As the Feb. 9 NBA trade deadline approaches, the Toronto Raptors have emerged as one of the most fascinating teams in the league. If they were to decide this team, 21-27 and 11th in the Eastern Conference heading into Monday’s games, has no future and put their four most experienced starters on the market, they could alter the shape of this season’s championship race and build up a base of young players and draft picks to surround Scottie Barnes.
Chances are they will not trade Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. Even still, they could still make one or two teams a lot better at the deadline, and the Raptors could get to work on, let’s say, improving their lottery odds for the remainder of the year. Also, they could look for a lateral move that changes the composition, but not the overall talent level of the roster, hoping to find a better fit for this year and the future.
To better understand the Raptors’ situation, Eric Koreen asked John Hollinger, former Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations and current senior writer at The Athletica few questions.
More Raptors at the trade deadline content: Trade tiers | The Fred VanVleet conundrum | Sellers, part one | Sellers, part two
Korean: You were with the Grizzlies as Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and others gained franchise icon status. Fred VanVleet does n’t have the longevity of those two guys, but his journey, including his role in the championship, makes him one of the most important Raptors ever. How hard is it to separate the past from the future with those players, especially in situations as complex as VanVleet’s?
Hollinger: We had to make that decision with Zach Randolph and Tony Allen first when they became free agents in 2017 and then 18 months later with Marc and Mike. Getting to that point was a little bit like turning around an ocean liner; as an organization you probably pivot more slowly than you could or should because there is so much emotional equity invested — both in those players and in the bigger idea that they’re part of the core you’re trying to build around. It’s a fairly profound change in thinking to decide that you need to do something completely different and to get everybody on board with it.
Korean: Theory still has to turn into reality, but a) The Play-In Tournament has increased the incentive to win for many teams; b) The pool of contenders to make deep runs, and maybe win the title, feels much deeper this season than usual; c) The difference-makers on many of the clear tankers are few and far between. Is this the best seller’s market ever? And would that increase your aggressiveness if you found yourself potentially in that position?
Hollinger: I agree most strongly with a). I think it’s a good seller’s market, for sure, and I suspect that will be the trend going forward because of the Play-In Tournament. I can’t say yet it’s the best seller’s market ever because I suspect there will be a few more entrants soon. For instance, keep an eye on the Bulls. Also, some playoff-contending teams may simultaneously be sellers (Jae Crowder in Phoenix, Myles Turner in Indiana, Josh Hart in Portland or anyone on the Utah Jazz).
Korean: How much would the idea that you are at the top of that seller’s market right now, but that might not necessarily continue to be the case in the offseason, push you toward action at this moment?
Hollinger: Only to the extent that I think I could get a better deal at the trade deadline. The interesting thing about any trade with a first-round pick in it is that you can generally do better at the draft because both teams have a better idea of exactly what they’re getting (eg pick No. 17 in the 2023 draft) rather than guesswork that requires protections and encumbering future picks and what not. But if the market forces are strong enough in your favour, perhaps that changes.
Also, some of the top contenders can make trades with more “knowns” on their draft pick. For instance, the Grizzlies can be confident their first-round pick will be in the 25-to-30 range. The problem is most of the teams that high in the standings have already traded their 2023 first-rounder to a rebuilder.
Korean: Step away from the Raptors’ perspective and move over to their potential trade partners. Let’s assume they’re title contenders: How much more complicated is acquiring a player who will have as big of a role as Pascal Siakam now versus in the offseason?
Hollinger: It’s harder with a guy who will be top two or top three in your food chain. For instance, the Gasol trade was easier for Toronto because his offensive role was n’t going to be primary; the Raptors were going to run through Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry regardless of who was playing centre. And it’s also harder to bring in a guy like Siakam who is such a high-usage player in Toronto and ask him to dial back to a third banana someplace like, I dunno, Philly.
But the thing about trading for Siakam now is he’s still under contract following this season, so it’s almost like you make the deal in the offseason anyway. Plus, you get an extra half year to work out the kinks and maybe make a playoff run.
Korean: Since it happened, I’ve viewed Utah’s Rudy Gobert return more of an outlier than a market-setter. Do you agree? How do you think the league would view Siakam compared to some of the stars who have moved recently?
