Within the ever-astounding narrative framework of the NBA, things rarely are certain.
Who could’ve predicted current Toronto Raptors big man Marc Gasol getting dealt to Memphis for his own brother in 2008, or the blockbuster that sent Carmelo Anthony to lowly New York in 2011, or Wilt Chamberlain getting shipped to Philadelphia for Connie Dierking, Paul Neumann, Lee Shaffer and cash in 1965?
And yet, despite or perhaps because of this inescapable uncertainty, we push forward with relentless curiosity, desperate for clues as to how the future may unfold. So, with the NBA trade deadline set to take place on Feb. 6, there’s no better time to try and anticipate what may come about, and why.
Here are five things pertaining to the Raptors going into the deadline, then, that are as close to certain as can be in a constantly changing world.
Deadline decisions will reveal Ujiri’s views on team’s ceiling
There is perhaps no better word to describe this season’s Raptors squad than fluid (other than perhaps injured and all of its accompanying synonyms), with the team having been forced to play a mishmash of lineups that have resulted in varying degrees of success against a variety of opponents. As such, it’s tough to know what this club is at its core when all the pieces are finally in place and, perhaps most importantly, what its ceiling is.
The Raptors’ most-utilized starting lineup this season has played together for a total of 226 minutes. By contrast, the two teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference have had their starters log 268 (Milwaukee Bucks) and 464 (Miami Heat) minutes, respectively. Out of the 30 teams’ most-played starting groups, Toronto’s ranks 21st in minutes.
That’s just not a lot of time together.
And yet, that same unit has accumulated a net rating of 9.4, a mark that ranks ninth amongst all lineups (including another one of their own, which contains the usual starters save for Norman Powell in place of Fred VanVleet and has a 16.1 net rating and ranks third) that have played at least 150 minutes.
It’s understandable, then, with that example in mind, that the Raptors front office may find the decision of becoming a buyer or seller or neither a difficult one.
Perhaps Masai Ujiri and Co. will find themselves agreeing with the notion that the Raptors are poised to make a deep post-season run if they’re able to swing a deadline move, and find themselves taking on the identity of a buyer.
At the same time, given how small the sample size for a healthy Raptors squad is, there’s merit in being skeptical of their ability (even at peak strength) to hang with the likes of the Bucks in a seven-game series.
And if there’s no reasonable path to going back-to-back, then there’s some sense in punting on win-now moves in favour of the opposite — selling a piece or two as a means of facilitating their future plans.
There’s virtue in vigilance, of course. Standing pat (with leeway provided for any tiny, innocuous transactions) often proves the most likely stance for a good team that’s all at once radiating potential, and mired in ambivalence. It shouldn’t come as a shock, then, if the franchise opts to ride out the current club and makes peace with any prospective playoff flameout, again with a mind to the future.
No one knows what the ceiling of this team is. Not the fans, not the media, not the Raptors. But that won’t stop the deadline from coming, so expect some level of clarity on how the organization views the roster soon, despite the murky fog that layers the entire situation.
Trading Kyle Lowry is highly unlikely
Yes, Lowry could be traded. It’s not out of the realm of possibility by any stretch. We have seen Ujiri make seismic deals before that have shaken the franchise to its very core. But the return in any sort of trade structured around Lowry would have to be gargantuan to be worth the Raptors’ while.
From a sentimental perspective, this remains the championship hangover season. Kawhi Leonard is gone, and Lowry remains as the frisky, omnipresent soul of the golden era of Raptors basketball. There would hardly be any deal that Toronto could make this season, in the midst of a title afterglow, that would not be a significant blow to the fan base. And with the DeMar DeRozan debacle having happened so recently, the notion of doing right by the face of the franchise (even if it’s generally not brilliant for business) may be of higher priority than in the past.
Looking at things through a cold, calculating lens does little to change the likelihood of a trade. Lowry’s contract ($33 million) is a difficult one to move due to the fact that it’s simply a large number and makes salary-matching difficult, and the teams that would likely covet him the most would be contenders who would have to give up one or many of their own core pieces in order to obtain Lowry since it would be impossible to add him otherwise, something that both the Raptors and any contending team would probably balk at.
There’s value in keeping Lowry, too, of course. The original plan for the immediate season was to spend it on internal growth and development for the likes of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam while remaining competitive and keeping an eye on the books for a hopeful free agency splash down the road. Removing Lowry from that equation instantly leaves the team far less competitive (especially for a squad already lacking creators and guard depth), and from a morale standpoint, removes its leading voice.
