The last time the Toronto Raptors received this much league-wide attention, they were on their way to winning their first championship.
But these are different times, less than ideal circumstances, and certainly not the way anyone in the organization expected to be in the spotlight.
With one week to go until one of the most anticipated days on the NBA calendar, the February 9 trade deadline, rumors are swirling and the team north of the border finds itself in the center of the storm. When you’re underachieving and armed with a collection of highly coveted players who are either in their prime or entering their prime, it makes you a club to watch this time of year, and people around basketball are waiting and watching with great interest.
The odds are almost always against a team making a move at the deadline. Of all the potential deals that are announced before it is reached, very few come to fruition. Trades are hard to make, and most teams, including the Raptors, prefer to do the heavy lifting in the offseason.
But there’s a growing sense that Toronto plans to be active next week.
“I’d be surprised if they didn’t do anything,” said a senior NBA executive.
What they do is still unknown.
If Chairman Masai Ujiri and General Manager Bobby Webster are leaning one way or the other, they aren’t showing their cards. The nice thing about having players in high demand, and being so widely identified as a team that might be open for business, is that they haven’t had to make a lot of calls.
Teams go to them, listen to offers and, with the exception of reigning Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes, who remains off limits in trade discussions, everything is on the table, according to sources. There is no shortage of options to ponder over the next seven days.
Theoretically, every day and every game between now and then could influence his thinking to some degree, but the extent to which his current seven-game trip to the West Coast could affect the decision-making process has been overstated.
At 23-30, the Raptors are exactly where they didn’t want to be: 12the spot in the East, looking up into the conference playoff and play-in races. They are also sixth from the bottom of the standings, giving them an 18.2 percent chance of being a top two pick if the season ended today. If they didn’t have the future to consider, hitting rock bottom and rolling the dice in a draft class with a couple of generational talents might seem more appealing.
But do or don’t do, next week will feel beyond this season. These are major franchise-altering decisions, and the people charged with making them won’t be doing it on a whim.
Ujiri and Webster have had more than half the season to evaluate. After 50+ games, you are who you are. Despite their promise, which they continue to show in flashes but not consistently enough, they have performed as a below average to average team. A 2-3 record in five games in the West only bolsters that assessment.
At this point, Ujiri and Webster have prepared for various scenarios and are beginning to formulate a plan of attack, but since they are unlikely to make any final decisions until they have to, at 3 pm ET on February 9, the market could dictate your approach.
With parity in both conferences, there are more perceived buyers than sellers, which is why all eyes are on Toronto and its players, three or four of whom would be among the best available. But just because they can change the balance of power in the league doesn’t mean they should or will. Would-be contenders salivating at the prospect of adding Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby or Fred VanVleet down the stretch might be disappointed.
This Raptors front office has never felt cornered, rushed, or forced to operate in someone else’s timeline; this is why Ujiri is known to loathe the trade deadline. He has been patient, choosing to sit still at this time last year and then again over the summer, allowing this young core to grow together. In a decade at the helm of the franchise, he has given his teams, players and coaches the chance to determine their own destiny. He has also shown a willingness to step in and make a change when the situation calls for it.
Change seems inevitable one way or another. This group not only fell short of expectations, but is also about to get expensive, with almost the entire core pending new contracts or extensions in the next two years. As it stands, this isn’t a team worth paying luxury taxes on, so something has to give. But is now the right time?
Anunoby has been at the forefront of trade speculation since the summer. The difference is that, back then, he was coming off a season in which he missed 34 games, including 19 of the last 25. While the sixth-year striker will miss the rest of the tour with a sprained wrist and it’s possible that he doesn’t return before the deadline, this is the healthiest he’s been since his third season.
He’s a 25-year-old NBA-caliber defender who shoots the ball well, plays in a prime position, is signed through next season and can break into any team’s starting lineup and make an immediate impact. The value of him has never been higher, and for that reason alone, the market for him is worth exploring.
Interestingly, there has been a lot of talk about the number of draft picks Anunoby could return. If that’s what the Raptors want, they shouldn’t have a problem getting it in this market. But unless they opt to trade Siakam and start a complete rebuild, which seems unlikely, trading Anunoby for picks would be counterintuitive. While Siakam and VanVleet, who will turn 29 before the end of the season, are in Toronto, the goal will be to maximize their best years. The best way to do this would be to keep Anunoby or trade him out for a player or players who can help out in the short term.
