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Poor free-agent crop offers Raptors options

New York Knicks forward Quentin Richardson (right) defends Toronto Raptors forward Shawn Marion during first half NBA action in Toronto on Sunday February 22, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

As NBA free agency comes into focus, the emerging picture is of a game of musical chairs, only with a serious shortage of chairs.

"The market is very thin," one league source said. This can mean only good things for the Toronto Raptors.

Only a few days ago it was anticipated Toronto would try to re-sign its own free agents - Shawn Marion and Carlos Delfino, anyway. That would put the Raptors over the salary cap, but they could use the league's so-called mid-level exception to go after another free agent. The Denver Nuggets' Linas Kleiza seems a likely target.

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But in the dry market, uneasiness has set in, only it's not the Raptors feeling a little tightness in the throat. Instead it's the agents trying to find deals for clients in an environment where no one wants to spend any mad money.

The Raptors are in an interesting position.

One choice is to stay the course and start the season with a slate of familiar names but also a much deeper and flexible lineup, spending what's needed to get Marion signed. Alternatively, they can go in a different direction, "blow things up," as one front-office source put it, a move that might increase the team's front-line talent while also insuring them against the departure of Chris Bosh.

The Raptors, wisely, have been in no rush.

Toronto has pencilled in three years and $18-million to $21-million (all currency U.S.) for Marion. The longer it takes him to survey the landscape and realize that might be the best offer on the table, the more likely he'll accept.

Tellingly, Bill Duffy, Kleiza's agent, has signalled that he's willing to wait for the Raptors to sort out their dealings with Marion. "There's time," Duffy said.

Translation: He feels Toronto is a good destination for the burly 24-year-old small forward, and whatever portion of the $5.5-million mid-level exception the Raptors can make available to his client will be welcomed in a depressed market.

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It's not surprising that the Raptors have been linked with some other high-profile free agents, including Hedo Turkoglu of the Orlando Magic, David Lee of the New York Knicks and Trevor Ariza of the Los Angeles Lakers.

(The floor for Turkoglu and Lee is a five-year deal starting at $10-million a season, while Ariza is hoping for something in the $8-million range as he tries to capitalize on his strong play during the NBA final.)

If they're going to get the money they want, their representatives need some competition for their services. That would explain the smoke signals that for the right money, all three would make their way north to Toronto. That in itself is a triumph of sorts, indicating that even though the Raptors struggled last season, their approach on and off the floor has gained traction across the league. They had a bad year, sure, but it's not a bad organization.

Besides, word getting out that some very good players are willing to take the Raptors' money might even help Marion make up his mind sooner than later.

What to do?

Getting a deal done with Marion likely makes the most sense. Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo can plug in the rest of the jigsaw puzzle in short order and likely give head coach Jay Triano a versatile lineup deep in proven NBA experience, if not an instant title contender.

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But in a weak market, going big on Turkoglu or Lee isn't as risky as in other years. Yes, the Raptors would have to solve their depth issues with minimum-salary players, but the promise of steady playing time and a one-year minimum contract might be the best offer out there for a player willing to prove his worth in advance of a more lucrative free-agent period next summer.

And what of Lee, the bouncy, rebounding machine from the Knicks? It might seem strange that the Raptors have sent feelers out to a free agent who plays the same position as Bosh and Andrea Bargnani.

But with Bosh not willing to tip his hand about his long-term intentions, Lee becomes a pretty good replacement should it come to that.

And with a replacement in place, you don't think Bosh would fetch a worthy small forward and some added roster depth?

Turn up that music before all the chairs are gone.

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