The NBA Season is about to kick off in a few days, and there is a lot to be excited about if you’re a Toronto Raptors fan.
The team is tied with the 76ers for the best preseason record, at 6-1. Last year’s lottery pick, Jonas Valanciunas, appears ready to contribute from day one. And the Raptors have one of the deepest point guard rotations in the league.
With that being said, Toronto is far from contending for a title.
Dwane Casey was successful in changing the culture last year. He significantly improved one of the league’s worst defensive teams. However, the team struggled to score all season.
The addition of Kyle Lowry and Andrea Bargnani’s return from injury should improve the team’s offense this season, but the Raptors are still weak on the wings.
This is a make-or-break season for DeMar DeRozan. He is eligible for a contract extension and must prove that he is capable of being a consistent two-way player.
Terrence Ross showed promise during the summer league, but injuries have slowed him in the preseason.
Landry Fields is a solid role player in this league, but is likely best suited as a sixth man.
Alan Anderson and Linas Kleiza will receive minutes this year, but they have no real place in the rotation of championship team.
The answer for the Toronto Raptors could come from a very unlikely source.
James Harden has developed into one of the best young shooting guards in the league. He was named the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year last season. He is also a key contributor on a championship contender. And most importantly, there is a good possibility he’ll be a free agent next summer.
Harden`s future with the Oklahoma City Thunder has been well documented. The team already has Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook signed to max contracts. Serge Ibaka recently inked a four-year, nearly $50 million contract. Plus another three years and almost $30 million committed to Kendrick Perkins.
Sam Presti and the rest of the Thunder front office have until October 31 to negotiate an extension with Harden. Otherwise, he`ll become a restricted free agent next summer.
The question becomes, then, what does James Harden want?
He is eligible for a four-year, approximately $63 million extension. Under the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, Harden is entitled to receive a new contract starting at 25 percent of the salary cap, or roughly $14.5 million.
Yahoo Sports also reported that Harden recently turned down a four-year, $52 million contract extension.
At the same time, Bill Simmons wrote about how Harden emailed Presti before the 2009 NBA draft to explain why he would fit with Westbrook and Durant.
Obviously Harden wants to sign the largest contract possible, but does he want the burden of being a leader? Or is Harden content to be the third or fourth option on a perennial contender?
There is no question teams will line up to offer Harden a max contract, should he become a free agent. He would be a starter on most teams in this league. Harden could also develop into an All-Star.
A number of teams will enter next summer with cap space and will be looking at Harden. The Phoenix Suns are rumored to be a potential suitor; they are looking to add to their young core. Harden may welcome a return to the state where his mother still lives and where he starred at Arizona State.
Another team that could definitely use Harden, though, is the Raptors. He would easily become the team’s best perimeter player, with the ability to create for himself and others.
The Raptors have about $39 million in committed salaries next season. The team already picked up Ed Davis’ fourth-year option, and it is unlikely Kleiza or Aaron Gray will decline their player options for next season.
In order to sign Harden, though, the team would need to let Jose Calderon’s contract expire and decline extending DeRozan a qualifying offer.1
Most fans would argue that no star wants to come to Toronto and the Raptors wouldn’t stand a chance to sign Harden. But this shouldn’t be the case.
Toronto can offer Harden just as much as anyone, except the Thunder.2 The Raptors are also poised for significant improvements.
They should finish the season with a record close to .500 and likely will be fighting for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.3
The team’s core has a lot of talent, with Lowry, Bargnani and Valanciunas. Both Lowry and Bargnani were playing at All-Star levels before suffering injuries last season. And Valanciunas could easily develop into one of best centers in the NBA.
With the addition of Harden and more experience for the team’s current players this is a team that could play well into June for the next 5-7 years.
Next summer is also the most important summer for the Raptors in their short history. The team doesn’t have a first round draft pick, as it was sent to Houston in exchange for Lowry. Toronto also won’t have this type of financial flexibility for a while, with Lowry, DeRozan and Davis all looking for new contracts.
Therefore, if the Thunder decides that the luxury tax is too punitive to compete for a title, then the Raptors must be prepared to pounce. There aren’t too many wing players with as much talent as Harden in the league and he could be what the team needs to take the next step.
1. DeRozan’s qualifying offer would be approximately $4.5 million. It is unlikely that he would accept a new contract at that rate. However, even if he did, it does not leave enough room to offer Harden a max contract, unless the team were to use its amnesty clause on another player.
2. A team resigning its own free agents can offer an annual salary increase of 10.5 percent, whereas any other team can only offer 8.0 percent.
3. Miami, Boston, New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Indiana are virtual locks to make the playoffs, leaving two spots left. Toronto will have to fight off Atlanta and Chicago if they want to sneak into the playoffs.