As Raptors push forward with rebuild, patience will be essential

Toronto Raptors general manager Bobby Webster speaks on the team's trade deadline acquisitions, discussing why acquisitions like Kelly Olynyk and Ochai Agbaji are part of a multi-year plan to build around All-Star Scottie Barnes.

TORONTO — If you are of the belief the Toronto Raptors’ path back to competitive relevancy is going to be lit by a series of high-arching, light-standard smashing home runs that bring everyone to their feet, well, think again.

Welcome to the rebuild. There will be patience.

The NBA trade deadline came and went on Thursday afternoon and from a Raptors’ perspective it came and went mostly as expected. Some of the names and teams involved weren’t exactly those that might have been anticipated, but the thrust of the deals was consistent with the options they had in front of them.

Instead of home runs, we’re talking singles, moving across the runner, a sacrifice fly. Every additional base counts. How long until it all adds up to a result everyone is pleased with? Well, that could take some time.

On the whole, the Raptors were the NBA’s busiest team in the trade market and traded the two best players. They just did it a few weeks ago when they traded OG Anunoby (along with Precious Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn) to the New York Knicks on Dec. 30 and Pascal Siakam to the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 17.

Those were significant, franchise-shifting trades. By definition, the moves remaining before the 3 p.m. ET deadline on Thursday afternoon were smaller and not as splashy. Maybe they add up to something, but at the very least they move the Raptors a little further along a rebuild that can’t be rushed.

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The Raptors’ first deal saw two players who weren’t in head coach Darko Rajakovic’s rotation, and what will be a very late first-round pick in June, sent to the Utah Jazz for Kelly Olynyk, the multiskilled Canadian big man, and Ochai Agbaji, an athletic shooting guard who was the 14th pick in the 2022 draft. Agbaji projects as a defender and three-point shooter who is still young enough at 23 to have some upside.

Then the Raptors traded point guard Dennis Schroder and veteran forward Thad Young to the Brooklyn Nets for Spencer Dinwiddie who was then promptly waived (as was Young by Brooklyn), a move that removes $13 million from the Raptors’ balance sheet for next season.

The thinking there was pretty simple. Schroder wasn’t exactly thrilled with being relegated to the bench on a rebuilding team after coming to the Raptors in the off-season with high hopes of starting on and leading a playoff team. The Nets had similarly run out of patience with Dinwiddie and were willing to take on Schroder’s contract so they would have some competent point guard play. Young — a well-liked and well-respected veteran with the Raptors — was added to the deal to balance out the money.

Not exactly glamour stuff.

“We did our heavy lifting about a month ago, so I feel like this trade deadline we cleaned up a lot of things and we addressed some of the things we talked about after the OG and Pascal trades,” said Raptors general manager Bobby Webster. “We were able to turn one of the picks into a good young player in Ochai and we got a steadying presence in Kelly. Financially, we were able to gain some more flexibility this summer with the Dennis trade. I think the heavy lifting was done this December-January and this deadline continued on that path, if that makes sense.”

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Does it make sense? It’s rare that any given trade or any series of trades can be fairly assessed in the short term. I’m of the opinion that the Raptors hurt their leverage in waiting as long as they did to trade Siakam, but if Agbaji — who the Raptors acquired using one of the three first-round picks Toronto got from Indiana — turns into a solid long-term contributor, the trade will look a lot better.

At the very least it looks like the Raptors added two rotation players in that trade without sending anyone from their current rotation to Utah — Porter Jr. will go down as having one of the least impactful two-year stints in franchise history, and Lewis never suited up for the team since being included as part of the Siakam trade — which is always positive.

Olynyk is in the last year of a three-year, $37 million contract and is extension eligible, so the Raptors likely already have sounded him out on what his expectations would be for a new deal, and feel good about being able to keep him. He’s about to turn 33 and is in his 11th season but is still playing at a high level and would be a seamless fit in Rajakovic’s system as a smart-passing, smooth-shooting big. He’s averaging 8.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 20 minutes a game this season while shooting 56 per cent from the floor and 43 per cent from three, both career-best marks. It will be interesting to see him on the floor with multiple other shooters, giving Scottie Barnes the kind of spacing to attack the paint he’s never seen as a Raptor.

