Raptors’ struggles raise urgency of trade deadline needs

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) pass off as Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) defends during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Thursday Jan. 31, 2019. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Although the NBA’s trade deadline is still a week away, the fireworks have already begun.

This year’s deadline was supposed to be relatively quiet, with only a small handful of sellers amid a mass market of buyers in the playoff race — and, yesterday’s deal aside, that still may be the case.

But the lead-up has been anything but. The biggest bombshell dropped on Monday with news that New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis — at 25 years old already on an extremely short list of those who can contend as the league’s most talented player— asked to be traded.

When word leaked that a few contenders were putting in competing offers, one team listed was the Toronto Raptors. At one point, Vegas oddsmakers gave Toronto the second-best odds to land the big man.

By Thursday, it was reported that another young talent, Kristaps Porzingis, was likely to be dealt. Once again, the Raptors were reportedly among the teams expected to make a run at acquiring a second superstar to pair alongside newcomer Kawhi Leonard.

With the Feb. 7 deadline just around the corner, Toronto is active in trade talks. And a night like Thursday’s disappointing 105-92 loss at home versus the Milwaukee Bucks illustrates why.

For the Raps, trades are the only way to add a degree of firepower to the roster. The window for the team to hit its ceiling and reach an NBA Finals — an unthinkable goal for this organization until very recently — is obviously delicately short, and entirely predicated on how long Leonard remains a Raptor.

If Kawhi stays on board for one year or more — depending on what happens in the post-season I wouldn’t rule out him signing a short-term, one-year-plus-player-option type of deal with Toronto — the club won’t have the kind of cap room to sign a marquee name like Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, two elite free agents who have been front-and-centre following the Knicks trade that freed up enough cap space for the team to sign both.

Nor will Toronto be able to gain fortune at the draft lottery. If the draft was today the Raps would select 28th overall, and the pick would belong to the San Antonio Spurs as part of the Leonard-DeMar DeRozan deal.

And so Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office are actually fairly limited in how they can bolster their fortunes during the Kawhi era.

Right now, they’re banking on Leonard performing to his otherworldly abilities, along with the continued progression of young talents like Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet. On a night when the team’s starters mostly underwhelmed, Siakam was great against the Bucks, scoring 28 points (including 2-3 from deep). With the Raptors down by as much as 24 points, it was the likes of Siakam, VanVleet, and Norm Powell who were instrumental in Toronto’s comeback. The supporting cast showed how important it can be to the team’s success, but as a whole hasn’t been reliable game-to-game.

The Raptors could also use a post-all-star-break turnaround from Kyle Lowry to help them re-gain their status as the team to beat in the East.

But will that be enough? That’s the question the front office is left asking itself in the wake of another disappointing loss against a conference rival. Can the Raptors compete for a title and reach the Finals with their current group?

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They’ll need Lowry to become a potent scoring threat again. Prior to Thursday’s game, the veteran point guard was named an all-star for the fifth consecutive season, but has been mired in a troubling scoring slump. He managed 10 points in Thursday’s loss, the sixth time in 10 games he hasn’t scored more than 12.

On paper the team’s secondary scorer, Lowry is averaging his fewest points average (14) and shooting percentage (40.9 per cent) since arriving in Toronto. He’s still managed to make an impact, playing solid defence and counteracting his relative shooting slump that with an impressive 9.2 assists per game — a career-high and good for second in the NBA — but Lowry’s roller-coaster season could be one of several reasons the team is looking to be active ahead of next week’s deadline.

It’s not just Lowry who is shooting the ball poorly. The Raptors’ three-point shooting as a whole has been one of the most unexpected disappointments of the season. Coming off one of its best shooting performances against Dallas on Sunday, the team shot just 25.9 per cent from beyond the arc against the Bucks — an area of distinct advantage for Milwaukee.

Nick Nurse chalked up some of the Raptors’ issues in Thursday’s game — and this span of three losses over their last four games — to a “pace-and-energy thing.” The upcoming all-star break will probably aid the latter, but another way to infuse some energy is by bringing in new bodies.

Of course, that isn’t the motivation behind the Raptors’ name appearing in trade talks. Last summer showed that Masai Ujiri, in his quest to build a title contender in Toronto, is certainly opportunistic. The Leonard trade was predicated by recognizing a chance to pounce on the misfortune of others and land a player otherwise deemed untouchable.

So, it’s no surprise that when that opportunity presented itself once more in the cases of Davis and Porzingis, the Raptors were in on the discussion.

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Ultimately, however, the Raptors simply don’t have the right assets to land a player like Davis.

Siakam is a burgeoning talent and borderline all-star, but doesn’t project to be a franchise-type player, and the rest of the Raptors’ trade chips project to be merely solid role players.

What’s more, the team lacks high-potential draft picks, which, outside of a superstar in his prime, are the NBA’s most valuable assets of all. The Warriors were a dynasty built through the draft, striking rich with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green long before they were a destination for top-shelf free agents.

So while the Raptors are trying to get in on the action, and it’s refreshing to see them in contention for big-name talent, don’t expect fireworks at the deadline for Toronto. There are targets who can help patch areas of weakness, sure. Miami’s Wayne Ellington, a shooting specialist, comes to mind, among other role players or potential buyout candidates.

But chances are, with some relatively minor tweaking, this current Raptors group is who they’ll have to count on come the post-season. Will it be enough?

They’re good enough to win the East. They’re good enough to win 60+ games. They’re good enough to compete with the best the NBA has to offer. On Thursday, they played flat through three quarters, yet brought the game to within six points by the final two minutes. They’re good enough to do that, too.

Will anything change between now and this time next week when the deadline passes? Will they be good enough to reach their goals by then? Stay tuned.

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