TORONTO – Unless you’re in San Antonio or Oakland – or maybe Cleveland – the NBA season unfurls in waves of highs and lows.
Even good teams – and the Toronto Raptors are certainly one – have troughs, moments when the schedule and injuries conspire to lay a bed of nails across what looked like a wide-open highway.
The Golden State Warriors can count on any combination of superstars to help them smooth over the rough spots on their way to another 70-win season. The Spurs win their 60-something games, somehow reloading with a new generation of franchise cornerstones even as the old ones gracefully bow out.
The Cavs have LeBron, which helps, and seemingly the ability to add useful role players around him at will.
For example: just 10 days after losing J.R. Smith – himself a mid-season acquisition a couple of season’s back – to thumb surgery, The Vertical was reporting that they were in the process of acquiring Kyle Korver from the Atlanta Hawks, giving James one more elite three-point shooter to swing the ball to at will.
It must be nice.
On Thursday night, the Raptors finally returned to Toronto to host the troublesome Utah Jazz after a six-game, holiday-spanning road trip that ended with three wins, three losses, a knee injury to official glue guy Patrick Patterson and the ugliest loss of the year at the hands of the Spurs.
If there wasn’t panic in the air there was a strong whiff of anxiety. It didn’t help that just as the Raptors were falling behind by 11 to Utah in a sluggish first quarter the reports of the Korver trade began filtering out.
If you listened carefully you could hear the murmur through the ACC crowd – ‘we’re falling behind, Masai, do something!’ Okay, not true. You couldn’t hear that. Maybe if the music wasn’t loud enough to split the atom you could. But you could read lips.
With reports filtering out of Atlanta over the holidays that the Hawks are open to trading Paul Millsap – who just happens to fit the Raptors need for help at power forward – it’s hard to blame anyone who sees a ready-made solution to an apparent problem.
If the Hawks are holding a fire sale the Raptors being there with a fire extinguisher and a bank card is a fair conclusion.
“My thinking is making that trade [of Korver] says they’re trying to go in a different direction,” said Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll, who came to Toronto from Atlanta as a free agent two summers ago.
Even before Patterson went down the Raptors gap at power forward has been obvious. I have high hopes for rookie Pascal Siakam, but he’s a placeholder for now. Jared Sullinger? He was an experiment even before he had his foot operated on before training camp was over.
Millsap has been on the Raptors radar since the Luis Scola era. He’s a three-time all-star, a second-team All-NBA defensive teamer and a decent three-point shooter and playmaker.
That the Hawks have already (reportedly) dealt Korver and are (reportedly) intensifying talks about moving Millsap only turns the temperature up higher.
There is no doubt he could help any team, and the Raptors particularly.
“Like I tell everybody, Paul is the most unselfish all-star you probably will ever find,” said Carroll. “He’s always been a team player. He always fills the stat sheets. If he wanted to he could go out and get 30 points and try and get up 20 shots a game but he always does whatever it takes to help the team win.
“That’s why so many teams want him right now. You can just plug him in. He’s not going to be that selfish guy who’s just trying to get numbers, he’s going to do what it takes to try and win games and hopefully win a championship.”
Should the Raptors push whatever number of club president Masai Ujiri’s carefully gathered chips to the centre of the table to acquire Millsap?
A few points to consider for the MUST HAVE MILLSAP crowd:
• He turns 32 next week.
• He’s going to opt out of the final year of his contract, paying him $20-million, and become a free agent next summer. Presumably he’ll want a raise and security.
• He’s led very good Hawks teams against the Cavaliers in the playoffs the past two springs, and he’s now riding an 0-8 losing streak against James et al.
All of which isn’t to say DON’T TRADE FOR MILLSAP.
Just that a momentary blip in the schedule and what seems like a minor injury to Patterson shouldn’t be the reason Ujiri overpays.
After all, the Raptors (24-11) remain pretty good as their 101-93 homecoming win over Utah (22-15) demonstrated.
After their slow start against the Jazz they used their well-worn formula of backcourt brilliance (Kyle Lowry led all scorers with 33 points on 17 shots; DeMar DeRozan grinded out 23 while using 26 shots), passable defence (after allowing Utah to shoot 63 per cent in the first quarter they held them to 41.5 per cent the rest of the way and 35 per cent in the fourth quarter) and care and nurturing of the ball (Toronto gave up only four turnovers, while forcing 19 from Utah for 27 points) to slowly reel Utah back in. Not always pretty, but effective.
Still, the temptation to go all in is understandable, but Ujiri doesn’t need my advice to proceed with caution.
Salary cap rules require that salaries roughly match in deals so bringing in Millsap’s $20-million contract means sending away at least $15 million from the Raptors point of view.
Knowing that and understanding that the goal of any deal made by an already very good team is to make it better, a trade that costs the Raptors two rotation players – the Hawks apparent goal – seems a bit rich for my blood.
If Toronto can build a deal around one of Cory Joseph or Terrence Ross (it would likely have to be Ross, given his upside), tossing in Sullinger’s expiring contract and one or both of Toronto’s first-round picks in 2017 and maybe – maybe – one more prospect (Bruno Caboclo anyone? Delon Wright?) and call it day, then go for it.
A young, affordable rotation player, some futures and contract fodder seems like a fair attempt to fill a need without creating another one (this is assuming Norman Powell is ready for Ross’ minutes).
Keeping Patterson also means that come the summer Ujiri’s not locked in to having to commit to pay both Lowry and Millsap something close to $400 million on deals that would have them getting rich well into their mid-30s, lest losing Millsap as an uber-pricey rental.
Patterson – himself a free agent – would remain a younger, cheaper and viable option.
Going to near-max territory for a 31-year-old Lowry will be tough to choke on as it is, despite him playing at an elite level and showing no signs of slowing down. But doing it for Millsap too after selling the farm to get him and all for the right to pay millions upon millions in luxury taxes?
That’s madness and I can’t see Ujiri doing it. Keeping Patterson also means that in adding Millsap the Raptors get deeper in power forward as they march towards the playoffs, not just more expensive.
Because no matter what happens it’s important to remember the Raptors, are very good; perhaps better than last year’s 56-win Eastern Conference finalists but that doesn’t change one fact: as long as LeBron is at his peak there may be no trade that moves that mountain.
The NBA season is long. Trade talk offers the thrill that there might be a shortcut out there, a smoother path to the Promised Land.
It’s compelling stuff and it might be something that could happen. But adding Millsap at any cost guarantees nothing but hope, and a potentially very expensive brand of it at that.