As Raptors fans, we’ve heard this so many times, I’ve lost count: “Players don’t want to sign in Toronto.” It is widely held that this is one of the main reasons that the Raptors have been unable to find success in their 15-year history. In order to see if this is an excuse we give ourselves to explain away years of bottom-feeding or a legitimate line of thinking, I thought I would take a look at teams that were at the top of the NBA heap last year. I will simply state whether their core guys, as well as their key contributors, were drafted, acquired through trade or signed via free agency from another team. I will only focus on how they were initially acquired (any re-signings will not be considered unless the player was moved and reacquired). For our purposes, any sign and trade will be considered a free-agent signing.
Boston Celtics: Ray Allen (trade), Kevin Garnett (trade), Rajon Rondo (drafted by the Phoenix Suns and traded to the Boston Celtics that summer), Paul Pierce (draft), Kendrick Perkins (drafted by the Grizzlies and traded to the Boston Celtics that summer), Glen Davis (drafted by the Supersonics and traded to Boston that summer).
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James (draft), Antawn Jamison (trade), Shaquille O’Neal (free-agency), Anderson Varejao (drafted by the Orlando Magic then traded to the Cavs that summer), Anthony Parker (free-agency), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (drafted by the Cavs, played 12 seasons for them before being traded to the Wizards. Never played a game in Washington and was re-signed by the Cavs for relative loose change).
Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki (drafted by the Bucks and traded to the Mavs that summer), Jason Kidd (trade), Shawn Marion (free-agency), Caron Butler (trade), Jason Terry (free-agency), Brendan Haywood (trade).
Denver Nuggets: Carmelo Anthony (draft), Chauncey Billups (trade), Nene (drafted by the Knicks then traded to the Nuggets that summer), Kenyon Martin (free-agency), Chris Anderson (free-agency), J.R. Smith (trade), Ty Lawson (drafted by the Timberwolves and traded to Denver that summer).
LA Lakers: Kobe Bryant (drafted by Charlotte and traded to the Lakers that summer), Pau Gasol (trade), Andrew Bynum (draft), Lamar Odom (trade), Ron Artest (free-agency), Derek Fisher (returned through free-agency but initially drafted by the Lakers).
Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant (draft), Russell Westbrook (draft), Jeff Green (drafted by the Celtics and traded to the Supersonics, now OKC, that summer), Serge Ibaka (draft), James Harden (draft).
Orlando Magic: Dwight Howard (draft), Jameer Nelson (drafted by the Nuggets and immediately traded to the Magic), Rashard Lewis (free-agency), Vince Carter (trade), Mickael Pietrus (free-agency), J.J. Redick (draft).
Phoenix Suns: Steve Nash (returned through free-agency but initially drafted by the Suns), Amar’e Stoudemire (draft), Jason Richardson (trade), Grant Hill (free-agency), Leandro Barbosa (drafted by the Spurs and traded to the Suns that summer), Goran Dragic (drafted by the Spurs and traded to the Suns that summer), Jared Dudley (trade), Channing Frye (free-agency).
San Antonio Spurs: Tim Duncan (draft), Tony Parker (draft), Manu Ginobili (draft), Richard Jefferson (trade), George Hill (draft), DeJuan Blair (draft).
Utah Jazz: Deron Williams (draft), Mehmet Okur (free-agency), Carlos Boozer (free-agency), Andrei Kirilenko (draft), Paul Millsap (draft), Wesley Matthews (undrafted rookie signing).
It’s important to note that only after of building a winner through the draft and trading that teams are easily able to plug holes through free-agent signings. Some examples of this are Rasheed Wallace with the Celtics, Grant Hill with the Suns, and Ron Artest with the Lakers.
I also decided to look at some of the notable players on this current Raptors squad and see how they were acquired (trade, draft, signing).
Toronto Raptors: Chris Bosh (draft), Andrea Bargnani (draft), DeMar DeRozan (draft), Amir Johnson (trade), Sonny Weems (trade), Jarrett Jack (free-agency), Hedo Turkoglu (free-agency), Jose Calderon (free-agency).
You’ll notice that the two, widely considered, worst contracts are Hedo’s and Jose’s (both of whom were signed via free-agency). With the exception of Jarrett Jack, the rest of the players who are considered valuable assets were either drafted or traded for by the Raptors.
This model isn’t limited to the NBA. To use the example of arguably the top three teams in the NHL, their top players last year were acquired through the draft. In Chicago, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith were drafted by the Blackhawks; in Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar (before he left to Ottawa) and Jordan Staal were drafted by the Penguins; in Washington, Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green were drafted by the Capitals. Just like the example of Artest with the Lakers, the Blackhawks were able to woo Marian Hossa to Chicago because they already had a team in place ready for a championship.
This is the first year that so many top-tier players have been acquired through free-agency in the NBA. Amar’e, Bosh, and possibly LeBron (we’ll find out tonight on ESPN) are the exceptions to the rule and belief that winners are built through the draft and trading. When a team is drafting or trading, players usually have no choice but to go to the city that’s drafting or trading for them. All of the teams mentioned above have done excellent jobs of drafting superstars and making trades that have significantly improved their rosters. Here we see that this is where the Toronto Raptors organization has failed—NOT through a lack of free-agent willingness to play here.
By the looks of things now, the Raptors should be getting a high draft pick next year. It might take a while, but if the Raptors are to ever become successful, they have to hope to land a superstar through the draft to compliment the solid young pieces that are already in place.