Holly MacKenzie - Raptors.com
Although NBA free agency doesn’t officially begin until July 1, there are plenty of offseason decisions to be made for the Toronto Raptors. After re-signing Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson last summer to keep their core intact, the Raptors suddenly have six free agents to make decisions on and, potentially, a slew of roster spots to fill.
Much of the 2014-2015 roster remained unchanged from the season prior, after the December trade that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento in exchange for Patterson, Vasquez, Chuck Hayes and John Salmons. Salmons departed in an offseason trade that brought in eventual 2015 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams and rookie Lucas Nogueira, with the only other additions being Greg Stiemsma and James Johnson. The first half of the season saw the franchise get off to the best start in its 20-year history, but things stalled after the All-Star break and broke apart during the postseason in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards.
Here are six Raptors who will be free agents on July 1, with a look at how each player found his way to Toronto, what his role was this season and what could happen heading into the summer, starting with players who have been with the team the longest.
How he became a Raptor: Amir Johnson came to the Raptors in an offseason trade with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2009. Johnson spent the first four years of his career with the Detroit Pistons and was a little used reserve who was also the last player to be drafted directly from high school with Detroit’s 56th overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft. After being sent to the Bucks in July, Johnson came to Toronto less than a month later and didn’t take long endearing himself to his new fan base as he explored the city and became one of its most loyal supporters.
What his role has been: Johnson has gone from reserve to starter over his six seasons with the Raptors and made a name for himself as the glue guy on the roster, making everyone better when he was on the floor. For some of his tenure, he’s been the second-best player on the roster. From rebounding (Johnson is 3rd all-time in franchise rebounds) and rejections (2nd all-time) to diving on the floor for loose balls and playing through all sorts of nagging injuries, Johnson has served as an emotional leader in the locker room in recent years.
Where things stand: After becoming a team fixture, it would be strange to envision the Raptors without Johnson, but heading into the offseason that is a scenario that could become reality. The 28-year-old Johnson is coming off a five-year contract with the Raptors and is likely to seek out as much security as possible considering the mileage on his body after 10 years in the league. Although Johnson has weathered many ankle sprains and various nagging injuries, he’s proven his heart time and again by leaving everything on the floor. Looking forward, only time will tell if Johnson and the Raptors can agree on a number that works to keep this fan favourite around.
How he became a Raptor: After Landry Fields had a stellar rookie season (Fields was named to the NBA All-Rookie first team) and a more modest sophomore season with the New York Knicks, he came to the Raptors via restricted free agency in the summer of 2012. Fields signed a three-year deal with the team while they were courting free agent Steve Nash. Nash did not end up in Toronto, but Fields did.
What his role has been: Fields came to Toronto with opportunity and potential, but his time with the team has been challenging. Shortly after struggling through his first preseason with the Raptors, Fields underwent surgery on his right ulnar nerve. Three years later, the injury still affects Fields. Despite re-training himself how to shoot and working through the rehabilitation process, Fields hasn’t been able to return to pre-surgery form. Instead, he’s focused on changing his game, working on distributing and creating for his teammates and rebounding. Although he hasn’t played much over the past couple of years, Fields has been an exemplary professional, supporting his teammates and staying in shape so he’s ready to step in to play whatever role is asked of him whenever his name is called.
Where things stand: After a rough three seasons marred by injury, Fields’ future is a bit murky. He’s no longer the player he was signed to be, but he’s still just 26 years old and has the kind of basketball instinct that cannot be taught and coaches love.
How he became a Raptor: Tyler Hansbrough came to the Raptors via free agency after spending the first four seasons of his career with the Indiana Pacers. Indiana drafted him after a stellar college career with the North Carolina Tar Heels. Hansbrough was named the National College Player of the Year in his junior year and an NCAA Champion in his senior year. After Indiana rescinded a qualifying offer on Hansbrough during the 2013 offseason, Toronto inked him to a two-year deal.
What his role has been: Earning a reputation in Indiana for being an agitator, Hansbrough brought that attitude with him to Toronto. If there is a heated conversation taking place or extra hard foul to be given, he’s likely to be in the middle of it. Although Hansbrough mostly played a limited reserve role, he brought toughness and energy whenever he stepped onto the floor and spent some time in the starting lineup to close the season and start the postseason this year.
Where things stand: Hansbrough is the kind of player every team wants on their roster. Players love to play alongside him, knowing he’s going to lay everything out there on the court. Opponents hate playing against him, knowing the same. Whether he re-signs with Toronto or takes his services elsewhere, he’ll be annoying those opponents on whatever basketball court he steps onto again next season.
How he became a Raptor: Chuck Hayes came to the Raptors in last December’s Rudy Gay trade. He went underrated in the 2005 Draft, but played with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds of the D-League before signing a 10-day contract with the Houston Rockets in January 2006. That 10-day was the beginning of a nine-year career for Hayes who spent the first six with the Rockets before a stint in Sacramento.
What his role has been: Hayes has been a reserve who plays spot minutes for the team, but his impact was felt within the locker room, during practice times and on the bench. The oldest player on the team at 31 years old, Hayes has served as a veteran leader who functioned like an additional assistant coach. On the court, Hayes brings tough defence and an ability to defend players much taller than his 6-foot-6 frame.
Where things stand: Hayes is a valued presence in any locker room, particularly for younger teams that can benefit from his wisdom and experience. After spending the last two seasons in Toronto, he has endeared himself to the team’s All-Stars. Whether he returns is a decision for the front office.
How he became a Raptor: The Toronto Raptors acquired Lou Williams (and rookie Lucas Nogueira) from the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for John Salmons. Williams struggled to find consistent minutes with the Hawks a year after tearing his ACL and rehabbing his knee.
What his role has been: In his first season with the Raptors, Williams had a bounce-back year, quieting those who doubted that he would be able to overcome the injury and rehabilitation process. Williams posted career highs in points, steals and free throws made and attempted in 80 games en route to being awarded the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. When Toronto lost DeMar DeRozan for 22 games to a groin injury, Williams was there to pick up the scoring slack. When Kyle Lowry missed time with a back injury late in the season, Williams helped split point guard duties with Greivis Vasquez. For a player who was acquired for cap relief, Williams exceeded expectations.
Where things stand: Williams spoke of his desire to stay in Toronto at his Sixth Man of the Year press conference. Whether he gets his wish depends largely upon his asking price. Coming off a strong individual season, Williams could draw a higher salary than the team is willing to commit to paying, but the green light he had in Toronto was certainly an enjoyable environment to play in. Going into his 11th season, the swingman has played himself into a situation where he’ll have multiple offers to choose from.
How he became a Raptor: Greg Stiemsma was the final player to make Toronto’s roster this season, signing a one-year deal as a free agent and fighting for his spot during training camp. Stiemsma beat out Will Cherry and Jordan Hamilton to remain with the team for the 2014-2015 season.
What his role has been: The bulk of Stiemsma’s work with the team has been done behind closed doors. Working the starters hard during practice time and providing support from the bench, Stiemsma has shown his worth through his ability to understand and accept his role as a little-used reserve. Unless the game was a blowout he wasn’t likely to play. This didn’t change his attitude or approach with respect to staying prepared, in shape and showing up to the arena every day to buy in and give his best like the rest of his teammates.
Where things stand: Stiemsma is a 6-foot-11 reserve with shot-blocking ability who does what is asked of him, is coachable and also a good guy to have around in the locker room. Whether he ends up returning to the Raptors or not, there should be a spot for him somewhere in the league.