a Raptor were limited. In fact, a few analysts felt Colangelo and company were better off shopping Bosh
around the league and looking to trade him for a package of young, promising players/picks – as opposed to risking losing him for nothing if he left as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2010…
But nowadays, the Raptors
seem poised made a push towards the top of the heap in the East. However, the powerhouses in their conference (Orlando, Boston, and Cleveland) all improved this summer as well, as the East seemingly gets tougher by the day. Still, the Raps success this season could be vital in making sure Bosh
spends the prime of his career in Canada. And one factor working in their favor is the ever-shrinking salary-cap, which could drop down into the $45-50 million range next summer. If other teams have less money to lure free-agents, the likelihood of players re-signing with their current teams increases.
Nonetheless, Colangelo would like Bosh's main motivation to stay be winning, not making the most money possible. And with some solid additions this offseason, the Raptors
hope they are on the path back towards sustained playoff respectability...