Consider the deal Indiana and Sacramento made at last year’s deadline, essentially trading Domantas Sabonis for Tyrese Haliburton. What seemed like a sideways move at the time turned out to be anything but. Both organizations were operating from an area of strength to address an area of weakness and balance their rosters, and both are better for it.
The Raptors’ areas of need are well documented. They’re not expected to have salary cap space this summer, which means they won’t have the wherewithal to add via free agency (outside of the midlevel exception, which they haven’t had much success with). With the recent rise of Precious Achiuwa, as well as Siakam and Barnes playing similar positions, turning Anunoby into a center who protects the paint, runs to the rim, or a playmaking guard, or both, could help them solve some of the issues. template construction problems.
Toronto came close to acquiring Deandre Ayton from Phoenix in a sign-and-trade last summer, according to a source. A deal may have to be made with the Suns, who are said to be one of Anunoby’s many suitors. Pacers center Myles Turner, who just signed an extension but is still eligible to be traded, would also check a few boxes as a big man who blocks shots and separates space.
But if that’s the path they decide to take, it might make more sense to wait until the offseason, when more players are available. The Raptors have no reason to rush an Anunoby trade. He is under contract and reports of any break between him and the organization have been denied internally.
There’s a lot more urgency to figure out what they’re going to do with their two pending free agents. VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. are expected to resign from their contracts after this season. Technically, the Raptors have five months to decide if they want to re-sign those guys, but they’ll essentially make that decision next week.
A big part of the evaluation process leading up to the deadline has been projecting what the markets for VanVleet and Trent might look like in free agency. What will they ask for, and more importantly, what is a realistic number for them based on which teams might be interested and how much they would have to spend? From there, they should ask themselves if they can justify keeping them at that cost, given the other financial commitments they will have to make in the future.
If one or both are traded next week it will be because the answer to that question was no. The Raptors won’t have the cap space to replace them in free agency. They also don’t have the organizational depth to let them walk for nothing. If they’re still in Toronto on Feb. 10, it probably means the team sees them as part of the core for the long haul unless they sign and trade over the summer.
After a disappointing first half of his season, VanVleet has recently returned to his stellar form. He is averaging 26.7 points and 8.1 assists while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range in his last nine games, highlighted by a 34-point triple-double in Wednesday’s loss to Utah. There are plenty of teams that would be interested in the veteran point guard, though his trade value may not reflect that.
At the 2021 trade deadline, there were teams that wanted future free agent Kyle Lowry but were reluctant to pay anything close to fair value because they were afraid he would be gone a few months later or were confident they could just wait and see. sign it directly. This could be similar, unless there’s a team that wants him badly enough and doesn’t have the cap space to compete with him this summer, like perhaps the Clippers.
Still, both VanVleet and the Raptors’ organization have expressed intentions to move forward together in the past, and there has been no indication that has changed.
Trent’s situation is a little different. His name still comes up as the Raptor most likely to be moved before the deadline, which isn’t an indictment of the player or how the team feels about him. Instead, it is a reflection of the circumstances.
At his age, 24, and with his shooting and scoring ability, he’ll be in line for a big raise this summer. As much as Toronto needs their skill set, it’s hard to reconcile spending more than $100 million on their fifth player, especially when sixth player Achiuwa, who they see as a big part of their future, may sign an extension this offseason. . .
So what can they get for Trent? Compensation draft if they choose to go that route, but again, they’d probably be looking for a more affordable player in a position of need. They’ve been connected to Spurs center and former Raptor Jakob Poeltl, though that likely requires finding a third team to take Trent and send at least one first-round pick to San Antonio.
Even in that scenario, the Raptors would be plugging one hole (the center position) at the expense of another (shot). These are not easy decisions and there is a lot of work to be done if they are to rebuild their roster base. This hasn’t looked like a team that’s just a trade away. It is a process that could take a series of moves over time and may not fully take shape in the span of a few hours next Thursday.
But the trade deadline is the first step in that process, a look at what’s next for the franchise. One way or another, change is coming. We’re a week away from finding out what that might look like.
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