TORONTO – What they need is simple. What to do is complex. If they can actually do it may be out of their control.
But they have to try, future assets or luxury tax bills be damned.
Through the halfway mark of the Toronto Raptors’ ‘Season of Kawhi’, things are going great, by any objective measure. Leonard won’t contend for the NBA’s MVP award as the cautious approach the Raptors and Leonard are taking to maintain his good health (he’s on pace to play just 61 games) will cost him in a deep field of candidates, but Leonard is playing at or near the level he did when he finished third in MVP voting in 2016-17.
Since Dec. 1, he’s averaging 30.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.1 steals on 52.5 per cent shooting and when you factor in the game-changing defensive plays he seems to pull off at will, it’s clear Leonard is the kind of player that can carry a team into the NBA Finals, and maybe beyond.
For now, the Raptors will take the floor at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday night against the Sacramento Kings leading the NBA in wins and neck-and-neck with the Milwaukee Bucks for the league’s best record and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. The heaviest portion of their schedule is behind them and their best basketball is likely ahead.
But rather than everyone walking around the Raptors’ facilities breathing a sigh of relief and slapping each other on the back, with just over two weeks to the Feb. 7 NBA trade deadline, pressure is beginning to ramp up.
The rest of the NBA believes if any team should be in ‘go for it’ mode, it’s the Raptors, given they are viewed as championship contenders with a runway that only extends as long as Leonard is on the roster.
“Short answer: ‘yes,’” was one NBA executive’s assessment of whether Toronto should be throwing caution to the wind.
Another: “Your window to win in pro sports doesn’t open often and it can shut very quickly. I wouldn’t jump in and do something ridiculous, but yeah, I’d think they go for it.”
Yeah, they should.
Trading franchise icon DeMar DeRozan for one season of Leonard was the ultimate ‘win now’ move. Once the deal was made, there was no walking back. And given the Raptors can only hope Leonard will be here after this season – although, encouragingly, they’ve had no indications otherwise and they can offer him $50-million reasons more than any other team to stay – this would be the time to be bold.
It is not the time to stress about the possibility that second-year wing OG Anunoby – scheduled to return to the team for the Raptors’ upcoming three-game road trip after an absence from the team due to personal reasons – might one day morph into some version of Leonard.
It’s the time to consider packaging Anunoby and point guard Delon Wright – likely the team’s most marketable trade chips – if that’s what it takes to help the real-life Leonard help the Raptors get to the NBA Finals.
It’s not time to fret over the team’s mounting luxury tax bill – it’s already at $34.7-million — or worry about trading another first-round pick in addition to the one they owe to San Antonio in 2019 from the Leonard deal.
But what to do?
Anchored by Leonard, the Raptors starting five is locked in – Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka have the NBA’s second-best net rating among five-man lineups with at least 300 minutes played — so tinker with that at your own peril.
The primary areas the Raptors have fallen short are three-point shooting – despite putting up the 10th-most threes per game, they rank only 24th in accuracy – and bench strength, even though depth was expected to be a calling card this season.
But is there a move the Raptors can make that can truly add rather than simply plug one hole while weakening the team in another area?
It might not be that easy.
The biggest reason the Raptors are struggling from deep is that two of their most reliable three-point shooters – Lowry and C.J. Miles – are scraping near the bottom of their career-lows from distance. There is no doubt the Raptors would love to turn Miles into a role-playing wing who can reliably knock down threes on swing passes – which is what he’s supposed to be doing. But, with another year and $8.7-million left on his deal, there is no market for a sharpshooter clanging 28.9 per cent of his threes.
Best bet? Hope that Miles, coming off two encouraging performances in a row, can revert to his career averages for the season’s final 30 games and beyond. That and a return to health for Jonas Valancuinas would give the bench a bigger lift than what is likely available externally.
Similarly, if Lowry is going to continue to shoot only 24 per cent from three – his conversion rate since Dec. 1 – it’s hard to imagine any trade that would fundamentally fix that crater in the Raptors’ offence. Lowry’s return to form – he ranks fifth among point guards in threes made since 2016-17 – would be the best trade Ujiri or right-hand-man Bobby Webster could ever make.
Another thought: The Raptors have struggled against opposing bigs since Valanciunas dislocated his thumb on Dec. 12. From the couch, it’s easy to imagine the big Lithuanian with a year and $17-million left on his deal could be the centrepiece of a significant trade – one report suggested the Raptors could build an offer for Wizards guard Bradley Beal that way.
But how comfortable will the Raptors be taking on the Philadelphia 76ers and hulking Joel Embiid in a playoff series with Greg Monroe as their backup centre? Not very, and nor should they be.
Which brings up another salient point: Sure, the Raptors should be buyers, willing to attach future assets in deals that can help now, but who are the sellers?
The Wizard owe John Wall $170-million over four years beginning next season and can’t realistically play for the future with that millstone around their necks, which is likely one reason owner Ted Leonsis went public with his ‘never, ever tank’ pledge this past week. They won’t tank because they can’t. Trading Beal only makes having Wall on the roster even worse.
Similarly, while pending free agent 3-and-D man Trevor Ariza would be a great get for almost any contender, as long as the Wizards are in the hunt for a playoff spot – and they are only two games out of the eight-seed and four games out of sixth at the moment – it’s hard to imagine the Wizards making him available.
One might scan the Orlando Magic’s roster, see pending free agent wing Terrence Ross lighting it up from deep and think he could help his old team – and given that the relationship between Magic president Jeff Weltman and Ujiri remains strong, maybe a deal could happen. Except that the Magic themselves are only 2.5 games out of eighth and are determined to make a playoff push. And given Ross’s playoff frustrations in Toronto (29 per cent from three) it seems strange to think that he’s the answer, rather than – say – Norman Powell, whose development helped make Ross expendable in the first place.
In the west, there are probably 14 teams with playoff aspirations at the moment, although the next two weeks could provide some clarity – and reality — on that front, but with less teams tanking and more teams believing they can get in the post-season, the pool of potentially important players is thinly stretched.
Which doesn’t mean Ujiri and the Raptors shouldn’t attempt to dive in. They should. Once they made the move for Leonard, their trajectory could only be full speed ahead.