With the NBA’s February 8th trade deadline less than a month away, the rumour mills are churning and teams are engaging in trade talks.
As the deadline nears, the Toronto Raptors have been on the receiving end of plenty of calls from general managers around the league.
When asked if opposing teams have been reaching out to the Raps and inquiring about the availability of a handful Toronto’s young players, team president Masai Ujiri didn’t hesitate: “Yes they are,” he said during an appearance on Prime Time Sports on Wednesday night.
“Just before I left the office [Raptors’ General Manager] Bobby [Webster] called saying a couple of teams called,” Ujiri said. “It’s constant.”
Of course that should hardly come as a surprise given both the quantity and quality of the Raps players 25 years of age or younger, virtually all of whom have carved out meaningful roles— particularly on the second unit— for a team just three games back from first place in their conference.
Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet are all contributing while averaging at least 17 minutes per game— and all but Powell are still on inexpensive rookie deals— so it’s no wonder that they’d be targeted by other teams.
“We continue to interact with a lot of teams,” Ujiri noted, but don’t expect to see any of those players changing teams come February.
Generally when young developing talent emerges on a winning team with sights on a run to the NBA Finals, it provides an opportunity for that team to flip their youth for established vets with post-season experience. There are countless examples, some for the better (Boston dealing Al Jefferson for Kevin Garnett), and others for worse (OKC trading James Harden to the Rockets). But the Raptors are in a unique position in which their emerging talent are proving to be integral to their success, providing depth and tireless energy along with a potential bridge to the future.
With that in mind, expect a quiet deadline from the Raptors.
The team made noise at last year’s deadline, acquiring P.J. Tucker from the Phoenix Suns, a clear rental player acquired to help them during their 2017 playoff run that saw the team advance past the Milwaukee Bucks before being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are in Toronto on Thursday to face the Raptors for the first time this season.
Of course, their biggest move was trading Terrence Ross to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Serge Ibaka. While Ibaka was also perceived as a potential rental player when the trade was made, as Ujiri noted, the deal opened the door for the Raps to re-sign him without being penalized for going over the salary cap. “What it did for us was give us the Bird rights to Serge Ibaka [note: this allows teams to avoid penalty for going over the salary cap], and we brought him back,” said Ujiri, in reference to the three-year $65 million contract the 28-year old forward signed this past summer.
“I don’t know what the history of the NBA is of bringing in any player at the deadline and what affect it has on your team,” said Ujiri. “How much time do you have to gel? To me, I want us to build our teams off of training camps, off of time with each other.”
Forced to acclimate to a new role, system and set of teammates on the fly, Ibaka was an imperfect fit down the stretch last season. But after a full training camp with his new team, and the security among the coaching staff in knowing that the big man will be a constant on their roster going forward, Ibaka has flourished.
Since the start of December, in particular, Ibaka has been one of the Raptors most consistent, impactful players, averaging 16 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks per game while shooting over 50 per cent from the field and nearly 42 per cent from deep. In that span, he’s scored in double figures in all but one game.
That’s not to say that players added at the deadline haven’t gone on to propel their new teams to another level. The examples are few and far between, but they exist nonetheless.
At the 2001 deadline Philadelphia acquired Dikembe Mutombo and proceded to make their first and only Finals in the Allen Iverson era. Similarly when Rasheed Wallace was dealt to Detroit in 2004 he became a final piece to their championship puzzle. Pau Gasol was dealt to the Lakers in 2008, kickstarting three straight Finals runs (and back-to-back titles).
But for every big deadline move that pushes a team over the edge there are a dozen that fall flat.
Of course, any GM or front office leader wouldn’t be doing their job if they weren’t pursuing the best talent available. For example, the Golden State Warriors have been reported to be expected to pursue Paul George in free agency this summer even if they know their chances to ink him are invisibly thin.
It remains to be seen if a player of that calibre will be available at the deadline this season— Clippers centre DeAndre Jordan is the one marquee name that comes to mind— and more importantly whether or not a team like the Raptors, who have seen efficient and consistent production from their homegrown talent en route to the second-best record in the East, would be wise to part with a package of prospects and picks for a player they may not need.
To trade for the sake of trading, rolling the dice on a fresh face or two, may have made sense for Raptors teams of the past, but not one that is carving a real identity built around the depth and development of it’s young pieces.
“Growth is what we preach,” said Ujiri. “How are we getting better? Is OG [Anunoby] getting better? Is Pascal [Siakam] getting better? How are those guys going to be next year? What experiences are they gaining? How are they going to play, knock wood, when we make the playoffs? How do Jakob Poeltl or Delon Wright or those guys, how do they continue to grow? Sometimes we are looking for something outside that’s actually inside with us.”