Rebuild or retool? What ‘patience’ means in new Raptors era 

The Ringer's Seerat Sohi joins The Raptors Show to discuss the path the Raptors are heading down and why she believes the team is looking at more of a retool rather then a rebuild after trading away Siakam and Anunoby.

In nearly 11 years with Masai Ujiri at the helm of the Raptors, there have only been three brief instances in which the idea of a rebuild felt possible. 

The first, famously, was following the trades of Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay, when Kyle Lowry’s bags were packed for New York. That trade would have brought back at least one decent prospect and one first-round pick. Both spiritually and on the court, it would have ushered in far more losing and a gaze toward the long term. That was Ujiri taking over a situation he hadn’t built, and as fate would have it, the intermediate moves clicked in such a way that the more drastic ideas were never truly revisited. 

The second was when the pandemic forced the Raptors to play a season out of Tampa, a thoroughly unenjoyable situation that, eventually, saw the Raptors punt on victories in a lost season. While they never quite bottomed out — they finished with the seventh-worst record in the league, hardly the “tank” in Tampa Tank — they got some good lottery fortune, smartly selected Scottie Barnes against consensus, and returned to Toronto the following season ready to compete once again. 

The third came Thursday. 

After trading Pascal Siakam and, to a lesser extent, OG Anunoby, the Raptors have firmly picked a lane after years of hoping to both win and develop at the same time. They are hoping to win eventually, but they have conceded that to get there, they’ll need to make a strategic retreat. There is no ambiguity in dealing the team’s longest-tenured players, their last ties to the 2019 championship (save for Chris Boucher), and pieces that are several years older than Scottie Barnes, all while acquiring younger players and draft picks. 

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There remains ambiguity, however, in whether this marks the beginning of a rebuild by the standard definition or more of a retooling. Ujiri himself pushed aside the generally accepted idea of rebuilding, not-so-subtly suggesting that the team won’t have the appetite for a five-year rebuild that some teams struggle to escape the wilderness of.

There are a few factors that could dissuade the Raptors from a full tear-down, including the front office’s own lack of interest in years of being uncompetitive. 

Ujiri’s emphasis on patience was new, or at least new in this framing. 

Not long ago, patience had to do with letting the post-championship core, with Barnes added, continue to learn to play together and develop. After overperforming in 2021-22, they were given room to continue growing, and an ill-advised 2023 deadline move surrendered a first-round pick and two second-round picks for Jakob Poeltl, perceived as a sort-of “speed up” button for a process that was stalling and testing patience. The Raptors could have continued chasing bad money with good, but the moves of the last few weeks suggest a willingness to walk away from the table with chips still in hand. 

On Thursday, patience was framed as necessary in a few regards. 

Primarily, the assets the Raptors have amassed are all oriented toward the future, not the now. Siakam has already been an All-NBA player and an All-Star, and even if you have questions about the back end of his next contract, he is a very good player right now. Anunoby has contributed to winning since his first day on the job and is ready to drive playoff winning immediately. What they received back are pieces that will deliver their primary value later. 

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The Anunoby trade prioritized players who can help now, yes, but the acquisition of Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett is about what they can be over the next several years, not the next several games. The Siakam trade prioritized draft equity, with three first-round picks coming back that may or may not be used. And even if the Raptors do use all three picks, they are unlikely to impact winning for a couple of years. (Exceptions do happen.)

Bruce Brown is closer to Anunoby and Siakam in timeline terms, but his tenure with the team could be brief, and he’s not as good as those players overall. Jordan Nwora and Kira Lewis Jr. are fliers as potential bench depth, and while I like the 22-year-old Lewis’s chances of bouncing back after a lot of time lost to an ACL tear, we’re talking about an audition for a 2024-25 bench job. 

