The Toronto Raptors won the Atlantic Division last season behind a superstar-light, depth-heavy approach that saw a host of solid players demonstrate two-way commitment to carrying out head coach Dwane Casey's edicts. It wasn't always sexy, but it was effective, as Toronto ranked as one of just four teams to finish in the NBA's top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession (alongside the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and eventual champion San Antonio Spurs) and came within seconds of knocking off the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round of the 2014 playoffs. General manager Masai Ujiri feels like he's found something — the right collection of players with the right type of temperament under Casey's leadership — to build something big in the Great White North, and he's doing his level best to both secure and augment it.
Ujiri took the first step at the start of free agency, locking down free-agent point guard Kyle Lowry with a four-year, $48 million contract. With the scene shifting from the 10-day moratorium during which trades and signings couldn't be completed to the post-July 10 stage where pens can hit paper, he made a pair of supplemental "get the band back together" moves, inking Lowry's Venezuelan partner at the point and bringing back an ex-Raptor who figures to help shore up Toronto's defense on the wing.
Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that the Raptors had agreed to terms with restricted free agent Greivis Vasquez on a two-year, $13 million deal. On Thursday morning, CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish reported that Toronto had reached an agreement with James Johnson on a two-year deal that Wojnarowski later reported would pay the free-agent forward $5 million. Both years of Johnson's deal are fully guaranteed, according to CBSSports.com's Ken Berger.
At first blush, $6.5 million a year feels a bit steep for Vasquez. Yes, the 27-year-old has proven capable of serving as an elite table-setter, using his 6-foot-6 size and excellent court vision to lead the NBA in assists as a member of the New Orleans Hornets during the 2012-13 season. He's shown a steady hand at the wheel as well, posting a top-five assist-to-turnover ratio among reserve point men last season (that actually came in a bit below the 2.6-to-1 career ratio he's built up since coming into the league in 2010).
But he's also a 41.7 percent career shooter whose 3-point stroke has seemed to come and go over the years, and he's tended to be a liability on the defensive end at both backcourt positions, lacking the foot speed and lateral agility to stay in front of quicker point guards and the physical strength to body up bigger twos. Paying a premium price for a backup point — especially after dropping eight figures on your starter, and especially after importing another ball-handling combo guard with a $5.45 million '14-'15 price tag (Lou Williams) in a pre-free-agency trade with the Atlanta Hawks — seems like a bit of an overpay, especially if it comes at the opportunity cost of being able to use some of that scratch to fill in other holes on a roster that, lest we forget, didn't make it out of Round 1.
That said, there are mitigating factors here. For one thing, Vasquez isn't just the Raptors' backup point guard — he also ate up about 20 percent of Toronto's minutes at the two behind All-Star DeMar DeRozan, according to 82games.com's game-charting. He was able to do so in large part because that come-and-go long-distance stroke stuck around after Vasquez landed in Toronto following the December trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings; Greivis shot 38.9 percent from deep after joining the Raptors, including a blistering 44.8 percent after the All-Star break, and performed well off the ball as a spot-up shooter, drilling 37.9 percent of his attempts on such possessions, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data.
As a result of that shooting, Vasquez's size and Lowry's defensive acumen, Casey was able to use his point guards together in the backcourt, and they paired beautifully. Lineups featuring Lowry and Vasquez outscored the opposition by 186 points in 490 regular-season minutes, and outscored the Nets by 61 points in 125 postseason minutes; both ranked best among Raptors pairings, according to NBA.com's stat tool. When Lowry and Vasquez played together during the regular season, Toronto scored (111.1 points per 100 possessions) and defended (96.2 points-per-100) at rates that would have ranked tops in the NBA in offensive and defensive efficiency over the course of the full season, besting the high-flying Los Angeles Clippers and the lockdown Indiana Pacers. That trend continued during the playoffs, where the Raps outscored Brooklyn by a whopping 18.6 points-per-100 in Lowry-Vasquez time, up from 14.9 points-per-100 against all opponents during the regular season.
Clearly, the combination of playmaking and shooting worked for Casey and company. Equally clear: Vasquez really loves it in Toronto — we have the “lint-rolling the deputy mayor” to prove it — and really wanted to be part of what he sees Ujiri building. From Eye on Basketball’s James Herbert:
"I'll say this in a very humble way," Vasquez said at his end-of-season media availability in May. "If we keep this team together, we can be the OKC in the East. And that's a big statement. But we're that good, as a team, as a unit. We probably won't have super All-Stars, but we have guys that can get the job done. And we play great together, that's the biggest thing. It's a great chemistry, it's a healthy locker room, which is more important."
That “OKC in the East” line might matter in more ways than one, too.
It remains to be seen whether little-known 2014 first-rounder Bruno Caboclo can live up to the hype of being called “the Brazilian Kevin Durant,” but the American Kevin Durant — the one who plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder, the one who just won his first Most Valuable Player award — is slated to hit free agency after the 2015-16 season. That’s when Vasquez’s new deal comes up, too, and not only are Greivis and Durant boys from way back, but Vasquez has already started recruiting the Thunder star to come up north and join the team KD loved as a kid. More from Herbert:
Hayes: "It was announced 'Raptors Day' on Monday here in Toronto, and you guys just got to the first round. What do you think the city would be like if you ever won a title here?"
