ATLANTA — He was so happy.
After a 31-game absence due to a thumb injury that interrupted arguably his best season, Jonas Valanciunas was brimming at the prospect of returning to the floor for the Toronto Raptors Thursday night against the Atlanta Hawks.
The surgery for the gruesome dislocation at the hand of the Warriors’ Draymond Green on Dec. 12 was behind him, the tedious rehabilitation and cardio work was done, he was returning nearly two weeks ahead of schedule.
Now it was time to play ball and help the arguably the best Raptors team he’s been part of since joining the franchise as a raw rookie for the 2012-13 season, and being a key part of the franchise’s record five-year (and counting) playoff run.
“I am really excited. I was really looking forward to this day and there you go. If nothing crazy happens, I will be playing,” he said at the Raptors morning shootaround at State Farm Arena. “I expect to be 100 per cent ready and 100 per cent capable to do the things I was doing before … but I don’t feel like I lost something. I was working a lot on my skills, basketball IQ, watching film, watching games. I feel like I’m right there.”
And now he’s gone.
In a trade deadline bombshell that proves Raptors president Masai Ujiri is committed to winning above all else, Toronto has sent Valanciunas — tied with Kyle Lowry as their longest-serving player — along with point guard Delon Wright, sharpshooter C.J. Miles and a 2024 second-round pick to the Memphis Grizzlies for centre Marc Gasol, a three-time all-star and the 2012-13 defensive player of the year.
Valanciunas’ name had surfaced in some rumours and reports during the build-up to the deadline, but generally in connection with a bigger deal that would have seen both Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry go to the Grizzlies in exchange for Gasol and his long-time pick-and-roll partner Mike Conley.
That itself seemed far-fetched.
And when sources told Sportsnet Thursday morning that there was no traction on the Lowry-Conley front, it was presumed the Raptors’ interest in Gasol may have waned too. As well, most reports indicated that Charlotte was the most likely destination for the Spanish big.
Valanciunas certainly seemed to believe he was out of the woods, to the extent he’s been anxious about being traded at all.
“Experience does that for you. I have been in rumours so many times, I don’t even look at it. I just know one thing. We have a good team. We have a good future in front of us for this season so I just want to go on the court and play ball and win the games. That is what I want to do. I love Toronto and I want to stay there. “
So much for that.
The deal is a gamble on a number of fronts — not the least of which is how much gas Gasol has left having turned 34 last week — although if the measure is which team got the best single player, the Raptors can probably nod in the affirmative.
Gasol is averaging 15.7 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists this season and is one of the highest IQ players in the game, as demonstrated by his elite passing skills — he’s averaged 4.5 assists over the past three seasons — and defensive acumen.
He’s a capable three-point shooter (34.4 per cent since he started shooting them in 2016-17) and one of the best screen-and-roll players in the league. His ability to play ‘point-centre’ should diversify the Raptors’ playmaking, taking some of the load off Kawhi Leonard, and his pick-and-roll and screening abilities should mesh well with Lowry, who played with Gasol for part of the Spanish star’s rookie season with the Grizzlies in 2008-09.
Defensively, Gasol is the type of centre that can command rotations from the back, making up for his lack of above-the-rim game with a big body, nimble feet and smarts. With Leonard on the roster, the Raptors have three of the past six defensive-player-of-the-year winners on the floor and in Danny Green, another former all-NBA defender.
Valanciunas was competent in most of these areas but lacked the instinctive playmaking that Gasol has shown throughout his career.
To his credit, he has made great strides in the past two seasons as a shooter and passer, and his team-first values were never more evident when he willingly come off the bench so the Raptors could play Serge Ibaka at centre with the starters. Valanciunas was producing the best per/36-minutes numbers of his career before he was hurt: 24 points and 14 rebounds on 57.5-per-cent shooting with a True Shooting percentage of .639 while producing .229 WinShares per/48 minutes, which would tie him with Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors if Valanciunas hadn’t missed more than half the season.
Even those close to the organization recognize that the move comes with risks. “We’ll have to see how the rest of the roster shakes out,” said one source.
Following minor deals that involved Malachi Richardson and Greg Monroe being sent to Philadelphia and Brooklyn, respectively, with no bodies coming back, the Raptors had four empty roster spots available when the 3 p.m. trade deadline passed, suggesting more moves in the buyout market where teams can sign veteran players who get waived.
But without knowing of what all the answers will be, there are large, looming questions:
• Will Gasol start in place of Ibaka, who has thrived at centre this season, or will the starting unit remain intact with Gasol helping to anchor what has been a shaky second unit, and be used with the starters situationally?
• What will the Raptors do to fill their four remaining roster spots? They will have to be active in what promises to be a competitive buyout market with needs for depth at centre, three-point shooting on the wing and point guard.
• The Raptors will have 26 games remaining after Thursday’s game against the Hawks — is that enough time to build the cohesiveness with a lineup that has had little of it through 55 games so far?
• Have the Raptors improved, and have they improved enough to keep pace with the Eastern Conference heavyweights in Milwaukee (who added Nikola Mirotic for spare parts from the New Orleans Pelicans) and the Philadelphia 76ers (who started the trade deadline off with a bang on Wednesday as they acquired Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott from the Los Angeles Clippers).
• And what does this mean for the Raptors going forward? Gasol is expected to the pick up the option on the last year of his contract for $26 million next season — does having him under contract improve the Raptors chances of keeping Kawhi Leonard in the off-season?
It’s all uncertain and fluid as the repercussions from the roll of the dice Ujiri took this past summer, when he traded for Leonard, keep reverberating.
The goal is to win a championship, and there is no looking back. It’s a criterion that overrules loyalties and friendships, as DeMar DeRozan and now Valanciunas know first-hand.
The question is are the Raptors closer today to their goals than they were 24 hours ago.
No one knows.