As buyers or sellers, Raptors face hard choices with trade season approaching

Toronto Raptors' president Masai Ujiri, left, and general manager Bobby Webster watch as players speak to media at Scotiabank Arena during the NBA basketball team's Media Day. (Cole Burston/CP)

In a perfect world, the Toronto Raptors would be making decisions with more information and a clearer direction.

With more than a quarter of the season finished, they would have lineup data and a win-loss record that could help them navigate what promises to be a potentially turbulent next two months in the NBA.

But they don't have a choice. Decisions – even the choice to stand pat – will soon be required.

The league’s unofficial "trade season" opens up a week from now, on Dec. 15, which is when free agents signed in the summer can be included in deals. The trade deadline is Feb. 10.

But chatter has already picked up as teams assess what they need, what they want, where they want to go and how they are going to get there.

The Raptors have been hosting their basketball operations staff this week for meetings, both to build a foundation for draft preparation as well as to gather intel on potential opportunities within the league as sands shift.

The first crack in the dyke took place when the Portland Trail Blazers fired general manager Neil Olshey on Friday after an internal investigation reportedly revealed a toxic workplace culture.

The minute that happened, league sources said, the only questions were when the Trail Blazers would put their roster into play and for what purpose: Tear it down in a post-Damian Lillard rebuild or move major pieces, such as CJ McCollum, in a last-ditch effort to build a title contender around their franchise icon.

It’s not clear yet if the interim general manager – former assistant Joe Cronin – would have the trust of ownership to make franchise shaping moves or if a new GM would have to be hired first.

Reports Tuesday that the fading Indiana Pacers could be putting their collection of good-if-not-great young veterans on the street after years trapped in the middle-of-the Eastern Conference pack wasn’t a surprise to most front offices across the league, the Raptors included. Indiana has been in no-man’s land for years and, after a slow start and with a new set of eyes in head coach Rick Carlisle on board, it appears that they’ve concluded that their best way forward is to take a step back.

In short order, two playoff-calibre rosters stocked with a long list of good players on digestible contracts were put into play.

That these developments will likely shake loose the Ben Simmons logjam in Philadelphia could lubricate trade discussions even further.

It’s not hard to know what would be appealing to the Raptors if the plan is to augment their core.

They’ve been lacking a quality centre since the two they had – Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol – left in free agency prior to the 2020-21 season. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the Raptors were 28th in defensive rebounding last season and are 28th again this year. It’s not the be-all-and-end-all of metrics – Toronto was just 18th in their championship season – but handing out additional possessions for a team with a margin for error as slim as Toronto's is no formula for long-term success. That the Raptors are 25th in opponents’ field goal percentage in the restricted area is another cause for concern.

And at the other end, wouldn’t it be nice to have a big man who could – in the absence of other important skills – at least, say, finish lobs?

It’s enough to make a head coach wistful: “It adds a ton,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse about what a lob threat can do for an offence. “It adds a ton to us because I think that that always puts [the defence] in a decision of are … you’re probably not going to give so much help on the driving guard that’ll give Freddie [VanVleet] some more chances or Gary [Trent Jr.] or whoever's coming off there. And it also obviously should open up some more corner threes too.”

And could the Raptors use some point guard help? The fact that they are – per Cleaning The Glass – 18.1 points worse, per 100 possessions, in the rare minutes Nurse dares to sit VanVleet is about as revealing as it gets.

But what they don’t know for sure is how much their existing core is worth investing in.

Should the Raptors roll their sleeves up and see what kind of opportunities might be available if a buyer’s market materializes? Or should they prioritize futures with an eye towards building around 20-year-old Scottie Barnes and perhaps put some of their core pieces into play – cue the Pascal Siakam rumour mill.

It’s all a guess at the minute, even after 24 games in which the Raptors have gone 11-13.

Due to injuries, VanVleet, Siakam and Anunoby – by contract value the Raptors' core – have played just 70 minutes together, while lineups with those three and Barnes have played 52 minutes, and lineups featuring those four and Gary Trent Jr. have played only 50.

All of those samples were taken in the brief interlude after Siakam came back from off-season shoulder surgery and before Anunoby suffered a hip-pointer that has kept him out for nine games and counting.

And given Anunoby and Khem Birch (knee) – a constant in most of the Raptors' most productive lineups – remain out for “the foreseeable future,” as Nurse put it Tuesday in advance of the Raptors hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday, there likely won’t be a flood of data any time soon.

But opportunity knocks. All of a sudden, three very good bigs could be available.

On the Pacers, Myles Turner would almost be "plug-and-play" as a 25-year-old seven-footer who can shoot threes (39.5 per cent this season on good volume); rebound well (9.3/36 minutes) and terrorize opponents at the rim, as he’s poised to lead the NBA in shot-blocking for the third time four seasons.

His teammate, Domantas Sabonis – also 25 – was the only player besides NBA MVP Nikola Jokic to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists while shooting better than 50 per cent from the floor last year. He doesn’t offer the rim protection Turner does, but he’s a more complete player and someone an offence can run through.

On the Blazers, there’s Jusuf Nurkic, a pending free agent whose $12-million contract could be fit into any number of deals and – given he ranks fourth in the NBA in rebound percentage – would give the Raptors an element they sorely need on the glass. He’s skilled offensively and one of the most imposing screen setters in the league.

Could the Raptors trade for him with an eye towards using his bird rights to sign him in the off-season?

But the question remains: What choices do the Raptors want to make, and what direction do they want to go in?

Another issue?

What trade value do they have on their roster, and how much future draft equity would they be willing to part with, knowing that those kinds of deals can only be done once.

Would a package centred around Trent Jr. (who signed a three-year deal for $54 million in the summer) and a future first be enough to convince the Pacers to part ways with Turner, who has one more year left on a deal paying him $18 million?

Would the Raptors be able to find a fit with the Trail Blazers for Nurkic if they decide to make a move there?

And what use would Toronto make of Goran Dragic’s expiring deal, worth $19.5 million, if there was a bigger deal taking shape?

These are the questions that have been on the back burner even during what has been a fragmented season to date. They’ll be on the front burner soon enough.

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