It was nearly five months ago that the NBA owners chose to lock out its players until a new collective bargaining agreement could be reached.  Basketball fans are fully aware of the many starts and stops that took place in the interim and are likely very familiar, after all this time, with the particulars involved.  But now that an agreement has been reached what does the new landscape look like for the Toronto Raptors and what is their plan for the upcoming shortened season?

First off, the plan that began last season—the Bryan Colangelo proclaimed Raptor rebuild—will continue.  Don’t expect any outlandish signings or trades unless the player or players brought in are here for the long-term.  There will be no short term fixes.  The Raptors have ten players under contract for this year and will continue to build around their core of young players.  Those young players are DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, Amir Johnson, Jerryd Bayless, Andrea Bargnani and James Johnson.  The veterans signed for this year are Linus Kleiza (injured and not likely to play at least until the latter part of the season) Leandro Barbosa and Jose Calderon.  The tenth is spare part Solomon Alibi.

The Raptors are one of the few teams that were prepared for the lockout and now have tremendous flexibility under the cap.  If the new luxury tax threshold is similar to the old threshold (about $70 million) then the Raptors will be about $24 million underneath.  There is little impetus, however, for the Raptors to use the margin on players for this season only since the team will not be a contender, but if an intriguing player become available either through trades or through the new amnesty clause then the Raptors will not be constrained by money.

The amnesty clause is a new wrinkle negotiated in this CBA.  In effect a team can waive a player already under contract and have that player’s salary taken off the books.  The team can only do it once during this CBA but still has to pay the salary—it just won’t count against the salary cap.  Thus fringe players who are in the middle or at the tail end of exorbitant contracts will be set free as soon as teams are allowed to begin making moves this year.  Players such as Gilbert Arenas, Rashard Lewis, Baron Davis, Richard Hamilton and Antawn Jamison will likely be free to sign with another club.

There are some codicils to this clause however to ensure that not only the elite clubs will benefit.  There wouldn’t be any point in locking out the players and talking about better competition between clubs if the Lakers, Celtics and Heat are able to claim all these veteran players at a minimum amount.   The new plan is that these players will go through a waiver wire of only non tax paying clubs and the team that claims the player and offers the most money will be awarded the player.  So if Brandon Roy is set free by Portland all the non tax paying clubs would be required to make secret claims in which they bid for the player.  The team that bids the most gets Roy.  Of course there is nothing to curtail the Timberwolves for example from calling the Lakers and telling them they will claim an individual the Lakers desire unless the Lakers do a bit of quid pro quo.  As I have written many times the owners will fight to the death to get the best deal possible and then they will fight to the death to circumnavigate it going forward.

For the Raptors it is unlikely that they would put in a claim on any of these players since they don’t want a veteran sulking about his lack of playing time on a team that must play its youngsters.  The Raptors are in a dedicated rebuild and will only bring in veterans who can help with the process.

There are free agents that the Raptors could pursue.  The Raptors need to fill two rotation spots for the coming year—they need a veteran defensive-minded center to anchor their defence and they need a starting small forward who can score.  The ideal centre would be Tyson Chandler, a solid defender who helped the Dallas Mavericks win the NBA title last year—if anyone remembers.  But coming off a championship season it is unlikely that Chandler would want to start all over with a young team despite the fact that he would be the team leader and he would again work with Dwayne Casey, the defensive architect of the Mavs title run.  The Raptors may be able to snag a veteran off the amnesty clause junk heap though if the Mavs waive center Brendan Haywood—who would come at a much cheaper price and under a short term contract.  The Raps may also be able to fill their small forward spot this way is Richard Jefferson is waived by the Spurs.  But these are both last ditch attempts at filling the spots since the Raptors would much prefer a younger player who can grow with the team.

The Raptors will have two quality youngsters joining the team next year.  They will have this year’s draft pick, Jonas Valanciunas, as well as next year’s first round pick—and this coming draft is expected to yield a number of high quality players.  The Raptors may believe they can get their scoring small forward then, and with Valanciunas coming to the team it may be prudent to obtain a couple of veterans to help for this year alone.

Colangelo last season said that the team would, after years of trying to build around Chris Bosh, would now go forward trying to build without Chris Bosh.  As such the developmental process began with the team grooming shooting guard DeRozan to be their go-to scorer.  DeRozan showed great improvement in his sophomore season averaging more than 17 points per game and exhibiting a wide variety of skills the Raptors will need if they want to grow into a playoff contender.  Turning a monumentally poor defensive club into a quality one falls into the experienced hands of Casey who will need to improve a team that was among the worst in the league last year.  It would help Casey if he had that veteran big man he can point to, with his youngsters, as the way to play the game.  Otherwise it will be all trial and error this year.

With only ten players under contract the Raptors will need to sign at least three players to fill in their roster—likely four since Kleiza won’t be playing any time soon and Alibi is basically practice fodder.  They won’t get the premium free agents but Colangelo has been known to make creative deals, and with only three weeks between the start of training camp and the start of the season the Raptor GM, as well as the rest of his colleagues, will be under the gun to fill in their rosters in a very short period of time.

Gentlemen, get set to hit the ground running.

…Perhaps there should a new class structure for fighting.  Along with the various weight classes there should be a new age class, especially for septuagenarians after the Joe Kapp-Angelo Mosca dust-up on a stage at a benefit dinner.  The 43 year old grudge match left Kapp with broken glasses after Mosca hit them with his cane.

…The baseball winter meetings, the official off-season commencement, will get underway next week.  This is where the big time free agents usually finish off their tour and decide which team gets to sign them.  As well the general managers get together to discuss trades—and there is usually a couple of doozies that take place.

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