Raptors optimistic about core, look to add pieces before trade deadline

Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam reacts with teammate Chris Boucher and Fred VanVleet during the final minute in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks. (Morry Gash/AP)

They only have an even record in an uneven season, finding themselves firmly in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack, yet the Toronto Raptors believe they have reason to be bullish as they gear up for the NBA trade deadline -- just a little more than two weeks away on Feb. 10.

From the outset, the 2021-22 season has mostly been played under the umbrella of research and development in the first year of the post-Kyle Lowry era.

But even with a steady drip of injuries and a brief COVID-19 interruption, the results have come sooner than might have been expected and -- Toronto’s 22-22 record aside -- have been encouraging.

The club has essentially ruled out trading any of who they define as their core -- Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes aren’t going anywhere next month.

Instead, the goal is to scour the market for pieces that can augment that group now and in the near future.

The Raptors are actively gauging the potential return if they attach future assets -- a first-round pick at minimum -- to their one ‘no-brainer’ trade chip: Goran Dragic’s expiring $19.4 million contract.

The Raptors aren’t committed in that direction, but they recognize it’s the most likely way they can add to their existing talent in the immediate term.

It also represents a chance to squeeze some added value out of the sign-and-trade arrangement that ended up with Lowry in Miami and the Raptors with Precious Achiuwa -- the young big whose athletic potential has yet to square with his on-court production -- and Dragic. The latter hasn’t been with the team since late November due to a personal matter that wasn’t on the horizon when they made the deal with the Heat.

The situation was a curve ball they didn’t see coming. The Raptors were optimistic Dragic could help them on the floor and maintain value as a trade piece as the season went along. But Dragic requested a personal leave to be with his family in Slovenia and now Miami, where they made their home for the previous seven years. The Raptors have respected Dragic’s wishes to keep the matter private, even though a since deleted video of Dragic working out in Miami led some to call into question Toronto’s choice to do the sign-and-trade rather than let Lowry become a free agent and use the resulting cap space to sign a player or two in free agency.

Still, if Dragic’s contract allows them to make a trade or be at the table when a bigger one goes down -- the gold standard being the Cleveland Cavaliers getting Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince for the price of a late first-round pick and Dante Exum’s expiring contract when they helped facilitate the Brooklyn Nets’ deal for James Harden last season -- the Raptors will look shrewd in the end.

All of which makes it more likely than not the Raptors do something at the trade deadline. Once it passes, Dragic’s deal holds no value to them as an asset. Sure, it’s generally easier to make roster moves in the summer, but in this case the Raptors have clear needs -- quality depth in almost any shape or form for one of the NBA’s thinnest rosters -- and are deep enough in the playoff mix that they might as well fortify themselves. Doing nothing and finishing 11th -- missing the play-in tournament and landing low in the lottery -- would be a hard one to explain.

The Raptors -- for good reason -- have little interest in a short-term fix, and nor should they. But adding some quality with some team control -- either a player with contract term, or a restricted free agent would be a priority.

Can they pull something off? Maybe.

“There’s some quality bigs available and some bench guys,” said one league executive. “A number that big that’s expiring has value because there are always going to be teams that have contracts, they’d rather not have or want to open up cap space or have a player that doesn’t fit into long-term plans.”

The urgency should be there. Team pillars VanVleet and Siakam aren’t exactly aging out, but they each turn 28 before the end of the season so it makes sense to leverage what promises to be their productivity peaks, particularly given Siakam is only under contract for two more seasons after this one, while VanVleet has one more year and a player option in 2023-24.

Add in that Gary Trent Jr. has only one more year of team control and Anunoby two and the Raptors don’t necessarily have the luxury of slow, organic growth before they will need to face some potentially challenging decisions regarding their key players.

The good news is that by all indications, the Raptors like what they have, and even been pleasantly surprised at how the key elements of their core have performed.

There were some question marks heading into the season.

As deserving as VanVleet is of a spot on the Eastern Conference all-star team next month, he’s only a year removed from the Raptors being his only serious suitor in free agency. How he would manage as the Raptors' do-everything guard without Lowry to share the load or lead the way was an unknown.

He’s delivered above and beyond expectations.

Similarly, Siakam was a question mark after a woeful end to the 2019-20 season, some rocky stretches last season and off-season shoulder surgery.

It took some time but since Dec. 1, Siakam is averaging 23 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists on 48.8 per cent shooting. With a little luck, he could be an all-star, too.

Anunoby? Before missing 16 of 17 games beginning mid-November, he had a 13-game stretch where he averaged 21.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and shot 40 per cent from three on more than seven attempts a game, giving every impression he was going to build on some of his impressive offensive metrics from last season. He’s shot poorly since he returned to the floor -- just 31.1 per cent from three in January so far -- but based on his track record he’s far more likely to turn that around than not.

It almost goes without saying, but the Raptors remain bullish on the upside of their fifth-year forward.

As for Barnes, even their most optimistic projections didn’t have the Florida State product able to impact games consistently as he has this quickly in his rookie season. That he’s able to contribute to winning so soon in his career is another factor that might nudge the Raptors into action.

They’re pleased with the 23-year-old Trent Jr. so far and have taken note in recent weeks that Chris Boucher seems to have fully grasped that his role as a rim-runner, shot blocker, possession extender and occasional three-point shooter off the bench.

Boucher’s expiring $7-million contract could be useful in trade talks, but the Raptors won’t give up on the Bird rights they hold for nothing. They also hold out hope that Achiuwa can continue to grow in increments in his second NBA season. There’s no rush to move his rookie deal.

But picks, Dragic’s deal, second-year guard Malachi Flynn and nearly anyone else on the roster will like be options to add to deals.

As for what is available?

“There’s not too many secrets out there,” said one Eastern Conference GM.

Atlanta, Indiana, Portland, Sacramento and maybe San Antonio are teams that could move the market, with the prospect of Philadelphia finally moving Ben Simmons the looming domino. Calls will be made to Detroit and New Orleans.

The Raptors' needs?

Quality in almost any form. A big that can challenge at the rim on either end; some shooting to spread to floor; some playmaking to lighten the load for VanVleet.

Toronto would love to add a shot-blocking, rim-running big like Indiana’s Myles Turner, but so would several teams.

Does an expiring deal, a future pick and some bits and pieces make that happen? That seems optimistic. The Raptors aren’t going to trade Anunoby for him.

Would San Antonio be willing to part with former Raptor Jakob Poeltl, who can’t shoot but screens wonderfully and has a presence at the rim on both ends while being one of the better switching seven-footers out there. Would they add in veteran sharpshooter Doug McDermott? Both are under contract; it wouldn’t be too hard to make the money work.

The Spurs rarely trade in-season, but at some point they’ll need to play for the future more than the present, it would stand to reason. Teams have been talking with the Pistons about Canadians Kelly Olynyk and Cory Joseph, who could add veteran depth, some playmaking and lineup versatility the Raptors could use.

Fantasy trades are fun, but regardless of the Raptors' needs, it’s worth remembering that they will almost certainly looking to stay under the luxury tax cap so they can get what is expected to be a $10-15-million windfall distributed to non-taxpaying teams, which would make up some of the revenue they lost out on without having crowds allowed at Scotiabank Arena. As well, most -- if not all -- teams the Raptors could potentially deal with will be looking to do the same; the money must work, in other words.

But within those parameters the Raptors promise to be active between now and Feb. 10, and given where they stand and the status of their roster, they should be.

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