Vasquez: "Well, imagine if we get KD, Kevin Durant, 2016."
Hayes: "That's your guy, too, right?"
Vasquez: "And he'll lead us to a championship."
Hayes: "Are you calling your shot right now, Kevin Durant coming to Toronto?"
Vasquez: "I think he'll have statues right outside the ACC."
Hayes: "And where's your statue going to be?"
Vasquez: "It's OK. It could be back in the locker room, it could be in Venezuela. As long as I win a championship with KD, that'll be an amazing feeling. So hopefully that happens."
It’s pie-in-the-sky thinking at this stage, but every team that can reasonable work its way into max cap space in the summer of 2016 is surely thinking about Durant, and the Raptors — with only Lowry’s new flat $12 million per year deal, a $9.5 million player option for DeRozan and the final year of forward Patrick Patterson’s new $18 million contract confirmed on the books, prior to rookie deals and future decisions on extensions for the likes of Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross — could maintain enough flexibility to get in that conversation. To be sure, Toronto’s paying Vasquez to be an effervescent playmaker rather than a highway billboard … but hey, if he’d help draw the eyes of one of the NBA’s leading lights toward somewhere worth stopping at an upcoming exit, well, so much the better.
Plus, if the Raps’ thinking changes in the meanwhile, Vasquez’s deal runs just two years, and we just saw a similarly high-priced veteran backup point guard, Jarrett Jack, get moved in a cap-space-clearing trade on Wednesday, one year after he signed his big-money deal. The short term of Vasquez’s deal opens the door to a number of options while also bringing back a valuable member of a good team, a very good backcourt and a strong locker room in an organization where maintaining continuity seems to matter quite a bit.
The Raptors learned about something else that mattered in their postseason loss to the Nets — big wing defenders who can keep Joe Johnson from roasting you to the tune of 21.9 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting from the field and a 39.1 percent mark from deep. Ergo, the return trip to T-Dot for James Johnson, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound martial artist nicknamed “Bloodsport” who inspired the perfectly Memphian throat-sticker giveaway, and who flourished last season when given an opportunity to get hectic in the Grindhouse.
A 2009 first-round pick of the Chicago Bulls, Johnson spent time with three teams over four seasons before landing with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League this season. Short on answers on the wing, the scuffling Grizzlies called up the 27-year-old forward up in mid-December, hoping that his combination of length, athleticism and defensive energy would provide a boost to a team that had slumped to start the season under new head coach Dave Joerger. It did.
Between Johnson’s Dec. 17, 2013, debut and the end of February 2014, the Grizzlies went gone 22-12, outscoring opponents by 5.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, compared with just a +0.6-per-100 mark when he sat. They operated like a top-three defense with Johnson in the lineup to get physical with opposing wings and wreak havoc — he averaged 2.5 combined blocks and steals in just 21.3 minutes per game during that stretch, while chipping in nearly nine points per game mostly via Tony Allen-style contributions as an opportunistic off-ball cutter and offensive rebounder.
He wound up falling out of favor and out of Joerger’s rotation for the final month and a half of the regular season and throughout Memphis’ opening-round defeat at the hands of Durant and the Thunder, for reasons that remain unclear — he might not have the “steady vet” reputation of a Tayshaun Prince, but I have a hard time believing he might not have been more helpful than Tay down the stretch — and the Grizzlies seemed resigned to the idea that they’d lose him in free agency due to roster and money crunches.
The Grizzlies’ loss is the Raptors gain, as Johnson will give Casey a big, quick, physical, versatile defender who can take the brand of assignments that can punish the shorter and reedier DeRozan and Ross. His signing also marks a return — where he played 87 games over the 2010-11 and ‘11-’12 seasons — that (sort of) falls in line with Ujiri’s move to build around the Raps’ own.
“Keeping our own guys was hugely important for us,” Ujiri told Sportsnet’s Michael Grange. “It’s like building your home. You need that structure, you need that foundation. We have our base now and we can grow, bit by bit.”
It’s unlikely that Ujiri will be able to put any sort of addition on that “home” at the moment — as Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic notes, Toronto now looks to have about $74.8 million in 2014-15 salary committed to 14 roster spots. But with a base that was already good enough to win the Atlantic, expected internal improvements from youngsters like Valanciunas, Ross and DeRozan, prime-level play from young veterans like Lowry, Vasquez and Amir Johnson, and several wild cards in the mix (Johnson, Williams, possibly Caboclo and 2013 first-rounder Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira, acquired in the Hawks deal), there’s certainly an awful lot to like about the way the Raptors are shaping up. The moves might not be sexy, but they look to be effective, and they could put Toronto in position to be very dangerous in an Eastern Conference where nearly everything seems up for grabs at the moment.
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