Raptors can't join the fun

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:56 AM ET

People assume big-name NBA free agents don't want to come to Toronto. But really, how could anyone possibly know that?

The Raptors haven't had any salary-cap room -- honest-to-goodness, condition-free salary-cap room -- since the ice age.

NBA teams officially could sign free agents as of yesterday afternoon.

The Raptors will jump into the pool today by signing Spanish point guard Jose Calderon and second-year forward Pape Sow, according to sources.

Now, nothing against Calderon and Sow, but we don't expect a spike in season-ticket sales. Calderon is an unproven rookie who will be very fortunate if he provides as much as Milt Palacio did. Sow is a nice kid, but he remains a raw project.

It certainly would be a unique experience if the Raptors ever had enough cap room to take a reasonable shot at the biggest fish in the free-agent pond. But when is that going to happen? In two years, when Jalen Rose's massive contract comes off the books? Or maybe never?

"It's not as easy to get under the cap as everybody thinks," Raptors general manager Rob Babcock said yesterday.

"You can look a few years down the line and say that we'll be free of some big contracts. But guess what? We'll have some guys coming up, like Chris Bosh, who will need to be paid."

There's the rub. With players like Bosh, Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham on the roster, as well as two first-round picks in 2006, the Raptors don't want to rip it all apart and start at zero merely for the chance at some cap room.

"We don't want to go into the toilet, because we like our young players," Babcock said.

"We like our young players a lot."

As for now, the Raptors have their $5-million US mid-level salary-cap exception to spend, and rather than concentrating on one player with a somewhat accomplished resume, they have decided to split it up. Calderon and Sow will get some of that loot.

It remains to be seen if there will be enough left over to sign second-year forward Matt Bonner and perhaps a veteran point man to complement Rafer Alston and Calderon.

Bonner's agent, Kenny Grant, waited by his phone yesterday.

Bonner and the Raptors were not in the same stratosphere when they first started talking. According to sources, Bonner wanted a five-year pact at about $3.5 million annually, while the Raptors countered with a two- or three-year deal at about $1.8 million annually.

Now the Raptors have decided to wait and see what kind of contract Bonner commands on the open market, since Toronto has the right to match.

"It was unexpected," Grant said, referring to the Raptors' stance. "I don't think time is a factor, but Matt would like to have something done and know if he's going to be in Toronto."

For the record, Babcock said he still wants Bonner back, but not at any price. Ultimately, Babcock wants to keep some breathing room between his team's payroll and the NBA's luxury-tax threshold of $61.7 million.

With the Raptors already having committed close to $60 million in salaries, concern about the tax has manifested itself in various ways. The Raptors likely will wind up using the league's one-time amnesty clause to free themselves of the tax obligations on Alonzo Mourning's contract, although Babcock said yesterday he wants to go over the rule with a fine-toothed comb to make sure he understands all the ramifications.

"What I want is to stay well enough under the tax line so when I go to our owners with a trade proposal in which maybe we take back a little more salary than we're giving up, they'll say, 'Okay,' " Babcock said. "I never want to get into a situation where our owners have to say, 'No, you can't make that trade because it puts us over the tax,' or, 'You can't use your mid-level exception this year because you already are over the tax.' That's why we have to manage the payroll."

So for now, Calderon and Sow will serve as marquee signings.

PRICE TO BE PAID

And conceptually, that's the price that probably will have to be paid if the Raptors want to keep Chris Bosh, or if Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham work out as well as the club hopes, or if two gems are uncovered in the draft next year.

That would be seen as good news, right?

But if you still are dreaming of a magical, golden summer in which the Raptors have oodles of cap room, it may never be coming.


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