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It doesn’t hurt that — like RJ Barrett, who Toronto acquired from the Knicks in the Anunoby trade — Olynyk has a Canadian passport and Toronto roots and sees playing for the Raptors as a positive in and of itself.

“Listen, we [have] followed him for a long time, we’ve been big fans of Kelly,” said Webster. “I think the way we view him specifically is he’s kind of like a steady hand and I think we’ve seen it with the bench units, especially with the bigs, he’s going to provide a skilled veteran presence, a voice that, you know, we think that that unit could use some help with and so we’re excited to have Kelly. The conversations [with him] have been great. I think he really wants to be here.”

If you’re sensing a pattern in the Raptors leaning into Canadians, you’re not wrong. There’s a decent argument for it. Canada is producing more NBA players than any country outside the United States, though France is coming on fast. Why not tap into that stream?

“I mean, it starts with the basketball piece. I think, we’re biased, and we’ve watched them grow up more, so maybe we’re more familiar with their game, right?” said Webster. “I always tell people if there’s ever a young Canadian kid coming up, like it’s our job to know them in and out and make sure that we have a good feel on them. And so from both of those points of view, we love these players first and it’s great that they are Canadian, they want to be here, and so I think that’d be the other piece which is having players that want to play here goes a long way on many levels.”

Along that same way of thinking, Agbaji is another player that the Raptors have acquired who has long-standing ties with Raptors president Masai Ujiri through African basketball circles. In this case, Agbaji’s father is old friends with Ujiri. The inside scoop is positive.

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“Hard working, high character, two-way player, kind of fits the bill of guys we’ve pursued over the years,” said Webster. “Four-year player at Kansas so you got to watch his development… has started at times in Utah. So we feel like we’re getting a young player with a lot of upside, hard worker, high character, and so we’ll bet on those guys.”

Perhaps just as interesting were the moves Toronto didn’t make. Bruce Brown — the most significant player the Raptors received in return for Siakam — was widely expected to be on the move. At one point the New York Knicks had offered Toronto a first-round pick for the versatile wing, it was a 2024 pick and at the back end of the first round, however. The Raptors were holding out for a future first and the Knicks in the end pivoted, adding Pistons veterans Alec Burks and Bojan Bogdanovich for Quentin Grimes, two second-round picks and some salary filler that included former Raptor Malachi Flynn.

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There wasn’t a market for Chris Boucher, who has fallen out of the rotation, and the Raptors seem content to play out the string a little longer with Gary Trent Jr., a pending free agent who provides one skill — perimeter shooting — that the Raptors value highly. How highly will likely be determined when contract talks begin this summer. Most sources I spoke with agreed that Trent Jr. was likely going to return a second-round pick or perhaps two, so if the two sides can’t agree in free agency and Trent Jr. leaves, it’s not like a great opportunity was missed.

The Raptors’ next steps will be pushed out into the summertime. They will head into the draft with at the very least Indiana’s first-round pick — it would be 19th overall if the draft was held Thursday night — and the Detroit Pistons’ second-round pick, which would be 31st overall. They have the option to wriggle their way into a considerable amount of cap space if they choose, or the flexibility to round out their young core with cost-controlled pieces and see if better opportunities arise on the trade market.

The burning question for the remainder of the season is whether the Raptors will keep their own first-round pick or not. It will transfer to San Antonio if it falls to seventh or worse after the draft lottery balls settle. The Spurs have rights to the pick with top-six protections in 2025 and 2026 if it doesn’t convey before that.

It sounds like the Raptors are content to let fate sort that out. In other words, there won’t be any mission to finish as poorly as possible to make sure they keep the pick or push hard to the finish so that they get rid of the obligation this season in what is considered a weak draft.

“We’re going to prioritize seeing this group play,” said Webster. “If it ends up that we’re in the top six or out of the top six, especially the way that the new NBA rules are, to try and game that doesn’t make a ton of sense.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be the lottery balls so… I think the big priority for us is playing that young group together, getting [first-year wing Gradey Dick] in there with that group, seeing how they fit together because that will give us a lot more information about how to build this team, what moves to make this summer.”

So no home runs, and for the moment it’s not even clear if the Raptors have laced a solid single. But they have some more at-bats coming, and more chances to look at more pitches.

It’s not the most riveting phase of team building, but that’s basketball.

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