For Raptors at the trade deadline, patience is no longer a virtue: Koreen

TORONTO — The last time the Raptors were in a potential sellers’ role at the trade deadline, they had two pending free agents. They traded Norman Powell, unrestricted, for Gary Trent Jr., restricted. More memorably, they didn’t trade Kyle Lowry.

“Teams that (are interested), I know that if he goes to those places — I’ve lived it, I’ve seen it. … I know what the guy does. I know who he is. And that’s the truth,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said at the time. “So, yeah, we’re going to be skewed in some kind of way and I’m biased in many ways with the players we have. I hope I’m pardoned if I valued him too much, but that’s what I believe in today.”

That’s as close as Ujiri has ever come to admitting to being sentimental, or at least emotionally impacted, about team-building decisions. It was understandable, Lowry being the most important player in franchise history. Anyway, it worked out well enough: Lowry was moved in a sign-and-trade for Precious Achiuwa and Goran Dragić, the latter of whom was traded with a first-round pick for Thaddeus Young and the pick that became Christian Koloko. Say what you want about the second part of that transaction chain, but Achiuwa, in his third year, has more value than Lowry, in the second year of a three-year contract, just a year-and-a-half later.

Two deadlines later, there is no room for sentimentality. This team, simply, has not earned it.

The Raptors, who surprised last season, have disappointed dramatically this year. Their expected strength, defense, has been their biggest weakness, just as it was in the playoffs last year. According to Synergy Sports, they have a 20th-percentile offense in the half court, and a 30th-percentile defense in the half court, where about 80 percent of possessions are played. Despite a 4-3 road trip — a trip that included their opposition missing the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Jusuf Nurkić, Josh Hart, Devin Booker, Jalen Green, Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks and Steven Adams — they still couldn’t defend at an elite level. They ranked 20th in the league in defensive rating during the trip. The hard truth is that outside of the first nine games of the season, when they ranked seventh defensively before Pascal Siakam’s adductor injury in Dallas, the Raptors have defended somewhere between average and abysmal. The spurts of excellence have been fleeting. From November through January, their monthly rankings in defense were 11th, 24th and 18th, respectively.

They have not been especially hard hit by injuries. They have had a tougher schedule than most teams, but it’s been split nearly evenly between home and road games, and they have routinely lost games in which they have had a rest advantage. Forget about the best teams in the league; against their relative peers, the 18 other teams that entered Tuesday’s play with between 25 and 32 wins, they are 14-22. They are 11th offensively, 18th defensively, and have the 16th best net rating. The best possible reading of this season’s team is they’re thoroughly average. Ujiri has frequently said making the Play-In Tournament is not a goal worth having, and this team’s upside is making, and perhaps advancing out of, the NBA’s version of purgatory.

Which is to say, the time for giving this team a platform to prove itself is over. The group that overachieved last year returned mostly intact, and there was an onus for the Raptors to prove 2021-22 was not a fluke in order to earn more time together. They haven’t done that. Sure, you could zoom in on enough games to see how this team could be a couple of games above. 500 instead of five below, but that’s not how this works. More to the point, a 29-26 team with the same underlying realities of this 25-30 team wouldn’t be notably more impressive. They would just be tied for seventh in the East instead of tied for 11th.

Heading into Thursday’s trade deadline, the Raptors have a degree of leverage they’re unlikely to have again. In the cases of Fred VanVleet and Trent, there is no uncertainty to matters. Both guards should decline their player options and become free agents, and both are heading for raises that will take the Raptors, depending on what else they do, near or past next year’s projected luxury tax, making it difficult to clear other paths toward improvement. The Raptors swung a saving-face sign-and-trade with Lowry, but there’s no guarantee that would happen again, and there is no reason to believe either player will need to do that in a year in which a quarter or a third of teams should have real room under the salary cap.

Trent could help any number of teams, while VanVleet could really help a select few. The Raptors don’t need to trade both players, but for a franchise that has struggled to recover the losses of key members of the championship team’s rotation for no return, both represent a possibility to restock the cupboards a little bit. The Raptors’ lack of depth has been glaring in both of the last two years.

VanVleet, in particular, has been a great player for this franchise for many years in many different roles. It would be hard to trade him. He remains a good, useful starter. Given how uneven the Raptors’ play has been this year and how “off” the vibes have been, to use Nick Nurse’s assessment from weeks ago, now is not the moment for preciousness about the team’s culture.

That does not mean Ujiri, general manager Bobby Webster and the front office have to trade any single Raptor in particular. Certainly, paying both VanVleet and Trent significantly more money seems problematic, considering how poorly the team has defended dribble penetration this season. A good portion of that comes down to the starting guards.

OG Anunoby and Siakam have different cases. They both have one more season after this one left on their contracts — technically, Anunoby has two, but his 2024-25 salary is a player option, all but certain to be declined. They are both big wings with value on both sides of the floor. It would be reasonable to keep them at least until the offseason, when the Raptors will know where they fall in the draft and can better picture their future, which will prominently include another big, multi-skilled forward in Scottie Barnes. (That might cost them lottery balls, if you’re worried about that sort of thing. That shouldn’t be the only thing the Raptors are concerned about, but it’s a factor, to be sure.)

Pascal Siakam. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

However, this season has revealed the shortcomings of playing Siakam, Anunoby and Barnes together. It has played out offensively, where the Raptors have some of the most laborious half-court possessions in the league. It has played out defensively, where all of their flexibility has done little to stem the tide of drives to the paint and the resulting kickouts for open corner 3s. There is just nothing to suggest this team fits together well.

So yes, the Raptors can wait another few months to make their moves, but the NBA changes quickly. At this time last week, the Raptors were the potential swing team of the trade deadline. Then Kyrie Irving requested a trade, re-igniting doubt about Kevin Durant’s future in Brooklyn, which changed the landscape. If and when more teams disappoint in the playoffs, even more marquee names could hit the trade market. At least for now, the Raptors know they have everyone’s attention.

In not making a Lowry trade at the 2021 deadline, Ujiri showed he will not allow the NBA schedule to dictate his dealings. It is great that he has the reputation of being a savvy, hard-bargaining dealer, but that he only pans out if he can profit from an advantageous market.

It is hard to picture a moment as obviously advantageous for a team with proven contributor that is willing to take a step back or to the side than this one. This could be a clear moment of leverage for the Raptors. They need to seize it, or risk losing it altogether. This is not the time for sentimentality. It’s time for cold calculations.

(Top photo by Fred VanVleet: Troy Taormina / USA Today)


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