Raptors Roundtable: Five big questions at the three-quarter mark

Toronto Raptors guard Gary Trent Jr. (33) starts the break out against the Golden State Warriors during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 2, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

The Toronto Raptors have played 54 games and have just 18 more to go before the end of their regular season.

With the club sitting on a 21-33 record and in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, it’s pretty safe to say that the Raptors have disappointed this season.

Despite pre-season expectations they would finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference — with many believing it a foregone conclusion that they would play in the second round of the playoffs — this club is now fighting for its life just to make the play-in tournament.

Granted, there’ve been circumstances outside of the Raptors’ control, such as getting hit by the injury bug, undergoing an extended bout with COVID, and relocating to Tampa, Fla., all of which help point to why they’ve performed as poorly as they have this season. But at the same time, their record is what it is, and this is the situation that’s in front of them.

The good news for the team is that with 18 games to go, there’s still a chance they can reach the post-season, sitting just two games back of the Chicago Bulls for 10th place in the Eastern Conference.

Looking ahead to this final quarter of their season, Sportsnet assembled a group of its basketball experts to answer five big questions around the team.

The Raptors haven’t been in this situation in a long time – on the outside of the playoff picture looking in as they hit the stretch run. What is the best- and worst-case scenario from here on out for them?

Craig Battle, senior editor: If this team remembers to play even halfway decent down the stretch of close games, it’s well within the realm of possibility that they make the play-in tournament, and then earn a first-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets or Philadelphia 76ers. But that’s where the run would stop.

At that point, you’d be looking at a middling draft pick and some big roster holes to address ahead of next season. So the best-case scenario would include some positive signs from core players and young guys down the stretch – but not a lot of winning. That combo would maximize the chances of a top-three game changer in this draft.

Writing off this weird season as a blip will be easier than it would be during most years.

Donnovan Bennett, staff writer and digital host: The best-case scenario is they get a good look at their young talent and get a top-five lottery pick.

The worst case would be they stumble into a play-in game only for the fool’s gold of getting hot and winning a few games for the right to be blown out by the Nets in the first round.

Michael Grange, senior basketball insider: Best-case scenario is an honourable slide to the bottom five and the lottery odds that come with it. Even better would be bottom three and a 14 per cent chance at No.1, but that would be hard to do with honour.

Worst case? A miracle run that gets them outside the draft lottery only to get swept in the first round by Brooklyn or Philly.

Steven Loung, NBA editor: I’m going to cop out a little here and say that the Raptors are in a win-win situation right now.

This is because, should the team go on a bit of a run and make it into the play-in tournament and reach the post-season, then that’s mission accomplished as far as goals the team has for itself. If that doesn’t happen, however, and the team remains stuck in the doldrums or slides even further down, then the younger players on the roster will continue to benefit from valuable experience, and a top-10 pick or better in this year’s draft would be gravy.

No matter what happens with the Raptors this season, it feels, to me, they’ll be in good shape next season and beyond.

Eric Smith, Raptors play-by-play announcer on Sportsnet 590 The FAN: Best-case scenario: They make the playoffs via the play-in.

Worst-case scenario: Injuries and/or mental fatigue and complacency creeps in.

Gary Trent Jr. has played well after a slow start to his Raptors career. How important is he to the Raptors' future both short- and long-term?

Battle: Extremely. He’s the perfect age to fit with the core of this team, he’s five or six years from his prime, and he’s shown a clear gamer’s mentality in his early days with the team.

It’s actually kind of jarring how seamlessly he’s taken up the slack of the Raptors’ attack alongside an otherwise rotating cast of characters. Now the front office just needs to sign him at a price that allows them to keep building moving forward.

Bennett: Outside of the big-three young core he’s the most important piece to the future because he gives them a player with a high ceiling at a low cost.

He’s already hit a game winner, has recorded a career-high 44-point game, pledged his allegiance to Canada in a Blue Jays jersey and been about that action when it came time to have his teammates back during an altercation. He’s on pace to be the next Raptor to be name dropped in a Drake song, which is saying something since most Raptors fans didn’t know who he was a month ago.

Grange: Important in the sense that if they get get near-Powell offence with better-than-Powell defence for maybe a third or half of what Powell was going to cost. That’s important to build a better, deeper team.

Loung: While we still have to wait and see before we know for sure, it’s increasingly looking like the Raptors have come out the winners in the Norman Powell trade.

Still only 22 years old, Trent’s Raptors legend is just starting, and it already includes the second-highest plus-minus mark in NBA history, a game-winner and a 44-point outing on historic efficiency. Stepping out of the shadows of Lillard and McCollum, Trent may already be the Raptors’ best scorer, and he gets it done at all three levels.

He’s vitally important to the Raptors’ future, in my opinion, and during the off-season the Raptors will have to find a way to deftly navigate his restricted free agency ensuring to not low-ball him, while not breaking the bank, either.

Smith: I'd argue that two games doesn’t constitute a “slow start” and, with that said, he’s very important.

He’s a young piece who’s very good on both ends and he won’t break your bank or hamper your flexibility to improve your roster in other ways as well. We’re starting to see that he can score a lot more and do many more things than perhaps he showed behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in Portland.

Looking back at the trade deadline, how would you grade the Raptors’ front-office performance? Is there any move that should – or shouldn’t – have been made?

Battle: Piggybacking on the discussion above: Even given the fact that it meant giving up Powell, getting Trent and his restricted-free-agent status has to be an “A.” But, if Kyle Lowry was as amenable to a trade to a contender as it seemed, not doing so feels like a huge miss.

The stretch run here sure doesn’t seem like a valuable use of his time, and I can’t imagine it’s going to make him want to return. Getting him to a situation where he could compete for a title and getting something in return seemed like a win-win on trade-deadline day, and it seems doubly so now that the team has continued to struggle.

