Toronto Raptors are not working.
Indeed, they haven’t really done well since they lost to the Boston Celtics in the bubble in seven tough second-round games since the 2020 championship defense.
The Tampa tank followed suit the next year. Last season, in Toronto, a second half run pushed the Raptors back into the playoffs, but quickly fell 3-0 behind the 76ers in a first-round streak that was eventually extended to a six-game loss.
Now, the Raptors 23-30 are 12th in the East and 6.5 games behind the 6th seed who clinched the automatic playoff berth. Interestingly for draft buffs, this is also the sixth-worst record in the league.
There’s almost three years of evidence that this iteration of the Raptors has a ‘feisty first-round opponent’ ceiling.
This isn’t where you want to be as a team – being stuck in the middle isn’t good enough to really fight for a title or bad enough to audition for top talent.
With the trade deadline next Thursday, team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have a rare opportunity to choose a precise direction for the team.
Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby have a seductive blow-up game to rebuild their current core around Scottie Barnes and toss a boatload of pickaxes and young players to come back in swaps.
Or the Raptors could go in the opposite direction. If these players are of great value, perhaps you should retain them and make the necessary moves to support the team around them. Notably, Toronto lacks edge protection and depth.
The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
WATCH | The Raptors lost 131 points to the Jazz:
Options with Anunoby
Anunoby has been the subject of many commercial rumors. Whispers of unhappiness have been flying around his role since the off-season, and the 25-year-old defensive stalwart, who is also a reliable three-point shooter, is of significant value.
According to multiple reports, the New York Knicks have offered three first-round picks for Anunoby. NBA insider Chris Haynes of TNT and Bleacher Report reported Thursday that the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are also interested.
Again, the Raptors could retain the good, young player with untapped potential.
But something seems wrong with the Raptors. It lacks the defensive intensities that were an essential part of Toronto’s identity dating back to the beginning of the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan era.
James Jones and Masai Ujiri, the respective heads of the Suns and Raptors basketball operations, walk together in the tunnel before their teams face off. pic.twitter.com/5amnUS9Dqz
And “Vision 6’9,” Toronto’s theory of building its roster around a group of similarly sized players who can fit multiple roles, seems to have ended up in redundancy.
The combination of some returning picks and young players for Anunoby will provide the kind of flexibility the Raptors crave, both in terms of assets and roster.
With the current season currently over 50 games and more and more looking like a cancellation, the swap could help push the Raptors back for now, thereby boosting lottery odds in hopes of removing French, alien/unicorn Victor Wembanyama. Even without Kevin Durant or LeBron James, it’s probably the best prospect since Anthony Davis.
Potential upcoming free agents
In pursuit of the lottery balls, the Raptors are looking for potential freelancers VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. You can also choose to deal with, but in both cases there are reasons to be cautious.
The heart of the team, VanVleet is an emotional and on-court leader whose rise to a cult hero during the 2019 Finals.
The Raptors’ culture – which appears to be absent this year, but amply present in the previous 10 – is embodied by the self-betting, undrafted free agent VanVleet. If you believe in culture, you would hate to trade a man like that.
Meanwhile, Trent Jr. is the kind of player the Raptors need — a career 24-year-old 38.5 percent three-point shooter on the third-worst long-range team in the league.
Sportsnet’s Michael Grange reported earlier this week that Trent Jr.’s comeback could be something like “a protected first-round pick or two good second-round picks and a matching paycheck.” Is it worth it?
A real debacle includes throwing Siakam out on the notion that the 28-year-old timeline doesn’t match up to 21-year-old Barnes. But removing your best player from a team in hopes of returning to the playoffs as soon as next season seems wrong.
The question, then, is how best to build around Siakam and Barnes, with the hope that Barnes, who won the Rookie of the Year award last season, will eventually become an all-star.
Maybe Toronto will see this happen in 2024 and want to add someone like San Antonio center Jakob Poeltl, a former Raptors draft pick who will immediately strengthen their center position. Maybe there is a trade-in for a need where Anunoby comes out for one or two established players rather than futures.
In any case, it’s clear that some kind of change is needed for the Raptors.
The most fascinating aspect of the week ahead is how Ujiri and Webster chose to describe it.