Hollinger: That’s a serious outlier and the results in Minnesota are going to chill the market for that level of blockbuster for quite a while. I’d look at Donovan Mitchell and Dejounte Murray as more realistic market setters with the return on a player of Siakam’s ilk likely falling somewhere between the two and probably closer to the Murray end of the spectrum. That is, presuming the receiving team feels good about their odds of extending him before he hits free agency in 2024.
Korean: Unless they move a lot of their players and take almost no long-term salary back, the Raptors will not have a path to meaningful cap space this offseason (it’s not a great free-agent class, anyway). With that in mind, who are some players under contract you would target if you are the Raptors? Let’s assume Siakam and Scottie Barnes are both Raptors next season, but I’ll limit the certainties there.
Hollinger: Anyone who can play centre, of which there are a great many who might be available. Let’s start with Myles Turner, who is young enough to grow with the current core, could be available and shouldn’t be expensive to acquire. Plus, his long-range shooting ability will keep the middle open for the likes of Barnes and Siakam. To me, he’s the target for the raps.
Moving down the food chain, you get into guys who can sort of fake their way at 5 against backups but probably aren’t the ones you want for the Philly or Denver game — John Collins, say, or Kelly Olynyk. There also are some older candidates who might be available but might not fit Toronto’s plan right now, such as Nikola Vučević. Finally, of course, there’s the idea of a reunion with Jakob Poeltl, although I imagine San Antonio would drive a very hard bargain.
I focused on centres, but Toronto also just has a general lack of plus rotation players at every position except 4. Just getting half-decent players who make less than the midlevel exception and won’t induce fires when they check in for the starters would be a plus. Like, how valuable would Delon Wright be about now? Or a healthy Danny Green? Heck, even Cory Joseph!
Korean: The Raptors can only acquire former Raptors — got it. Bring back Goran Dragic.
Yahoo! Sports reported the Raptors are seeking a Dejounte Murray-like return for OG Anunoby (three first-rounders, a pick swap and matching salary). Do you see that as a realistic comparison in terms of player impact — they’re in virtually identical contractual situations — and do you think the league would agree?
Hollinger: I think that’s a realistic place for Toronto to start the ask, knowing the real price will probably come down to something lower. Or, failing that, there won’t be a trade. Look, Atlanta overpaid because they felt they needed that particular guy, and it’s fair for Toronto to say, “We’ll do a deal if you’re willing to overpay, but otherwise forget it.”
The difference between OG and Murray is that Murray is capable of being a primary offensive weapon and Anunoby isn’t. OG is probably even better defensively and in many contexts would be the more valuable player, but I still have a hard time seeing a team give up three firsts for a player who might be the fourth option on a good team. But it only takes one desperate franchise …
Korean: If you’re the Raptors, how heavily are you protecting your 2023 first-round pick for a player you think can be part of the long-term core? Is that player even out there?
Hollinger: To me, the two realistic options are top-four protected or lottery-protected. Anything in between feels kind of a sham if I’m the GM on the other side. If the Raps know they’re missing the playoffs, they can get to the required record to keep the pick.
Even though being in the top two of the draft are the best places to be this year, history says the Raps would probably do well to go full-lotto protection on any pick trades this year. Historically, there still have been a lot of elite players selected in that range.
Korean: Rapid-fire: Which team makes the most sense as a destination for Siakam, Anunoby, VanVleet, Trent and, finally, any member of the vaunted Raptors bench that you choose?
• Siakam: I would love him in Memphis but don’t see how it works money-wise though, so I’ll say Phoenix.
Anunoby: He would be awesome in Cleveland. They could win a title with him, but it’s too bad they traded all their picks for Mitchell.
• VanVleet: Reunite him with Leonard in LA Their point guards are killing them.
• Trent: I think he’d help the Lakers, and they can afford to re-sign him.
Bench: The 905? OK, more seriously: I think Miami could use Precious Achiuwa right now.
Korean: Achiuwa is another line on the legendary deal-making résumé of Masai Ujiri. Finally, some good press for the Raptors.
(Top photo of OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)