This isn’t do or die time for the Raptors’ relationship with Lowry who, at 33, is having a wonderful season. There’s value in known quantities. Teams understand what they’d be getting in Lowry and, should they choose to, Toronto could entertain moving him over the summer or even into next season (the last year of his current deal) as opposed to rushing a deal at the deadline.
The Raptors compromising 2021 cap space is improbable
For the Raptors, whose long-term plan has appeared to be chasing franchise-altering free agents in the summer of 2021, making any move that jeopardizes their cap flexibility at that time seems highly unlikely.
The result of not wanting to breach this plan (a plan, by the way, that many, many teams are employing), one that has its origins pre-Leonard and that has been carried over to post-Leonard life, is obvious: No swinging for the fences. That means no dealing for the big names currently on the trading block, such as Kevin Love or D’Angelo Russell, who have multi-year contracts that take up a massive chunk of cap space.
It also probably means no long-term middling deals, either, depending on the range. Toronto has made it clear that it will do all it possibly can to keep its cap sheets clean for that summer and make sacrifices if necessary (to a reasonable extent) along the way.
As a franchise that completely altered its culture through the likes of Ujiri, DeRozan, Lowry, and former head coach Dwane Casey, and then capitalized on that success by ultimately winning a title, the Raptors evidently feel comfortable operating as a team that has as good a shot as any other at landing a free agent superstar, something that would have seemed unfathomable as recently as 10 years ago.
And so every move they make, every deal they sniff around, every hesitant or self-assured moment, will certainly be centred around betting on themselves, and the flexibility they need to make that happen.
The free agent paydays are fast approaching
In the NBA, life flows steadily to the laborious ticking of a money-coloured metronome, a tiny reminder that there is always something next, something onerous, something inevitable.
That ticking has grown louder for the Raptors as they march towards this off-season, with only nine players locked into deals for the 2020–21 season and guys such as VanVleet, Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson coming off the books, whether in regular free agent fashion or restricted.
It’s partially because of all these soon-to-be free agents that the Raptors will likely remain cautious around the deadline. Re-signing any of them to a multi-year deal will factor into Toronto’s cap space for the summer of 2021. That makes things tricky for guys like Gasol and Ibaka, whose markets are debatable and who the Raptors might ask to take one-year deals should they return for next season, something they may not be interested in.
Of course, the main priority here is VanVleet, who is not extension eligible this season and will hit free agency no matter what. The Raptors know that they will not only have to pay VanVleet more to bring him back (whatever his market is precisely at the moment, it’s most assuredly quite high), but also that his deal will join Siakam’s in extending through the 2021 off-season.
This is an argument for the Raptors as sellers — get off of any potentially dangerous or unhelpful deals now, gather inexpensive assets for the future and prepare to roll the dice when the moment comes.
And so we arrive at Powell. Toronto has made its peace with Siakam, perfectly content with his piece of the cap sheet pie, but that may not be so true for Powell. The latter will have the ability to opt into a roughly $11 million player option for 2021–22, which would take up a fair chunk of space that could affect the Raptors’ plans, depending on VanVleet’s eventual deal and a cornucopia of other things. Toronto may, therefore, be interested in moving him early specifically to get out of potentially having to pay that money, and might also feel that this is the best time to do so with how tremendous Powell’s performance on the floor has been this season.
That said, that same tremendous play evidently makes him useful for a competitive team looking to make some sort of run, and Powell doesn’t have to be traded at the deadline. Like Lowry, he could instead be dealt in the off-season or into 2020–21.
No matter what the Raptors do, free agency is coming, and will certainly prove to be a major factor in all deadline-related decisions.
For the Raptors, the deadline market is limited
If the Raptors strive for maintaining long-term cap flexibility while also being mindful of their pending free agents, what targets does that leave them with at the deadline?
Pragmatic options would largely be restricted to players on expiring deals (such as Danilo Gallinari) that the team would feel confident in their ability to re-sign to a reasonable number come the summer, or players who are solely on contract for next season already (such as J.J. Redick).
None of these sorts of players will be the type to raise a team’s ceiling so much as to have a serious singular impact towards title contention. Therefore the Raptors may not feel the need to seek any of them out at all considering the cost and, instead, choose to roll the dice with their own expiring deals.
This doesn’t mean the Raptors won’t be active in trade talks, however, and Ujiri, though a clever surveyor of any situation he might be willing to leap into, has never been afraid of making a deal.
But unless something radical were to happen, it would certainly seem the Raptors might be spending this deadline below the radar.