Raptors must learn from past mistakes

May 7, 2014, 10:25 AM

The question facing Masai Ujiri as he begins his first full off-season running the Toronto Raptors is what-in-the-name-of Jason-Kapono is he going to do now?

Twice before have the Raptors pushed the boulder of mediocrity up the mountain towards NBA respectability. But as anyone who has followed this franchise knows, the challenge is getting that boulder over the top. In the past, it’s rolled back down in a hurry, building up speed thanks to over-ambitious contracts, injuries and the weight of expectations. The fans that stay in its path end up crushed and wounded, the wise ones scatter.

It’s exactly where the Raptors are again after their 48-win season and their seven-game playoff appearance in which – it should be noted – they were the No. 3 seed losing to the No. 6 Brooklyn Nets. For this reason the best notes struck by Ujiri in his end of season address Tuesday that doubled as the official announcement of head coach Dwane Casey’s contract extension were all the ones that whispered caution.

“We feel that we should have some continuity and continue with the core of this team,” said Ujiri.

And good on him.

Winning 48 games doesn’t guarantee winning 50 next season, but the Raptors are in a good spot. They have two second-year starters and in DeMar DeRozan a 25-year-old all-star with three years left on a deal paying $9.5-million a year. A bargain, in other words.

Their best chance for improvement next season comes from their youth and the fact they started this past season 6-12. But it’s hard not to get caught up.

Remember the Summer of Vince in 2001? If you thought the current Raptors team inspired an unprecedented love-in, you have a short memory.

The crowds at Maple Leaf Square during the playoffs were great, but not long after Carter pledged allegiance to Toronto by putting his signature on a six-year $94-million contract extension he walked into an Air Canada Centre packed with 20,000 screaming, worshipping fans who paid $20 each to watch his charity game.

Think about that.

And while you could write a book about why that 47-win team turned into a 42-win team the next year and then one that missed the playoffs for the next four, it’s impossible to overlook the rush to spend money that even at today’s prices looks reckless.

Jerome Williams got a seven-year, $40.8-million contract after averaging five points and four rebounds for Toronto in 28 games coming off the bench in 2000-01. Alvin Williams got seven years and $42-million after 34 starts in 2000-01 and averages of 9.8 points and five assists. Antonio Davis was able to turn a couple of good seasons into $64-million over five years, while the capper was $18-million over three years to 39-year-old Hakeem Olajuwon, who lasted 61 games before packing it in.

The failure of the Carter-era Raptors to sustain their peak is routinely laid at Carter’s feet, but when you give $82-million to the Williams – as nice as they are – your franchise is going to have problems.

Similarly, the 2006-07 Raptors, who were equally surprising in capturing their Atlantic Division title with an out-of-nowhere 47-win season, hurt themselves in the off-season when they gave Jason Kapono a five-year, $30-million contract. He filled a need and he did his job – he connected on 48.3 per cent of his three-point attempts, leading the NBA – but he was so defensively limited then head coach Sam Mitchell became hesitant to play him.

The Kapono deal was the sign of things to come as then GM Bryan Colangelo embarked on a series of pricey home runs swings – Jermaine O’Neal, Hedo Turkoglu – that never connected.

The current Raptors off-season priorities are fairly straightforward. Ujiri signaled loudly that he wants to bring back Lowry, the free-agent-to-be cog as well as restricted free agents Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson. Waiving John Salmons and Tyler Hansbrough – each guaranteed just $1-million – opens up some roster spots.

Ujiri’s first real test will be getting those deals done at the right price.

The Raptors are fortunate that there are only a couple of teams with both cap space and point guard needs. One is the Orlando Magic, although one could question if the 28-year-old Lowry is the right fit to grow with a very young roster and whether a team that finished 13th in the Eastern Conference is the right fit for Lowry, who has put winning at the top of his free agent check list.

A more determined suitor might be the Los Angeles Lakers, who have nearly unlimited cap space and only two years left with Kobe Bryant.

The Lakers would be a gamble as their roster and coaching picture is completely uncertain, but it is L.A. The challenge for the Raptors and Lowry will be if Los Angeles is willing to go well above the four-year, $40-million ceiling I predict the Raptors could and should have for Lowry.

The market for Vasquez probably settles in at three-years and $10-million, while Patrick Patterson could be a tough negotiation as good citizen 25-year-old power forwards who can shoot 40 percent from the three-point line are very difficult to find. If the Raptors can do it for four years and $20-million, they will have done very well.

Those three deals will likely put the Raptors over the estimated $66-million salary cap, but well under the luxury tax threshold. Teams in that category who have not paid luxury taxes in the previous year can use a salary cap exception worth more than $20-million over four years.

It can be a valuable tool to sign a quality veteran player, but the Raptors should use it judiciously. Scanning the list of available free agents that fit the need for a veteran wing who can help guard the likes of LeBron James or Joe Johnson, names like Thabo Sefolosha and former Raptor Alan Anderson jump out.

Yes, Vince Carter might be a good fit, but it’s a big presumption to think he’d leave Dallas and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told me earlier this year they want Carter to retire in Dallas.
Honouring Carter’s No. 15 jersey in Toronto would be much cheaper than signing him, better for the Raptors to keep the mid-level exception in their pocket and preserve salary cap flexibility for 2014-15 when the team has a core just rounding into its prime.

The time to strike might be then. For now the focus should be keeping the boulder from rolling back down the hill.

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