Although the deadline is still more than a month away, trade talks are heating up across the NBA. With the landscape already clear— at least at the top and bottom of each conference— so too is the list of likely buyers and sellers.
Count the Raptors among the former, as they find ways to get better and close the gap between themselves and the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
The club has clear areas of need— most notably, as ever, at power forward— but the Raps may look at the impending return of Jared Sullinger as the equivalent of a mid-season acquisition and stand pat with a roster that has comfortably established itself as the second-best in the East.
But should Masai Ujiri & Co. decide to pull the trigger on the deal, it’s apparent that the club has plenty of players and assets that carry value on the trade market. Let’s take a closer look at each:
Probably the name most commonly tossed out in rumours and fake trades alike, Ross, 25, is sure to be a coveted player, though one who has yet to consistently prove whether or not he can be relied upon. That may leave teams hesitant to trade away an established star-type player if Ross is the biggest piece they’re getting in return.
“It’s a double-edge situation,” says Bobby Marks, former assistant GM of the Brooklyn Nets and currently an analyst and cap-specialist for Yahoo!’s the Vertical. “From a contract perspective, his value is high.”
With two more years remaining on the three-year extension he signed last season, Ross is set to earn an average of $10.5 million per year and won’t be a free agent until the summer of 2019. While originally derided by some as overpayment for a player still with a lot left to prove, the deal now proves favourable to the Raptors who, at worst, locked in Ross at market value for a role player.
Of course, front offices around the NBA recognize how cap-friendly his contract is. When evaluated potential incoming salaries in a mid-season trade, GMs will look at the remaining terms following the season and put themselves in the hypothetical spot of having cap room to sign a player to those terms in the next off-season.
As Marks puts it: “Would you sign Terrence Ross for 2 years/$20 mil? From a contract, value, and age perspective: Yes. The value of the contract is more appealing than where his level of play is right now.”
Ross is partially the victim of circumstance, splitting wing duty on a roster featuring DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, and Norman Powell. It means minutes are going to be hard to come by, and while this season has been an improvement over last, Ross is playing just 21 minutes per game— the lowest total since his rookie year.
What sticks out during that span is the same line between ability and inconsistency we’ve seen throughout his career. He’s posting double-figure scoring in only half of his games so far this season, leaving GMs left to wonder how he’ll fare as a starter.
“What happens if he goes up to 30-35 minutes— does he become less efficient? That’s a question that’ll be asked.”
One of the reasons why Ross’ name comes up so often in trade talks is because Powell is waiting in the wings to absorb his minutes and role off the bench.
But if you thought Ross’ contract was attractive to teams, imagine how teams would covet Powell and the $1.4 million he’s set to earn for next season in the last year of his rookie-scale contract.
“I know his minutes have been inconsistent,” says Marks, “but I like him a lot. I wouldn’t say he’s quite untouchable, but I would have a very hard time surrendering him in a trade. I would want an established player with years left on his contract. Where Toronto is cap-wise it’s going to be déjà vu this summer, basically Kyle is going to replace DeMar from last year. Big trade aside, you’re going to be banking on your young players to improve in order for your team to get better next season. That’s why I’d have a hard time giving him up.”
Performances like Tuesday’s monster 18-point/23-rebound outing against the Celtics remind us of how impactful a player like Valanciunas can be.
Yet the 24 year-old has struggled to find minutes late in games, particularly against smaller, faster teams that force him further from the basket defensively. His place in Dwane Casey’s rotation seems constantly in flux, which may not be ideal in terms of showcasing him to other teams. On the flip side, there are no indications that the Raptors have any plans to move JV, a hard-nosed team-first player with three years left on an attractive contract and still plenty of room to develop.
“I wouldn’t do anything with him if I’m in Toronto,” Marks says. “It would have to be something really big. You look at what centres got this summer— Mozgov, Noah, Mahinmi— and Jonas’ contract ($16 million/yr) carries great value.”
“To move a guy like him for, let’s say, Paul Millsap— I know they have Dwight there, so it’s a hypothetical— and let’s say you have to throw a pick in there. Now you’ve given up a 24 year-old centre under contract and you’re going to have to turn around and sign Millsap for double what JV makes.”
