Now we all get to sit back and watch how good Precious Achiuwa can really be.
The NBA trade deadline marked the end of the Kyle Lowry era — at least in accounting terms.
When the Toronto Raptors agreed to trade Goran Dragic to the San Antonio Spurs for veteran power forward Thaddeus Young shortly before lunchtime on Thursday, it dotted the final “i” on the transaction that saw the franchise-defining point guard head to the Miami Heat as part of a sign-and-trade for Achiuwa and Dragic.
The hope — almost since the moment Dragic arrived — was the veteran guard’s expiring $19.4-million contract would help Toronto gain one more asset for the pot, and they were even prepared to attach a draft pick if it meant returning a good player who fit with their core now and in the future.
In the end, they split the difference. The cost for taking on Young — a 33-year-old who didn’t fit in the Spurs’ plans on an expiring deal for $14.5 million — was the Raptors’ first-round pick. The Spurs took the edge off of that price by trading the Raptors the rights to the Detroit Pistons’ second-round pick.
If the season ended today, the Spurs would be drafting 20th and the Raptors 31st. The draft isn’t considered particularly deep.
“That’s the value play here,” said Raptors general manager Bobby Webster. “You slide a little bit in the draft and you pick up a player that you think is gonna help you. Historically, it’s an area in the draft where we’ve operated in the past. Realistically, we don’t see a ton of incremental change between those picks.”
Another benefit is that unlike a first-round pick, which comes with a fixed salary for two years and quite often ends up on your books for a minimum of four, a high second-round pick allows teams more flexibility with how they structure contracts, which are in some ways viewed more favourably as trade chips.
Another benefit is Toronto has a little bit more spare change lying around without going into the luxury tax, something they don’t want to do because not only would it cost them a dollar for every one they are over the threshold, but it would preclude them getting what is projected to be a $10-to-15-million payout non-taxpaying teams get in the NBA’s Robin Hood approach to revenue sharing.
What can they do with it? How about using some of their newly created wiggle room to convert promising rookie Justin Champagnie from a two-way deal to a favourable rookie contract with friendly team terms? It would be one of those small moves that could look genius a year from now if Champagnie can smooth out a three-point stroke to complement his hustle and turn himself into a rotation player on a cheap deal.
Other than that, Young does make the Raptors better. He was collateral damage when the Chicago Bulls had to include him in the sign-and-trade that landed them DeMar DeRozan, but he was loved there not only for his production — 12.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals in 24 minutes off the bench — but for a veteran, egoless professionalism that should make him an easy fit in Toronto. If his 1,059 games of NBA experience can be used to help bring along Achiuwa in his second year, and first as a regular, all the better.
“Thaddeus is a known commodity around the NBA,” Webster said. “For us, we’ve followed him for a while. We’ve made a few attempts to get him via trade in prior years. We felt like this was a good situation where we’re bringing him into Toronto. And we think this is a good situation where he really complements the core. He kind of complements more than tries to substitute what they’re doing. Part of the philosophy for us was maintaining and respecting what this group was doing, and (figuring out) how we can add to it.”
Realistically, however, the Raptors were hoping for more. Adding another 6-foot-9 big who can switch across multiple positions defensively helps marginally. At the very least he’s an upgrade or at least insurance for Khem Birch’s iffy knee and a security blanket for Raptors head coach Nick Nurse when things get tense, and he doesn’t feel like guessing which of Achiuwa or Chris Boucher is least likely to have a brain freeze on a defensive assignment.
But in the weeks leading up to the deadline there was hope — even confidence — they could translate Dragic’s deal and a pick into something that would measurably improve their rapidly improving team.
They don’t need their analytics department to tell them having a bench their head coach doesn’t trust isn’t a formula for long-term success. Every good team the Raptors have had in the Masai Ujiri/Bobby Webster era has been deep; some of them ridiculously so. Norman Powell was the 11th man in Toronto in 2018-19 and 2019-20, was unleashed in 2020-21 and ended up earning a $90-million contract with the Portland Trail Blazers after establishing himself as one of the best shooters in the league.
As an aside: there was a rumour circulating the Raptors had a chance to get back on the Powell train when the Trail Blazers were dangling him last week. It would have cost Toronto Gary Trent Jr., so it was a quick “no” — not that the Raptors were in the market for a contract with four years and $72 million left on it after this season.
But that Powell was eventually moved to the Clippers for what was effectively a second-round pick and an unheralded rookie explains why there was some optimism in the Raptors front office about what Dragic and a pick could bring them.
Like a lot of teams, they had hoped the Atlanta Hawks would look at the reality they are projected to have $33 million tied up in Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter next season and deciding to move Bogdanovic now would make some sense.
He would have been the kind of addition the Raptors would have jumped at, seeing the 29-year-old as short-term and long-term help. But the Hawks never budged, presumably figuring that Bogdanovic can help them this season and will be no less valuable in trade in the summer or beyond.
It was the theme of the week or the day. A lot of intriguing players you could see moving or were rumoured to be moved never budged.
The Raptors were involved in talks with the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers on a deal that would have landed the Raptors’ Talen Horton-Tucker — a long-armed 21-year-old who’s raw but has promise; the perfect Raptor, in other words — from the Lakers and Nerlens Noel, the — wait for it — super-switchy 6-foot-9 big from the Knicks.
How serious was it? “Mild,” I was told.
Before anyone gets mad about the Raptors not getting anything sexy done, don’t forget the spiralling Lakers — as desperate as any team in the league, at least on paper — didn’t move any of their readily tradeable assets.
It was the theme of the day. There were some blockbusters, but conversely, some stagnation too, with the NBA’s play-in tournament format fingered as a reason more teams weren’t more willing to sell.
The Raptors tried. They called on higher-priced items like the Sacramento Kings’ Harrison Barnes or the Detroit Pistons’ Jerami Grant, per sources, but in the current NBA smaller markets aren’t in the habit of selling off quality players that are under team control for nothing.
The Raptors had more reason to be optimistic about Eric Gordon of the Houston Rockets, Danillo Gallinari with Atlanta and hey, maybe even kicked the tires on their old friend Terrence Ross with the Orlando Magic as a value play. Each of them offered different levels of perimeter shooting, playmaking, and positional versatility, but each in areas the Raptors are short on, rather than Young, whose skills overlap to varying degrees with what they already have.
There were options the Raptors did have – Evan Fournier from the Knicks, let’s say – but didn’t deem attractive enough to owe $37 million over the next two seasons.
It seems a safe bet in the conversations the Raptors had with the Spurs that point guard Derrick White came up, but Toronto didn’t want to inherit the three years and $53 million left on his deal for a soon-to-be 28-year-old who doesn’t shoot well.
So, it comes back to Young and Achiuwa. A partial season of the veteran and the athletic prime of the gifted 22-year-old as the only tangible return for Lowry, which wouldn’t be such a big deal other than he’s the only return the Raptors have after their championship core – Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka – all left as free agents for no return at all.
That’s the way things go, in some respects. The Philadelphia 76ers weren’t going to offer a king’s ransom for Lowry at the trade deadline last year with no assurances he wanted to play there long term (he didn’t) and Miami wasn’t going to offer up a pot of gold when they knew Lowry would come to them in the summer (he did).
So, if Young plays out nicely this season and — more importantly — if Achiuwa blossoms and ends up harnessing his very evident talent and becoming an elite defender who can wreck rims on the roll and settle into open threes when required, he could end up being a nice return for the best player in franchise history.
But Achiuwa is a project and it will take time.
If he doesn’t grow into what the Raptors hope? A championship banner and plenty of memories as Lowry’s return will have to suffice.