There are a few reasons the Toronto Raptors are unlikely to make a notable deal before the NBA trade deadline, even if team president Masai Ujiri declared they would “die trying” to win another title just a few weeks ago.
One is that fantasy trade target Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards is ineligible to be moved until next summer because he signed a two-year contract extension this past October that took him off the market for six months, or past the Feb. 6 deadline.
We mention Beal because when the task facing Ujiri – along with general manager Bobby Webster — is improving a team that has the league’s third-best record, stands comfortably in second place in the East and is on pace for 59 wins, you have to aim high.
Not just anybody can roll into Scotiabank Arena, displace one of the seven rotation pieces from last year’s championship team and make the Raptors appreciably better. Beal would be one, but he’s not available, so forget it.
As one Eastern Conference executive told me – and I’m paraphrasing – “the Raptors might be big-game hunting, but there simply aren’t many targets out there.”
But another – more tangible reason – the Raptors are more likely to stand pat this week is that Norm Powell is too good.
This is what we mean: in the NBA when a team is over the salary cap as the Raptors are, they can only take on salaries that roughly match the value of the salaries that are going out the door.
So as you scan around the league trying to imagine players that might make the Raptors better, a lot of deals – on paper anyway – require Powell’s $11-million salary somewhere in the mix.
Here’s the catch though: Powell – even though he’s out for the next few weeks after fracturing the ring finger on his left hand Friday night – is playing at a level that the Raptors would be hard-pressed to improve on via the trade market.
His start to the season was a little bit uneven, but since he got his first crack at starting after Kyle Lowry fractured his thumb in early November, beginning a string of Raptors injuries, Powell has played at an extraordinary level offensively.
Over his past 31 games, Powell has been averaging 17.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.3 steals while shooting 42.3 per cent from three on more than five attempts a game and 50 per cent from the floor (rounded up from 49.8, but still). His True Shooting Percentage is 63.9.
The only other player in the league scoring at least 17 points a game while shooting at least 40 per cent from three and 50 per cent from the field with a True Shooting Percentage over 63 is Milwaukee Bucks all-star Khris Middleton.
Would the New Orleans Pelicans consider trading either of their veteran wings – Jrue Holiday or JJ Reddick – as they try to build for a future centred around 19-year-old Zion Williamson and 22-year-old Brandon Ingram?
They might, but in each case, Powell’s salary, his age (just about to turn 27) and the level of his play would likely be part of the formula that makes a deal possible and palatable.
But Powell’s performance this season, his familiarity with the organization and his ability to raise his game at key moments in previous playoff runs means the Raptors would need to be very careful in determining that whoever they would acquire in a deal, including the former second-round pick, would make Toronto better.
Holiday is a player the Raptors think highly of – like most teams in the NBA. He’s one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and can play all three wing positions. At 35 per cent from three for the season and for his career, he’s not as good a shooter as Powell, but his playmaking and defence would be intriguing.
The catch? Holiday makes $27 million this year and next, and has a player option for the 2021-22 season when the Raptors are trying to keep their books clear so they can be players in what could be a loaded free-agent class anchored by defending NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
And even if there was mutual interest in a deal centred on Powell, a number of extra pieces would have to be included to get the salaries to match. Would Toronto feel comfortable giving up OG Anunoby, Pat McCaw along with say, Stanley Johnson and bit parts?
Does Holiday make the Raptors better, given how well Powell is playing? Maybe, but it’s not a lock.
Does he make them better if Toronto has to include Anunoby and then some to have a chance to make the salaries work?
It’s even less clear.
The Raptors know what it takes to win an NBA title. For three seasons beginning in 2015-16, the Raptors tried to win a championship with a deep roster of very good players that lacked the superstar magnetism Kawhi Leonard provided in 2018-19.
So it’s no surprise that league sources say the Raptors have done their due diligence when it comes to inquiring about players that might be difference-makers.
If they’re being honest, they might even tell you that they are one player away from being on par with the Bucks, Clippers and Lakers.
But it would have to be a hell of a player.
Would the Portland Trail Blazers — with the second-highest payroll in the league this year, and projected to be top-four next year, and on the fringes of the playoff race — be interested in trading CJ McCollum and the $27.6 million he makes this year and the $29.4 million he’s slated to make next season?
Word is they aren’t, and that they view this season as an injury fueled anomaly. But again, there is the problem of matching salaries. And then there is the reality that Powell is having a better season by most conventional and advanced statistical models than McCollum.
A lot of the same arguments could be made against dealing Serge Ibaka.
As a pending free agent making $21.67 million this year, it might be easier to structure a major deal around Ibaka but – like Powell – he presents a significant challenge.
How do you trade a mobile big with a solid defensive acumen — a respected dressing room presence with a championship resume — who is having a career-best year in his 11th season, and guarantee your team improves?
Ibaka is putting up 15.5 points and eight rebounds while shooting 51.4 per cent from the field and 39.6 per cent from deep on 111 attempts.
He’s the only player in the NBA with that profile.
Would the San Antonio Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge – who will be owed $24 million next season when he’s 35 — make the Raptors better?
His statistical profile is almost identical to Ibaka’s on a per minutes basis. Aldridge has accounted for .146 Win Shares per 48 minutes compared to .139 for Ibaka.
He’s another player the Raptors think highly of, but does he move the needle? And would the Spurs – who are in a fight to keep their NBA-record, 22-season playoff streak alive — want to make that deal, or any deal?
Welcome to the Raptors’ NBA trade deadline reality, also known as the “Norm Conundrum” or the “Ibaka Fallacy.”
The Raptors would love to improve their roster and give themselves more high-end talent for a deep playoff run, but the players they would have to include in almost any significant deal are playing so well it would be risky for Toronto to give them up.