The Toronto Raptors need to get better if they are going to contend for an NBA championship.
The question is how, and when?
The NBA trade deadline is set for 3 pm Eastern on Thursday and that question— how to build a champion— will be reverberating around the executive offices at the Air Canada Centre as the clock ticks down.
Worth mentioning is how delightful it is to even entertain the thought in any meaningful way, given the franchise’s history. It’s the first time in 21 years the club has come to this moment in the schedule and had to do that kind of self-examination.
“The Raptors are definitely shopping,” said one prominent player agent in town for All-Star weekend.
Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri prepared for the deadline by taking his key decision makers to Europe on a scouting trip early this month that doubled as an extended staff meeting as they drilled down on their options away from the NBA buzz.
But making very good teams better might be the hardest trick in the NBA, and that’s where the Raptors are now.
The Raptors will begin play Friday night against the Chicago Bulls as the No.2 team in the Eastern Conference and the fifth-best team in the NBA after an impressive first 50 games in which they’ve endured schedule woes and significant injuries and never really wavered; maintaining their standard as a grindingly effective offensive team with a reliable defensive conscience, and winners of 14 of their past 16 games.
But the how and the when, that’s the challenge facing Ujiri and his staff as they huddle around speaker phones in a boardroom; each of their cell phones buzzing.
A lot of relatively names have been attached to the club, but that’s almost all being generated from outside of Ujiri’s office as teams and agents home to create a market or destination for players.
“You hear a lot of names,” said one Eastern conference executive. “But it’s the ones you don’t hear about that teams are talking about.”
Will the addition of a player like the Suns P.J. Tucker get the fan base excited? Probably not, but it’s far more likely that’s the kind of move that gets made – a solid veteran role player that meets a need -- rather than something that would generate headlines around the league and any kind of euphoria among fans.
Or how about a third string point guard for insurance behind Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph? Does that get the blood racing? No, but it’s important.
Ujiri has rarely done his heavy lifting at the trade deadline, and with DeMarre Carroll on schedule to return in early March, ideally healthy for the first time this season, the Raptors can already point to him as their ‘deadline acquisition’, and he costs them nothing.
It’s easy to say ‘go for it’. On the surface the Raptors have the pieces that traditionally grease trades – four first-round picks over the next two years, including one that will almost surely be in the draft lottery this summer.
But the NBA isn’t MLB; the Raptors aren’t the Blue Jays, who transformed their team at the trade deadline this past summer. Adding payroll mid-season is a tricky thing to do; there is a salary cap, salaries have to match and NBA teams don’t have deep pools of minor leaguers to barter with.
The Raptors do have some intriguing young players at the end of their bench that a team looking to reset might like to have. In James Johnson and Luis Scola they have a couple of expiring contracts and worth about $5.5-million and in Patrick Patterson they have solid rotation player with just one more year left on a deal worth $6-million a season.
If they choose to, Ujiri will be able to add a good NBA player to the mix the Raptors already have. That’s a given.
But here’s the tricky part. Does your team get better if it means parting ways with Patterson, a high-end locker room citizen on a great contract who has shot 43 per cent from three since January 1st, with a +17.9 net rating?
And while Luis Scola has his limitations – at 35 it seems he’s sagged defensively as the season has worn on -- he is the best deep shooting power-forward in the NBA right now, connecting on 43 per cent of his threes.
That’s why, for example, the Raptors dismissed out-of-hand speculation that they were kicking tires on the Phoenix Suns Markief Morris. The Suns power forward might have more perceived upside than Patterson, but comes with considerable baggage, is having a truly awful season, shooting 39.7 per cent from the floor and 29.3 per cent from deep and $24-million left on his contract.
That’s not a deal the Raptors would do, mainly because, apart from a dose of athleticism, there is nothing that Morris would bring that would make this Raptors team better and a good chance he’d make it worse.
Another factor: Does your team’s longer term prospects get better by adding players with significant term left on their contracts, money that could take the Raptors out of the running to throw a significant contract offer to a free agent this summer?
Is your ability to trade for an elite player in the summer diminished if the Raptors have already traded a pick or two or more to add players now?
Those are the kinds of decisions Ujiri is paid to make and he’s shown no lack of nerve in making them during his career. But he’s also exhibited an unerring patience during these kinds of moments and has been rewarded with a cohesive, structured club where roles are well defined and for the most part willingly accepted.
Still the perceived urgency to try to force something to happen isn’t a hard case to make: The Raptors are a borderline elite team and it’s easy to see where the right piece could give them a real chance to topple LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have looked vulnerable through the first half of the season, although they remain on pace for 60 wins.
But the reality is that any run the Raptors might make at a player that could make an impact deep in the post-season – let’s just imagine the Atlanta Hawks Al Horford joining DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry as part of a ‘big three’ for a moment – may well start with including 23-year-old Jonas Valanciunas in a package.
Does that really seem like progress, given Valanciunas has steadily improved, year over year and is also about to begin another team-friendly extension?
That’s why when the Houston Rockets inquired about Valanciunas in deal for Dwight Howard, they were told ‘no thanks’.
So then the focus turns to more middle-of-the-road moves; your Kenneth Farieds, your Thaddeus Youngs and Taj Gibsons.
All are quality players, but share the same flaws: they don’t spread the floor and they each are owed money after this season. Faried and Gibson simply don’t shoot threes and while Young has some history with it, has never really been proficient from distance (he’s shot 32 per cent from distance over his career) and certainly nowhere near as effective as Scola has been this year.
And given the Raptors are locked into a style of play that centres around Lowry and DeRozan dominating the ball – it’s not always pretty, but all concerned have made peace with it – any move that sacrifices floor spacing makes little sense.
That’s why Ryan Anderson has a lot of Raptors fans dreaming. A career 38-per-cent shooter from deep – albeit as a career bench player -- if he could be had for Johnson and Scola’s expiring deal and some combination of a pick and or a prospect, it would be have to be given consideration.
But he’s a rental and he’s hardly a lock-down defender and he’s not shooting the ball as well as Scola either. So again, does he make the Raptors better now?
Which is why a much more likely scenario is the Raptors making a modest move – as an example, the Suns PJ Tucker would be an easy fit as a ‘power 3’ who can defend and require the opposition to guard him in the corner.
They might also shop for some insurance at the point guard spot so they have some coverage if Lowry or Cory Joseph get injured.
It’s not sexy. It doesn’t get the heart racing. But the Raptors have gotten this far by making relatively low-key moves (did anyone get excited when they signed Bismack Biyombo in the summer?) and things have worked out.
That maybe their best hope again.