The argument against Valanciunas has largely centred around the changing face of the NBA, with teams playing small ball and the need for big men to be able to step out to the perimeter— on both ends of the floor. But it’s not an opinion shared by all.
“I think the league goes in cycles and there’s still a role for centres,” says Marks. “You think the Raptors would have won on Tuesday without Valanciunas? In certain situations— Cleveland going small— then there’s probably not a role for him, but in the majority of matchups there is.”
Case in point: In the playoffs last season, when Valanciunas averaged 15 points, 12 rebounds, one steal, and 1.4 blocks in 28 minutes per game matching up against the likes of Myles Turner and Hassan Whiteside.
Any ‘blockbuster’ type deal would almost certainly revolve around Valanciunas going the other way, and while teams would certainly be interested it may not be worthwhile for the Raptors unless a bona fide star is coming in return, which, frankly, seems like a long shot.
Sure, he’s struggled defensively as of late, but all the reasons why other teams would covet Joseph are the same ones that will lead the Raps to wanting to keep him around.
“As a solid backup who can potentially play starter’s minutes if you need him to, I’d be interested,” Marks says. “If the likes of Jeremy Lin are going to command $36 million over three years, and Cory Joseph is making $15 total over the next two then yeah, I would think he carries considerable trade value.”
Ah, Bruno. Three years into his Raptors tenure, Caboclo, just 21, has certainly improved but is still only showing brief flashes of the player he may be— or that the Raptors hoped he’d be by now while suiting up for the Raptors 905 in the D-League.
He is likely the hardest Raptors player for opposing GMs to evaluate, says Marks.
“It’s almost like when you scout a college game at Kentucky or big programs like that, and a prospect play six minutes. How are you supposed to evaluate them for the draft in that scenario? Or it’s like going to Europe and you see a guy play and he’s playing six minutes a game and projected to be a first-round pick and you go ‘Wait a minute….why?’ There’s something missing there.”
It’s highly unlikely that teams are targeting Caboclo in trades, but the club still may be hesitant to cut ties and include him as a toss-in in any potential deal.
“It’s hard to cut bait because you’ve spent three years developing him, so you don’t want to put in that work and develop him for somebody else. On the flip side, he goes into his fourth year and then you start looking at him entering free agency and his value. It’s a tough thing there.”
Carroll has shown flashes of what he was brought to Toronto to do: Defend elite wings, provide toughness and playoff experience, and knock down open shots. On the whole, however, he’s been inconsistent and in truth not entirely the player the Raptors brass thought they were getting, at least in terms of pure production.
“That’s a hard one, “ Marks admits. “His contract’s not bad, but he’s not the player he was in Atlanta. If he was then yes, he’d carry value on the trade market, but the durability could be a concern.”
With two years left on his deal after this season at an average salary of $14.5 million, Carroll’s contract, while substantial when it was signed two years ago, suddenly looks quite good in today’s cap landscape. “I’d rather have him at 2 years/$30 mil,” says Marks, “than Chandler Parsons at 3 yrs/$75 mil.”
TWO 2017 FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICKS
The Raptors own two first-rounders in the upcoming draft— theirs and the Los Angeles Clippers (acquired as part of the Greivis Vasquez to Milwaukee deal). Currently those picks are at 25 and 26, and, frankly, may be the Raptors’ strongest trade assets of all.
“There’s real value in this draft,” Marks says, and there’ll be plenty of teams looking to stockpile cheap prospects in what’s considered the deepest pool in years. “Teams that have limited flexibility in the future, based on what they did last summer, that will need to build a farm system for the next six or seven years— if you do it right, those players are with you for eight or nine years at a pretty reasonable cap number.”
Of course, that’s a solid reason for the Raps to hold onto the picks— until you consider that Toronto is already the third-youngest team in the NBA and feature a bevy of prospects in need of development in Powell, Caboclo, Delon Wright, Lucas Nogeuira, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl. For a team looking to advance quickly toward ‘title contender’ status, adding two more names to that list is hardly the most sensible move.