With everyone glued to their television screens, laptops and phones early Tuesday afternoon awaiting news on whether the Brooklyn Nets had inked Deron Williams (they hadn't yet, but now have) or swung a deal for Dwight Howard (they hadn't, and still haven't), Brooklyn's Atlantic Division comrades north of the border made a pretty small move by comparison. ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported that the Toronto Raptors had reached a verbal agreement on an offer sheet with restricted free agent Landry Fields — who played the first two years of his NBA career with another Atlantic squad, the New York Knicks — that would reportedly pay the 24-year-old shooting guard nearly $20 million over the next three years.
At first blush, the deal seems wholly out of proportion with Fields' production through two years in the league, and especially ridiculous given the Stanford product's sophomore swoon on Broadway. After a surprisingly effective first NBA campaign that saw him go from second-round afterthought to New York's opening-night off-guard and, eventually, a first-team All-Rookie selection, Fields fell off something fierce in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
All of Fields' shooting percentages declined in his second year in the league, including woeful marks of 25.6 percent from 3-point range and 56.2 percent from the foul line, along with his Player Efficiency Rating and rebound rates — most notably his defensive rebound rate, which was elite among guards and was a huge part of what made the 6-foot-7 Fields so valuable in the Knicks backcourt. He used more Knick possessions in his second year, but posted a lower per-minute scoring output and turned the ball over more frequently.
He wasn't any great shakes on the defensive end, either. Fields ranked 341st among NBA players in overall points allowed per play defended, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game charting. When you consider that more than 440 players saw NBA floor-time this season, that not all of them are counted (only guys with at least 25 plays charted appear in the rankings, per Synergy's FAQ) and that Fields played 2,009 total minutes this season (so it's not like he got burned repeatedly for one game and caught a bum stat line), that number looks really, really bad. That he ranked 185th in the NBA or worse in defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers, on post-ups, on spot-ups and in isolation doesn't help matters. (In fairness, we must note that he posted a top-100 finish in defending plays off screens, coming in at 96th overall.)
OK, so we've got a shooting guard who can't shoot, a rebounding wing whose rebounding fell off, a perimeter defender who's not a very good defender and a second-year pro whom most Knicks fans were willing, if not eager, to let walk after the team's first-round playoff exit. (This is, of course, a drastic oversimplification, but it's also about the size of how Landry Fields looks to the world.) And yet now he's getting offered better than $6.5 million a year to play the wing for a team that starts DeMar DeRozan and just drafted Terrence Ross? Are the Raptors stupid?
Heck yeah, they are. Stupid like a fox!
See, Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski reported Sunday that the Phoenix Suns might have some interest in acquiring Fields in a prospective sign-and-trade deal with the Knicks. It would be the kind of sign-and-trade deal theorized by New York Post beat man Marc Berman (among others) that would enable the Knicks to pay free-agent point guard Steve Nash, late of the Suns, more than they could offer in straight salary using their $3.09 million taxpayer's midlevel exception.
New York wouldn't be able to get near the three years and $36 million that the Raptors reportedly offered Nash when free agency kicked off Sunday. But they could close some of that salary difference by working out a sign-and-trade deal that would let Phoenix re-up Nash before shipping him to New York in exchange for a package of pieces that the Suns could then decide to keep for their next chapter or waive for salary relief. Most of the potential Knicks pieces (Dan Gadzuric, Josh Harrellson, Jerome Jordan, Toney Douglas, et. al.) would find themselves on the cutting room floor. Only a couple (likely Fields and injured first-round pick Iman Shumpert, who the Knicks do not want to give up) would rank among those the Suns would be interested in keeping for the long haul.
If the Knicks could sell Nash on playing in his offseason home for something approaching his market value and get Phoenix on-board for that type of sign-and-trade, then the fact that the Raptors can (and have) offered the two-time NBA MVP the most money might not really matter. In that situation, if you're the Raptors, what do you do?
Well, you sign one of the only chips the Knicks have to a three-year offer sheet approaching $20 million, because under the league's collective bargaining agreement, you can't match a restricted free agent's offer sheet and then include him in a trade. You use the tools at your disposal — in this case, the CBA and enough cap space to be able to offer about $6.7 million a year to a player who isn't worth it — to eliminate a potential partner for the person with whom you want to dance.
The Raptors' offer takes Fields, a piece in whom the Suns were reportedly interested, off the sign-and-trade board entirely, and forces the Knicks to either include their much-more-loved shooting guard in a new package for the Suns, or back away from the table all together. It puts the Knicks in a position where they have to decide if they want to match a back-loaded contract for Fields, which they 100 percent should not, considering how much difficulty Fields has had playing in lineups that include New York linchpin Carmelo Anthony and the fact that in the third year of a deal that would pay Fields somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 million, the Knicks are already committed to pay a combined $62.4 million to the trio of Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. Plus, the Knicks are also probably about to have to match a back-loaded contract offer to point guard Jeremy Lin, since the Houston Rockets are going to meet with Lin on Wednesday, need a point guard and were the canary in the coal mine for this sort of thing in the new CBA.
Making the offer to Fields makes the Raptors the unquestioned favorite to land Nash. It gives Toronto the inside track on a definite upgrade at point guard (with apologies to Jose Calderon) and a peerless national icon in the sport. The literal boss of Canadian basketball. A facilitator par excellence who might actually be able to unlock potential-packed Raps pieces like DeRozan, Ross, Ed Davis and Amir Johnson, pair in the pick-and-pop with defrocked No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani and spoon-feed tasty buckets to incoming game-changer Lithuanian five Jonas Valanciunas. Hell, he might even resurrect Fields, who has played his best basketball in two NBA seasons when paired with a point guard capable of pushing pace and rewarding him for his deft, properly timed off-ball cuts.
That said, it's very fair to wonder, as SI.com's Zach Lowe did, whether committing $20 million to Fields and using up a chunk of that salary-cap space on what amounts to an attempt to checkmate the Knicks out of the Nash arms race is really ultimately worth it, since the goal is to build a team that wins a title, and even with Nash on-board, Toronto still for sure ain't that. But a Nash-led Raps squad might be a playoff team, and they'll be a team worth watching, and they'll be a team that sets hearts (especially Canadian ones) aflame.
Provided, of course, the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and any of a number of other potential destinations don't wind up winning Nash's favor first. If Nash goes elsewhere and the Knicks don't match Fields' offer sheet, then the Raptors have to pay starter-level money to a guy who probably shouldn't start for them and who they probably shouldn't want independent of context, all things considered. That's the problem with calculated gambles like the one Toronto's Bryan Colangelo has made here; they're still gambles.
But they're gambles you have to take. As my dude Bruce Arthur wrote in the National Post, going all-in for Nash, even at the expense of taking on Fields, "is Toronto's chance to matter, not only in Canada — where interest wanes sharply outside greater Toronto — but in the league." Given the stakes of the game, a $20 million offer to a middling two-guard seems almost cheap.