For a team like Toronto that has never been a destination for marquee free agents, the front office has had to get creative when it comes to acquiring players through the free agent market.
That may change in the future, now that the city and brand has transformed itself into a major-market winner — and within a year or two when the team is projected to gain ample cap space, that will certainly be put to the test.
But until this point, the Toronto Raptors have had to scour non-traditional free agent markets outside the NBA — and has had some real success doing so.
That creativity is what makes the recent news regarding point guard Nando de Colo, interesting. A 2009 second-round pick who was traded to Toronto in 2014, de Colo appeared in 21 games for the Raptors in the 2013-14 season before signing with CSKA Moscow in Europe. There, he’s gone on to become one of the EuroLeague’s best and the league’s 2016 Most Valuable Player.
Eyeing an NBA return, the Raptors reportedly signed de Colo to an offer sheet that will see them control his NBA destiny next season, and could potentially translate to a roster spot on the defending champs.
The Raptors have lucked out signing established veterans out of the Euroleague, and you’ll notice that is a distinct theme when it comes to their few-yet-notable free agent success stories in the past.
Here’s a look at the best free agent signings in Raptors history:
Probably the best signing of them all, Calderon joined the Raptors at age 24 after establishing himself as a rising star in Spain. He struggled early in his Toronto tenure, but by his third season saw over 30 minutes of action per game, started 56 games and averaged more than 11 points and eight assists.
Although he battled for the starting role throughout his time in a Raptors uniform — with T.J. Ford, Jarrett Jack and Kyle Lowry — Calderon was a rare steady prescence on a team constantly in flux, and helped lead Toronto to its first playoff appearances since the Vince Carter era.
Notably, he is the only Raps free agent signing among the franchise’s top 10 career leaders in minutes played, and totalled more assists (3,770) than any other player in Raptors history.
While his statistics won’t jump out — averaging 8.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game as a 29-year-old rookie in 2006-07 — Garbajosa joined the Raptors from the Euroleague and instantly provided a steady veteran hand as the team reached the post-season.
An undisputed fan favourite, he started 60 of the 67 games he appeared in that season and was a rare
“win” in the franchise’s non-stop search for a starting small forward.
Of course, his career was ultimately cut short due to a gruesome and devastating leg injury that we won’t show here – but is just a click away if you’re into that sort of thing. Still, his impact on that ’06-07 season can’t be overlooked.
An exception to the Euroleauge rule, Murray joined the Raptors for their inaugural season. A former standout at UCLA and the 18th pick of the 1992 draft, Murray led the league in three-point shooting in 1994 and brought his sweet-shooting stroke to Toronto, where he became a fan favourite and one of the team’s best players.
The Long Range Bomber played in 82 games for the Raps in ’95-96, seeing 30 minutes per game and averaging 16.2 points per game — second only to Rookie of the Year, Damon Stoudamire.
Murray eventually returned to the Raptors, along with Keon Clark in a trade with Denver, but has the distinction of being the first and one of the few free agent coups in the team’s relatively brief history.
A former first-round pick, Parker spent three unremarkable seasons in the NBA between 1997-’00 before taking his talents to Israel. There, he became one of the EuroLeague’s brightest stars, a two-time champ with Maccabi Tel-Aviv and a two-time EuroLeague MVP.
Maybe it was his knockout punch in an exhibition against the Raptors that drew the attention of then-GM Rob Babcock:
At the age of 31, he brought this impressive resume back to the NBA with him when the Raptors signed him in 2006, and he immediately assumed a starting role in Toronto’s backcourt.
Parker was a double-digit scorer for each of his three seasons with the Raptors, reaching the post-season twice and establishing himself as the team’s second-leading scorer behind Chris Bosh.
A former lottery pick who never realized his potential with the Charlotte Bobcats, Masai Ujiri signed Biyombo to a cheap short-term deal that paid dividends for both the Raptors and the six-foot-nine centre.
Biyombo brought a clear skill-set — rebounding, rim protection, contagious frenetic energy and a physical presence in the paint — and occupied an equally clear role coming off the bench.
He really made his mark in the playoffs, where he averaged nearly 10 rebounds per game and grabbed 13 or more boards on six occasions — including a monster 26-rebound, four-block performance in a win during the Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
in honour of Father's Day, I'd like to remember "Biyombo is my father" pic.twitter.com/lp9ms2zvOi
— alyssa(@lysstori_) June 20, 2016
He parlayed that post-season success to a massive contract with the Orlando Magic, but truly embraced his brief time in Toronto.
“The reason Toronto was fun is because it was pretty much us versus the world,” he told me in this Q&A last season. “And it’s still like that! There was that thing recently where they asked ‘Who’s going to win the championship?’ And the options were Golden State, Houston, Cleveland and ‘Other.’ I loved those challenges.
“… For me it always comes back to the brotherhood… and every time I see Kyle, DeMar, Cory Joseph, all the players that were on that team, I walk away feeling like we built a great brotherhood that continues today.”