Raptors want shooting, but have limited options ahead of trade deadline

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri. (Chris Young/CP)

With the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline one week away there is good news for the Toronto Raptors:

They know exactly what they need.

Survey team insiders and their wish list comes down to one thing: “Another shooter.”

The reasons are evident. The Raptors are sixth in the NBA with 31.6 three-point attempts per game, but are just 27th in accuracy, making just 35 per cent of them. Put another way, Toronto misses more triples per game – 20.6 – than all but three teams in the NBA.

As a result it’s a good bet that come playoff time, opponents will defend the Raptors the way they always have: send multiple defenders at Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and force their teammates to hit shots.

“If we’re going to be taking a lot of threes, we need to make them,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey the other day.

So a proven playoff performer who can space the floor and defend opposition wings would be sweet – one of the reasons sharpshooter C.J. Miles’ minutes in the fourth quarter have been limited is there are concerns about his defence.

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But can the Raptors reasonably expect to meet their needs on the trade market before the window closes?

The Raptors do have some tools at their disposal. They have an open roster spot and two significant trade exceptions they can use to add a contract without having to send any out. They have one for $7.6 million that they got when they traded Cory Joseph to Indiana and there’s one for $11.8 million from trading DeMarre Carroll to Brooklyn.

So that’s good.

But there are some significant complications too.

One is that the Raptors are currently carrying about $117.6 million in payroll, leaving them just a hair below the luxury-tax threshold of $119.26. Every dollar over that amount is taxed at a rate of 150 per cent.

More significant is that because the Raptors used the full mid-level to acquire Miles this past summer, they’re hard-capped at the so-called luxury-tax apron mark of $125.26 for the rest of the year. They can add a player earning about $6 million, but no more.

The Raptors aren’t even able to trade a first-round pick until 2020, having already traded their 2018 first-rounder (teams can’t trade first-round picks in consecutive years) to Brooklyn.

And on top of all of that, there is the issue of scarcity. “Shooters who can play defence well enough to be on the floor in the fourth quarter are hard to find,” said one insider.

A search of wing players who fit the bill and come at a price point that the Raptors can pay is short.

Tyreke Evans of Memphis is having one of his best seasons, averaging 19 points, five rebounds and five assists while shooting a career-best 39 per cent from three and is on a one-year deal for $3.2 million. But he’s been a ball-dominant player – he’s using a career-high 28.2 per cent of Grizzlies possessions – a below-average defender and has little experience being a part of winning teams.

Would Masai Ujiri package a future first-round pick and one of his precious young players for a free-agent-to-be who is looking to cash in on a big season? Unlikely. Competition for Evans will be stiff as well and Ujiri hates having to overpay in any deal.

Another name kicking around is Rodney Hood with the Utah Jazz, another pending free agent on a cheap, $1.4-million deal. The Jazz would probably ask for the likes of Delon Wright or Jakob Poeltl, who each have ties to the state after going to school there.

Ujiri would say no.

Another catch? Should a deal get made and Hood contribute to a playoff push, he’d be looking for a multi-year deal in the $60-million range and the Raptors would have to commit to being a tax team for a pretty average player or have given up one of their key young assets for half a season of service.

It’s slim pickings after that. Luke Babbitt is a 41 per cent three-point shooter for his career and is on a one-year, $1.9-million deal with the Atlanta Hawks playing 16.2 minutes a game with a defensive rating of 114.

The price might be something the Raptors could afford, but given that Casey has yet to find more than 19 minutes a game for Miles, where would Babbitt’s minutes come from?

All of the above doesn’t mean Ujiri couldn’t swing for the fences and put together a bigger deal, as long as he finishes up with a payroll in the $125-million range.

But there are obstacles there too. The Raptors have no fat on their roster; no flabby contracts they can add to a young asset and or a draft pick to bring back a big name. They have $100 million tied up in five players and $18 million sprinkled among the rest.

Hypothetically, if the Raptors had wanted to acquire Blake Griffin and his five-year, $173-million contract (they didn’t) they would have had to send away Serge Ibaka ($20 million) and Miles ($7.9 million) and a spare part, along with a future first. Not to say either side would be interested, it just illustrates how poorly equipped the Raptors are to swing a trade for a high-salary player.

Trading Miles makes little sense if the goal is to add shooting, leaving Jonas Valanciunas and his $17-million salary as the next-most-useful chip. Valanciunas is playing the best basketball of his career and could be vital if the Raptors run into the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons or Miami Heat in the playoffs.

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Moreover, the Raptors are loathe to part with their young core as a sweetener in any deal. Not only because the likes of Poeltl, Fred VanVleet, Wright, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are on cheap deals that they are all out-performing, but because their production comes with zero risk: they have been raised in-house and everything from their injury history to their impact on team chemistry is an open book.

Adding a player from the outside not only comes with the cost of losing out on the upside of a Siakam or Wright or Anunoby – but with the possibility that the incoming player won’t fit nearly as well as the player the Raptors groomed.

“When a player comes to you is when you really know who they are,” is one of Ujiri’s guiding philosophies.

It’s not that the Raptors don’t see an opportunity in the East or that they don’t recognize their needs or are reluctant to pay the price.

It’s that they know what they have and they like it and don’t have an obvious path to improve upon it. Ujiri has traditionally been content to sit out the trade deadline while taking a longer view.

Last year was the exception when he added P.J. Tucker and Ibaka in February. This year is more likely to prove the rule.

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