The Toronto Raptors won’t be a materially different team at 3:01 pm on Thursday.
But they might be a better one.
That’s the outline general manager Bobby Webster laid out as he met with the media with the NBA trade deadline approaching.
The Raptors are the hottest team in the Eastern Conference, having won six straight games and gone 15-6 since most of their rotation players returned to full health and collectively recovered from a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak.
It appears that their experiment of playing big across their lineup without a traditional centre -- trusting secondary ball-handling duties to a pair of six-foot-eight power-forward/point guard hybrids in Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes, with Fred VanVleet oscillating between point guard and spot-up shooting duties and everyone else playing nearly interchangeably -- will continue.
They’ve been approached to break up their core -- the Indiana Pacers were nosing around Pascal Siakam, according to league sources, before trading their star big man Domantas Sabonis to the Sacramento Kings -- but for now Toronto is inclined to keep it intact. The Raptors reported interest in San Antonio Spurs centre Jakob Poeltl -- who played the first three years of his career in Toronto -- was real, but the Spurs weren’t budging from one of the better defensive centres in the league -- not for expiring contracts and a mid-round first.
So, the Raptors will keep looking for a rotation-quality player that can add to what they have.
“Obviously with the players [that] are growing and playing together I think [that] suggests less of a major move,” said Webster. “[It] doesn’t mean we don’t get those calls and we’re not talking about them, but I think the good vibes of the current group hopefully bodes well for the future.”
But the Raptors are in a unique position to add to that group which probably includes as many as seven players -- the five regular starters along with Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa, versatile, athletic bigs who compliment the style the Raptors want to play and who Toronto remains enthusiastic about.
With Goran Dragic’s expiring $19.4 million contract and all their own first-round picks, Toronto is hopeful they can add a player that makes them better for this season and into the near future.
Dragic’s contract is an asset that expires in value on Thursday, lending an urgency to the Raptors pursuit of an upgrade.
“I don’t know about [having] to [make a trade] but I think it's a unique piece,” said Webster. “There's not many of them around the league. So, you get to be in conversations that you typically aren't."
And unlike last season when the trade discussion centred around Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell – franchise mainstays at that point – deals structured around Dragic’s contract and picks are simpler; no one’s feelings are going to be hurt and any kind of positive return should provide more than Dragic – who has been away from the team on a personal leave since November – or a mid-first round pick can give Toronto.
“This year it's a bit more streamlined in a sense,” said Webster. “You kind of know what the major deal is, you know when you can add to it, sure, here's some bigger deals or smaller deals, but it does make it a little bit simpler to kind of examine the team and realize that you're not moving a major rotational piece that's currently on the team.”
The Raptors are also open to taking on future contract obligations for the right player, said Webster.
The Raptors owners – Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – have had their revenues impacted for three straight seasons now due to the pandemic, but there have been no discussions about having to cut back spending or to make short-term moves to chase near-term playoff gates, said Webster.
But if there are players available with a year or two left on their contracts after the current season that suit what the Raptors are trying to do?
“Those are exactly the type of deals we’re looking at,” said Webster. “Obviously having most of the core under contract here, it helps us there. We definitely have the flexibility [next season] and even beyond. You don’t want to play the game of game planning too many years ahead, because a lot of things can change in the interim. Definitely we do have some flexibility over the next year or two.”
Finding the right fit will be the challenge. The Raptors are largely agnostic, positionally. Depth has been an issue at times this season; their lack of interior size means they have to game-plan heavily when they do end up matching up with some of the league’s bigger and better centres and secondary playmaking is at a premium after VanVleet and Siakam.
They’re not targeting a single type of player. They’re open to improving in any area.
“By no means do we think that this is this is the final look [for this team],” said Webster. “And I think that's why this week's important for us if we can find a player that would complement that group, whether it's positionally or even continues to look like one of those players… do we need another one of those multi-positional wings? Do we need a more traditional big? Or do we need another ball handler?
“And if you could solve all of those with one you would, but you can’t. So… can you combine two of those into one player? Do you need to go get two players, or are you content to just let this thing grow and maybe one of the guys off the bench, one of the young development players turns into that?"
The market has moved earlier than expected, with the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Pelicans all making deals well in advance of the deadline.
Have any deals so far affected the marketplace?
“I think the deals that have happened it's kind of what the league expected to happen out of those deals,” said Webster. “I don't feel like the value proposition has changed for many teams. They're still interested in the deals or they're still not interested.”
The Raptors remain interested in moving Dragic’s expiring contract and are willing to add future draft assets to do it in a way they can bring back a player that can help them now and in the future.
Dragic should keep his phone handy.
“I think [he] kinda knows the game we’re in and the writing on the wall…,” said Webster. “… a fairly large expiring contract… it greases deals in the NBA which is the name of the game this week.”