The Raptors have taken a page from Houston’s pursuit of Omer Asik and agreed to a backloaded three-year, $20 million offer sheet with Knicks restricted free agent Landry Fields. And if you thought it was ridiculous for the Rockets to throw $25 million at a 7-footer with two proven elite skills, defense and rebounding, I wonder what you think of Toronto’s offering $5 million less to a shooting guard who hit 25.6 percent from three-point range last season.
The Raptors cannot actually value Fields as an above-average player, which is what this deal would make him, at least in terms of salary. Fields is a useful rotation piece; he’s one of the best rebounders for his position, a clever cutter and passer and a player who can run a fairly effective wing pick-and-roll with the shot clock running down. It’s not easy to average better than three assists per 36 minutes on a team with Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony. But Fields’ outside shooting makes him a liability when it comes to spacing. Defenses can tilt away from him on the wing or in the corner to crash the middle and interfere with more effective actions elsewhere. And despite his rebounding skills and smart sense of where to be and whom to help, Fields is not a top-shelf defender; he lacks the quickness to keep up with dynamic NBA shooting guards.
All of this makes it strange that the Raptors would value Fields this highly. DeMar DeRozan is entrenched at shooting guard, and the team is skeptical he can make anything like a full-time transition to small forward. The Raptors just drafted Terrence Ross, another shooting guard, with the eighth pick last week. Fields is an interesting player who can play small forward in a pinch, but he would not seem like a $7-million-per-year answer on this Toronto team.
So what’s going on? It would appear Toronto’s dogged pursuit of Steve Nash is going on. The Raptors already have offered Nash a three-year, $36 million deal, a move that would require either the use of the amnesty provision on starting point guard Jose Calderon or their renouncing rights to free-agent guard Jerryd Bayless. But the Raptors know that the two-time MVP loves New York, his offseason home, and that the Knicks — who are able to offer only the $3 million mini mid-level exception — might try to work a sign-and-trade with Phoenix that would allow Nash to earn near market value and play for the Knicks next season. Fields and 2011 first-round pick Iman Shumpert are New York’s only tradable pieces in which the Suns would have any real interest, and the Raptors just took one of them off the table.
If Fields officially signs Toronto’s offer sheet when league business resumes on July 11, the Knicks are effectively blocked from trading him anywhere. They can match and bring back Fields, but in that scenario, league rules prohibit them from trading him for three months. Fields could still renege on the verbal agreement to sign the Raptors’ offer sheet, but if he keeps his word, the Nash-to-the-New York pipe dream is over, unless the Knicks feel so desperate that they relent on Shumpert.
It’s probably time for the Knicks to wash their hands of this entire thing. Let Fields walk at this price, re-sign Lin to a deal starting at $5 million using the Early Bird Rights that the point guard and the union won in arbitration, and just go to battle with the team they have. It’s not a title contender as long as Miami is healthy, but it’s a team worthy of some roster stability and a real shot at success in the Eastern Conference.
New York has so much money tied up in Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire that it just cannot afford to make this kind of commitment to a player of Fields’ stature. Remember: The new collective bargaining agreement bans teams from using the full mid-level exception on a free agent and spending more than $74 million on total payroll in that season. The mid-level is going to be the Knicks’ most important team-building tool, and they are just never going to have access to the full exception if they overspend on players such as Fields. Even re-signing Lin this summer will essentially take the full $5 million mid-level out of play because the Knicks will be so close to the $74 million mark after just that transaction. They could still use the $3 million mini mid-level, but as we’re seeing right now with Nash, Jason Terry, Ray Allen and others, the $2 million difference between the “mini” and “full” exceptions means something to veteran players.
The Knicks may run smack into this problem every summer, anyway, regardless of this Fields deal. Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler alone will make about $58 million combined in 2013-14. If Lin signs a backloaded offer sheet with the Rockets or another team that the Knicks match, New York might be forced to overpay him dramatically three years from now. (Lin is scheduled to meet with Houston on Wednesday.) Flexibility might just not be there ever. But to have any chance at it — and to avoid mammoth tax bills that may not really mean anything to James Dolan and the ultra-rich MSG — they have to be careful on deals like this.
As for the Raptors: As I wrote last week, adding Nash (and Fields) would make them legitimate playoff contenders in the East. Coach Dwane Casey will keep this defense improving, and the combination of Nash and a healthy Andrea Bargnani would lift to average or better an offense that ranked 28th in points per possession last season. Nash’s last two Suns teams, relatively bereft of talent, ranked in the top 10 in points per possession and scored at a top-three rate when he was on the floor. The man is that good, and the Raptors’ offense, as bad as it was overall, scored at a league-average rate with Bargnani in the game. Even Fields shot much better overall when playing with Lin, suggesting that he might be at least a usable offensive player with a point guard who can find him on cuts.
But it’s fair to ask if the Raptors are going a bit overboard with the Nash chase when you consider how it might compromise their cap room next summer. Adding Nash and Fields at these prices would give Toronto about $50 million in committed salary for 2013-2014, not including DeRozan’s cap hold, which would wipe out the bulk of the remaining cap space. Heck, Fields, Nash, Bargnani and power forward Amir Johnson could make $40 million combined in 2014-15, before even considering DeRozan, incoming rookie center Jonas Valanciunas and the other players on rookie deals.
The Raptors do not have much of a record of attracting top free agents, so perhaps this is a reasonable way to trade in cap space ahead of time — similar to what the Wizards did in acquiring Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor from the Hornets last month. But flexibility is nice to have, and the Raptors are approaching the line at which they are compromising too much of theirs.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.