And so the Raptors are not a very good team after losing two of their best players, even with good players coming back. They can be fun, offence-first and novel in the near term, but they are worse today than they were at the start of the season, and that is something there will need to be patience with. This isn’t a fanbase that’s watched a lot of bad basketball in the last decade-plus, and the realities of a multi-year retooling could be trying. 

Ujiri and head coach Darko Rajakovic also used Thursday to center patience around Barnes. Barnes unquestionably has the keys now, and he’ll be empowered at both ends of the floor, and off of it, to be this team’s driving force. He will not become a superstar overnight, and development for even the best prospects is rarely linear. A larger role with more defensive attention and more overall responsibility will have ups and downs. Those are necessary for Barnes to grow into who can become, but the Raptors warned that who he can become is not who he’ll be tomorrow; his dramatic third-year jump has clarified the future direction, not hot-shotted it to be the present. 

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Barnes’ response to the expanded responsibility could be the primary factor in dictating whether this is a shorter reorienting of the Raptors around him or the start of a more deliberate rebuilding. 

Siakam going to Indiana provides an interesting example. Tyrese Haliburton is only about a year and a half older than Barnes. A team’s contention window opens quickly when a potential star becomes a star, and the Pacers felt Siakam’s age difference was less important than Haliburton’s readiness to drive a winner right now. If Barnes takes a similar leap, alongside improvements from Barrett and Quickley and a few savvy additions via draft or free agency, and Toronto could be in Indiana’s situation again soon, using their restocked asset chest to add to a potential winning core soon. 

Even if Barnes’ development into a top guy takes longer, or stalls at any point, the Raptors won’t have the luxury of a drawn-out rebuild. Every star rookie eventually takes the rookie-scale extension their team can offer them, and Barnes and the Raptors will surely come to that agreement this offseason. That deal — which allows the Raptors to offer Barnes significantly more than any other team, and do so earlier, with escalators potentially up to a rookie supermax if Barnes achieves certain thresholds – means Barnes will be under contract with the Raptors for his first nine seasons. This is the NBA, though, and all the max rookie-scale extension really does is start the clock ticking on a team needing to show they can win with that player. 

Ujiri highlighted the flexibility that these trades provide the Raptors. This is a different type of flexibility than what the Raptors have emphasized the last few years, which was a flexibility of direction – win now, or trade pieces to win later. Their path is now chosen, their new flexibility is about ways to add to the Barnes-led core.  

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For example, Ujiri suggested the team is unlikely to use all three (or even four) of their picks in the 2024 draft. Those picks can be used in trade for players on a quicker timeline than a rookie might be, or can be consolidated into one higher pick rather than a few lower-pick fliers, or they could be rolled into draft assets further down the line. Holding a number of mid-sized veteran salaries, including Brown’s, gives the Raptors trade flexibility from a cap maneuvering standpoint, too, along with a path to significant cap space this summer. 

None of those paths are surefire ways back to contending. The young players they are building with have to continue to improve. The next trade, or signing, or draft pick will have to deliver better value than what the team’s returned the last few years. But there are more tools to add now, and the timeline they’re focused on is much clearer now than before.  

If you want to put a timeline on it, maybe it’s the 2025-26 season for a return to playoff relevancy. That gives them two deadlines and two offseasons to continue building around what they already have. Any earlier than that and they risk pushing in too early, committing to a core that isn’t there yet like they did in 2023. Any later and they take on the risks of any extended time in the middle tier of the league, with impatience setting in for fans, the front office and key players. Timeline and roster-building agility are great only if you can nail the timing. 

So no, this isn’t a rebuild in the traditional sense. A retooling may undersell the exact timeline at play. A reorienting, maybe? Whatever the term you choose, it’s going to come with a necessary level of patience. Elite prospects don’t become superstars in a snap, young supporting players take time to develop into playoff-level complementary pieces, and cap space and draft picks are potentially fictional. 

It’s a new kind of patience and a new kind of flexibility. It is also, very necessarily, a commitment to a direction and timeline, the absence of which clouded every move the last two years.

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