The Raptors are set to make a hard push for Steve Nash once free agency begins on Sunday, an interesting potential move one could view as both sensible and wasteful. The Raptors could, in theory, have much as $11 million or so in cap space, plenty to pursue Nash, whose status as a national hero in Canada has obvious appeal to a team that last summer signed Canadian Jamaal Magloire as a glorified native son mascot.
Nash, of course, is still a wonderful player who has said he will consider factors other than winning a title in choosing his next team — factors that will include money and his general comfort with any potential suitor city. Toronto presumably checks off both those boxes, while other possible destinations, including the Knicks and Heat, cannot offer any more than the mini mid-level exception that carries an annual starting salary of $3 million a year. The Raptors could offer about as much even if they decide to keep Jerryd Bayless’ cap hold on the books rather than renouncing his rights — a step they’d have to take to nab that $11 million in cap room. The Raptors have already tendered a qualifying offer to Bayless, meaning they have a right to match any competing offer for him — and that a charge linked to Bayless’ old salary remains on their books, sopping up $7.5 million of that $11 million or so in cap room. That raises the spectre (Canadian spelling!) of the amnesty provision, which we’ll get to in a minute. (Note: This scenario also assumes Toronto renounces the rights their other outgoing free agents.”
Back to Nash: He remains a transformative offensive player who can’t realistically log more than 30 minutes a night, meaning the Raptors could feasibly sign him, keep Jose Calderon (and Calderon’s expiring contract) and split minutes between the two — all while dangling Calderon as trade bait. Nash is arguably the greatest shooter in NBA history, and the combination of his historically great shooting and passing remains devastating to defenses; the Suns continued to score at a top-three level with Nash on the floor, even as the talent around him declined. That holds obvious appeal to a Toronto team that improved defensively under Dwane Casey but dropped all the way to 29th in points per possession — a collapse admittedly linked in part to Andrea Bargnani getting hurt after the best start of his career.
The Raptors do not need to use the amnesty provision on Calderon in order to create enough cap room for a Nash signing. That comes with two caveats:
• Using amnesty on Calderon would allow them to comfortably keep Bayless’ cap hold on the books and offer Nash as much as they’d like.
• Using amnesty on Calderon and somehow losing Bayless would open up enough space to chase Nash and a small forward, currently the biggest hole on the roster. The team does not believe at this point DeMar DeRozan can swing there full-time (or anything like full-time), and neither James Johnson nor Linas Kleiza has come close to proving they could represent a long-term answer at the position. Both have spent time working as small-ball power forwards, and the minutes split between them and all the young big men here — a group about to add Jonas Valanciunas to its ranks — has been tricky at times. Johnson has shown potential as a jack-of-all-trades and an intriguing athlete — check his shot-blocking numbers — but he has a lot to prove on both ends of the floor.
There just aren’t many unrestricted free agents at the position that really work or seem likely to sign in Toronto. Gerald Wallace is aging and pricey, and reportedly leaning to re-signing with Brooklyn. Forget about Nicolas Batum or Brandon Rush; the Blazers and Warriors, respectively, are matching on those guys. Grant Hill could follow Nash on a discount, but he’s obviously not a long-term answer. The ranks are thin after that, and chasing a young shooting guard — say, Courtney Lee, a restricted free agent — is dicey with DeRozan and now Terrence Ross on board.
So, yeah: Why not take a shot at Nash, who will goose the offense to the point that Toronto will be a legitimate contender for a playoff spot next season — and an instant League Pass “must-watch,” given the curiosity over Valanciunas? The only other unrestricted free agent point guard worth making a run at is Goran Dragic, but the price will be pretty high, and a few other teams with cap room figure to make that same run. Lou Williams is out there, too, but he’s more of a combo guard, and he’s certainly not a franchise-changer.
The only slight danger comes in signing Nash to a multi-year deal that could nip away at much of Toronto’s cap space next summer. The Raptors could be on the books for something like $38 or $39 million a year from now, assuming they pick toward the end of the lottery and figuring in both DeRozan’s free agent cap hold and escalating guaranteed salaries for Valanciunas and Ross. That does not include any money for Johnson, who will be a restricted free agent, or anything for Bayless or any free agents the Raptors might sign this summer. Adding something like $10 million for Nash’s (wildly theoretical) second year gets the Raptors up into the $48 million/$49 million atmosphere. The cap will probably jump from $58.04 million to around $60 million for the 2013-14 season, so the Raptors in this scenario would still have a decent chunk of space — but not max-level space. That might not matter to a team that doesn’t exactly have a track record of attracting max-level free agents.
So, chase away, sell out every game and give Nash a year-long standing ovation, all while becoming an exciting potential playoff team.
A word on Nash’s non-obsession with winning a ring: Here’s what Nash said about winning a title in this Q-and-A with SLAM:
I would love to win a Championship, yes, but I’m not one of those people who believe I must win one to have a fulfilling career, so other factors, such as salary, family, playing time, and opportunity for team success all factor in.
I tweeted this quote when the Q-and-A came out and got a flood of predictably snarky responses essentially amounting to, “That’s why he hasn’t won a ring! He doesn’t care enough!”
That’s nonsense, of course. Nash wept after the 2010 Western Conference Finals, when the Lakers barely survived a gloriously fun Phoenix team no one expected to get that far. He gave everything — his health, his time, his game, his tutelage — to a Phoenix franchise that came painfully close to winning it more times than Nash would like to remember.
And that’s what Nash understands, and what the COUNT THE RINGZZZZ!!! brigade never has: winning one title is so extraordinarily difficult, and requires so much luck, that a player might as well choose a franchise with which he will enjoy the day-to-day process of playing in the NBA. It would be impossible for Nash to not understand this, given all the breaks that have gone against him — the infamous 2007 suspensions of Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw; the decline in his own health; the Suns’ penny-pinching costing them Joe Johnson, a bundle of first-round picks and then Stoudemire (a decision that looks great now, by the way) and Ron Artest’s series-saving tip-in in Game 5 of that 2010 conference finals. Nash gets how hard it is to win a single title, and how faulty the premise is that he can guarantee himself one by picking a particular destination.
He could increase his odds, of course, by signing with Miami on the cheap. But one injury to LeBron James kicks those odds right back down, and Nash has talked openly about how important the process of team-building is to him — how much he cherishes the day-to-day work of developing chemistry, mentoring players and living in a city in which he’s comfortable.
He’s entitled those priorities, especially since he has learned them through a lifetime of giving all he has toward winning.