Who knows what Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri wanted to talk with Pascal Siakam about after practice Tuesday?
Ujiri could have wanted to ask about how his star forward was feeling after a long road trip where Siakam’s minutes have been ramping up.
It could have been about 20th-anniversary plans or Ujiri’s Giants of Africa foundation, which Siakam, from Cameroon, has been supportive of in the past.
It could have been to see how Siakam’s visit with his Mom in Houston was last week.
It could have been anything, really.
But because the NBA trade deadline is Thursday at 3 p.m. ET, and the Raptors have been consistently identified as the team that could control the direction the market takes, it’s hard not to read a little more into it.
As Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said: “I think this is always a big week for the franchise as is draft night … anytime there is a window, whether it’s large or small, to improve your team in any way, I think that is always important for the franchise.”
It’s not all that unusual for Siakam to get some face time with the boss, but it was notable that Ujiri popped out of the conference room the Raptors has set up as their so-called ‘situation room’ — where they meet to discuss inflection points like the trade deadline, the draft and free agency — with a phone to his ear and motioned for Siakam to join him.
The expectation that Siakam will be traded by Thursday is low-to-non-existent, according to sources. Which isn’t to say that trading the versatile forward would never happen, just that it’s far more likely in the summer when more teams have more draft picks to use – essential commodities when contemplating acquiring a two-time all-NBA player in is prime as Siakam is.
But it’s not unusual for a player of Siakam’s standing to be consulted on deals or on players. Maybe that was it.
It was interesting that just before Siakam and Ujiri talked, the seven-year veteran was making it clear that he’s not someone who is glued to his social media feel for updates or someone who spends his energy worrying about those kinds of things at all.
“I never know what’s happening. Even when you guys ask me all these questions, I don’t know what’s going on. I’m focused on the game and that’s pretty much it,” said Siakam as the Raptors were preparing to host the San Antonio Spur on Wednesday night. “At the end of the day, we know what it is. What’s the point of us coming here and talking every [f-ing] – ah, sorry – every deadline?
“… It is what it is and whatever happens, happens … now that we’re in a league where if I’m unhappy there’s things that can happen, but other than that, I’m doing my job every single day. I’m blessed to be able to live my dream and play the game that I love and getting compensated for it … I understand being here, year seven for me, it’s a business and I get it. I’ve seen people go, I’ve seen people get here, so nothing surprises me. I don’t look for anything until my phone actually rings.”
Some of Siakam’s teammates may not be as confident, or comfortable. Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet are both expected to be free agents this summer, and both will be looking for considerable raises on the $18.8 million and $22.8 million each could earn, respectively, by opting into the final year of their contracts.
If the Raptors aren’t sure they can – and want to – re-sign each player, they have no choice but to trade them. The alternative is running the risk of losing an all-star point guard and one of the league’s better young shooters for nothing, which would be a disaster in terms of asset management.
O.G. Anunoby presents a slightly different problem. He’s under contract for another season, but after that – presuming he continues playing at the level he’s at – he’ll be up for a massive new contract in the summer of 2024.
The Raptors would presumably have the inside track on that, given their history with the player and being able to offer more money and years than any other team
He’s also the kind of player – a high-end ‘3-and-D- wing – that can fit into any lineup and who is in the midst of his best season.
It would be a quintessentially ‘sell high’ move, though given Anunoby’s still just 25, an acquiring team could convince themselves there is still upside to come.
But with Anunoby, Trent Jr., VanVleet and Siakam the real question is: what to the Raptors want to do? Presumably, they can spend the money – and likely find themselves well into the luxury tax for team that hasn’t won a playoff series — and hope for different results, but is it the wise path?
The plan was to bring back the core group from last year’s 48-win team see what they had. What they have is a team that is five games under .500 and generally uninspiring, by any statistical measure.
Then again they have a pretty inviting stretch of games coming up, hosting four sub-.500 teams before the all-star break. A clean sweep and the Raptors would be sitting on a six-game winning streak, firmly in the mix for a play-in spot and perhaps able to convince themselves that sixth place and the final playoff spot is in reach – right now they’re in 11th, a half-game out of 10th and 4.5 games out of sixth.
But they should be careful about that. The Raptors keep trying to convince themselves that they’re playing better, or that they’ve been the victims of injuries or bad luck or that their best basketball is around the corner — their recent 4-3 road trip is a case in point.
Playing above .500 on the road is not nothing, but they actually played worse defensively over the seven-game stretch than they had before the trip and while their win over Sacramento was arguably their most impressive result of the season, wins over Portland (who were short-handed) and Houston (short-handed and the worst team in the league) and Memphis (missing three starters, including Ja Morant) shouldn’t be held up as examples of this group’s untapped potential.
The Raptors as constituted lack depth, shooting, and rim protection and don’t seem to have the means to alleviate any of those shortcomings in the immediate future.
They have two starters heading into free agency this summer, both in positions of need and another – Siakam – looking for a contract extension, while Anunoby is a year away from free agency. Their bench is largely old and not likely to offer much more than they have – that Nurse continues to play his starters more than any team in the league is telling – and lacking the kind of exciting young prospects Toronto has developed in the past.
Meanwhile, they have a lot of expensive decisions to make about a team that hasn’t shown they are committed to playing their best basketball this season, or – when they have – generated many results. They have won three games in a row just once and are 3-10 in games decided by three points or less, the worst mark in the league.
Maybe Ujiri was telling Siakam he thought it was time for a reset or retool or a shuffling of the deck.
It’s not the worst idea.