Bennett: TBD. If they re-sign Lowry at a team-friendly deal and/or if Powell makes crazy money in free agency, then it’s an “A.” If Lowry walks for nothing, though, it’s a failure.

Either way, there was no player or trade available that was going to categorically change the complexion of this team. The trade deadline was all about setting the franchise up for the off-season and beyond.

Grange: I thought they did very well. The Powell trade looks well-executed and not trading Lowry into a very soft market keeps options open for summer.

Loung: I would give the Raptors a “B+.”

As I mentioned before, I really liked the trade with the Blazers for Trent, and believe he’s a massive part of the Raptors’ future.

With that said, I’m only giving a “B+” because we don’t know yet what the fate of Lowry is.

There were certainly offers on the table for him at the deadline, but in the end Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and Co. opted to keep him because what they were seeing wasn’t good enough to them. That’s fair, particularly because the team’s stated goal has always been to make the playoffs this season and not to tank. But likely having to go through this whole thing again in the summer – with the prospect that Lowry will leave, meaning the Raptors get nothing in return – is a major pain in the ass for the team.

Smith: It's impossible to grade them on what they didn’t do because we don’t really know what legit offers were out there or what they truly did or didn’t turn down. I am, and always will be, fine with making no deal versus a bad deal or a panic deal. So, based on what they did do, I think they came out very well.

As noted at the time, Toronto got a player in Trent that is younger and cheaper than Powell and can do many of the same things that Powell did for the Raptors. This was a rare win-win because Portland got a heck of a player, too. And, respectfully, I think the deals for Terence Davis and Matt Thomas were negligible.

It looks like Malachi Flynn is rounding into form right now. What have you seen from him that’s contributed to this level of success?

Battle: A lot of what you heard about him on draft night – he’s mature, composed and unafraid of the stage. If he can maintain this level and improve in the system the same way players like Fred VanVleet and Powell have, he’s going to make the potential (probable?) departure of Lowry a lot easier to take.

Bennett: In a word: Confidence.

He looks like he belongs because he clearly believes that he does. Taking tough shots unapologetically, taking the challenge of attempting to guard bigger perimeter players, making sure his teammates are on their correct assignments, Flynn doesn’t come off as a substitute teacher when filling in for the star point guards ahead of him on the depth chart. Flynn’s intangibles are why he’s had tangible success.

Grange: Fantastic lateral quickness defensively, more shiftiness going to the basket than I first thought and some range in finishing when he gets there. The kid is good.

Loung: I think it mainly comes down to opportunity.

Flynn has been buried behind Lowry and VanVleet on the depth chart, and even when the G League season rolled around he didn’t get much of a chance to get settled in there before he was recalled on an emergency basis.

Now, however, with the injuries to Lowry and VanVleet, Flynn’s appeared to have found his footing, and those traits that were heard about in his scouting report when he was first drafted are becoming apparent. He’s adept at running the pick and roll, competes hard on the defensive end and, most importantly, he’s absolutely fearless.

The confidence Flynn has in his own abilities has landed him and the team in trouble at times, but for the most part it’s the main reason why he’s played so well of late.

Smith: Playing time, period.

In a normal season (and world) he would have likely spent at least half the season with the 905. That would have helped his confidence and growth as well. But this in-game, thrust-into-the-fire experience with the main club has been and will continue to be invaluable.

He doesn't look out of place on the defensive end, and his comfort with his shot and playmaking is only getting better with every game that passes. Having VanVleet and Lowry in his ear – tutoring him and guiding him – in practices and games is an incredible asset for Flynn.

We just finished the NCAA Tournament, so let’s do a hypothetical: The Raptors end up in the lottery, and luck into the first-overall pick. Who would you draft in that slot, and why?

Battle: I think the answer is Cade Cunningham, simply because his kind of true-superstar upside is so rare. But I could see the front office having long conversations about Evan Mobley – who compares favourably to the great Chris Bosh at this point of his development, though he’s already more of a rim protector.

Bennett: Jalen Suggs. He’s a Raptor already. Tough, smart, plays at his own pace, willing to defend.

Suggs has won at every level and in every sport as he was Mr. Basketball and Mr. Football in the state of Minnesota in high school. Is he a positional fit? No, not quite, but a franchise-changing five isn’t in this draft class. Besides, the league is about acquiring talent and character and then figuring it out later, and Suggs has both.

Grange: Cunningham. Can’t pass on that size as a primary ball-handler, and IQ translates quickly, usually.

Loung: While Cunningham has all the measurables, being a six-foot-eight point guard with athleticism and some shooting ability, and Mobley would probably be the best fit for the Raptors – in addition to just being a phenomenal-looking big man prospect – the player I’d take first overall is Suggs.

Give me the kid who, as a freshman, was the best player on what was the best team in the NCAA until the championship game, and hit one of the all-time college shots to send his team to the national-championship game.

Suggs is a six-foot-four, 205-pound athletic specimen with a football background that comes out in just how aggressively he wants to attack the basket. And of all the prospects out there, he has something that you can’t really put onto paper. He has a special, magical “it” factor to rise to the occasion and put his team on his back to will them to victory.

That attribute isn’t often seen, and when it does pop up, to pass on it just because some charts favour other guys would be foolhardy to me.

Smith: Cunningham. A combo guard with size, athleticism, defence, scoring, rebounding and more? Sign me up. I never (or rarely) want to draft for need — I want to draft for talent, the best player available. So If I have the No. 1 pick as of mid-April, I believe the best overall talent is Cunningham.

We’ll see if that changes by the time the draft rolls around, because there’s no denying the appeal of guys like Mobley and Suggs as well.

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