Four low-cost players Raptors could target at trade deadline

With the NBA Trade Deadline coming up and the Raptors in the midst of an eight-game losing streak, Tim Micallef examines the state of the franchise and what decisions could define a generation of Raptors basketball for Canadian hoops fans.

You have to be a seller to be a buyer.

With the Raptors having lost nine-straight games and 11 of their last 12 (placing them 2.5 games back from a play-in spot), their position as the trade deadline approaches seems to have been firmly cemented: Jettison this season, sell high on the free-agent-to-be assets.

But nothing is ever quite so simple—the NBA is not made up solely of title contenders and lottery teams.

What to do with one of those upcoming free agents is complicated by the fact that he’s the greatest player in franchise history, and though there are reasonable arguments for both retaining and trading Kyle Lowry, the fact remains the decision as to whether he stays or goes will be rightfully his.

The resolution for Norman Powell may be easier to conclude.

Even so, if the Raptors do end up dealing Lowry or Powell or both, they’ll still be bringing back returns with the expectation of fitting them around the core trio of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, all of whom are locked into long-term deals.

Toronto may not care about the rest of this season in particular, but that doesn’t mean it’s not looking to remain and continue to grow more competitive.

So, while it may very well be the case that the Raptors are sellers at the deadline, it also may simultaneously be the case that they’re buyers, looking to legitimately shore up their roster around their formidable core via big deals or small ones.

What follows are four examples of the latter—inexpensive players the Raptors could target between now and Thursday (no matter what happens with Lowry and Powell) at positions of need to help them improve in the short- and potentially long-term future.

Richaun Holmes

In a league that holds many of them, Holmes may just be the NBA’s best-kept secret.

Part of a crowded front line in Sacramento and on the final year of an ultra-friendly $5 million deal, Holmes has been a key part of what limited success the Kings have had this season. He’s a paragon of the prototypical modern five — a legitimate floor spacer (he’s shooting 61.6 per cent on jumpers through 38 games) with a go-to floater and high-level instincts in pick-and-roll actions. His effort on the glass (particularly on the offensive end) is also admirable, and serves as an illustration of his overall spirited play.

And while his raw stats don’t necessarily leap off the page, Holmes’ impact has been undeniable. The Kings have been 9.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor (the largest margin by any player on the team who has logged significant minutes), and their second-most utilized lineup, which features him at centre surrounded by shooters, has an 12.3 net rating — good for fifth-best in the league amongst units that have played at least 200 minutes.

This isn’t to say Holmes is flawless, of course. He’s not as dynamic on the defensive end as one might like, though he tries hard, and as a result is merely a solid rim deterrent, something the Raptors may be more interested in than additional offensive firepower. His minutes have dropped slightly this season, too, due to the presences of Marvin Bagley and Hassan Whiteside, yes, but also because of his propensity to get into foul trouble (he’s second in the league with 3.9 per game), something the Raptors (first in the league with 22.2) know all too much about already.

The willingness of the Kings to actually deal Holmes could be a factor here as well. While on the surface they appear a team that should be a seller as the deadline approaches due to their sub-.500 record, reaching the play-in tournament (which includes teams with the seventh-highest through the tenth-highest winning percentages in each conference) is still a possible albeit lofty goal at this point and may hold more value to the franchise than simply bottoming out entirely.

Even so, Toronto should at least be checking the temperature here as the days go by. There are few low cost-high value big man contracts as fruitful as Holmes’.

Khem Birch

Beyond the simple fact that a Birch-Chris Boucher frontcourt would make Canada Basketball fans dizzy with jubilation, the 28-year-old’s contract is the cheapest on this list at one-year, $3 million.

Birch has made some impressive strides this season in the midst of his prime, adding a bit of a midrange game, a floater, a corner three-point shot, and some off-the-dribble flavour to his game, which up until this point has been extremely limited offensively. As a result, he’s posted career numbers across the board (particularly as a free throw shooter, jumping from 65.3 per cent last season to 72.7 per cent) while maintaining a low usage rate.

But the new additions to his game haven’t kept him from doing the things he’s best at, the things that made him attractive to NBA teams in the first place. He’s a voracious screen-setter (he’s tied for 14th in the league in screen assists) and a strong rebounder (particularly on the offensive boards, where he has a higher rebounding rate than any of his teammates playing significant minutes). He’s also a generally solid defender.

Birch has come off the bench in all but one of his 41 appearances this season so far, partly because of his positive play in the role and partly because of the glut of big men on the roster (Nikola Vucevic, Mo Bamba, Aaron Gordon, Chuma Okeke, and the injured Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu), but some of the best units the Orlando Magic have been able to muster have featured him as the lone anchoring big, a positive sign that he could potentially thrive in a more significant role with a team like Toronto.

There’s probably slightly more risk involved with a deal like this one than some of the others on this list, but considering the price tag and the fact that the Magic will definitely be a seller, it’s certainly one worth looking into.

James Ennis

The second Magic player on this list (again, they’re certain to be sellers), Ennis is tied to a mere one-year, $3.3 million deal. For what he’s provided his club with this season, that’s value worth looking into.

Like many low-usage guys, Ennis’ countable stats don’t leap off the page, but he’s had a breakout shooting season after once again stepping into a starting role in place of the injured Jonathan Isaac, draining a career-high 47.1 per cent of his looks from long range (2.0 attempts) and boasting an overall true shooting percentage of 65.1.

Add that to the gritty skills that have kept him bouncing around the league throughout his six-year career rather than out of it, and his fit becomes obvious. A sneaky cutter, good defender and brimming with consistently high energy, Ennis is a typical gap-filler, doing the dirty work that so often goes unnoticed by the untrained eye.

That doesn’t mean his value is entirely intangible, however. The Magic are 10.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than off of it, by far the best mark on a team that’s sitting second-last in the East with a 14-28 record.

Ennis wouldn’t likely be a long-term answer for the Raptors, but he does, at least, fill an immediate need as a sizeable three-and-D wing.

JaVale McGee

If the Raptors were truly talking to the Cleveland Cavaliers at any point over the past couple of months, then it may be worth reigniting that conversation and shifting it to a more affordable option than Andre Drummond.

Playing his fewest minutes (15.1) since 2017-18 due to Cleveland employing a small army of big men, McGee (who’s on a one-year, $4.2 million contract) is a well-known quantity at this stage of his career. He is still a quality rebounder who thrives in low-usage situations where he is at his best as a screener and ensuing lob threat in the pick-and-roll.

What he lacks in offensive flexibility is at least somewhat made up for by his often-underrated ability as a rim protector, where he effectively utilizes his size and athleticism to generate stops. He was a key role player for this very reason on last season’s championship Los Angeles Lakers squad, and is even holding opponents to 47.7 per cent shooting at the basket in his limited playing time with the Cavaliers, which is tied for second in the league amongst guys who have appeared in at least 30 games and who are averaging 15 or more minutes.

While certainly not the sexiest name and an inferior player to Drummond, McGee provides respectable value for the deal he’s on, and would temporarily relieve Toronto’s lack of size and rebounding woes.

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