NBA execs watching closely as struggling Raptors begin crucial homestand

Eric Smith and Michael Grange discuss just how critical this 6-game homestand is for the Raptors, and why if they don't build some momentum here, the season will take a big turn, also discuss whether Raptors will be big players at the trade deadline.

This time last year, the Toronto Raptors rescued their season. After a rocky, injury-bothered start (sound familiar?), a six-game winning streak to kick off the New Year lifted a listless team above the .500 mark to stay.

Then an eight-game winning streak prior to the All-Star break got them into the playoff mix, and a 13-4 sprint in the final month earned them the sixth seed, completing a surprising turnaround for a team most had predicted would be lottery bound.

Cue the off-season optimism for 2022-23.

Unfortunately, the Raptors find themselves at a familiar crossroads as they begin a season-long, six-game homestand Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks. Though this time around, the stakes are that much higher.

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Toronto is five games under the break-even mark, not three as they were when they started their turnaround on Dec. 31st a year ago. They’ve also played 37 games, not 31 as they had then.

In this context, the hole they are in is deeper, and they’re about two weeks – or a six-game winning streak – behind schedule if they plan to climb out of it.

No time like the present then.

“It feels like every single game we’re at that time where it’s like we want to turn the page and this is a good opportunity, a great opportunity,” said Pascal Siakam. “And I think that’s the thing about the league: you get opportunities… like, what are you going to do?”

It’s a massive question, one that looms over everything that happens with the Raptors in the coming weeks, and even the coming seasons, which sounds like hyperbole, but really isn’t.

If Toronto can somehow repeat their second-half surge from a year ago, it would justify the faith that management showed in the group they bought back this season and could justify making further investments in them. Some version of the Raptors as presently constructed would get a chance to build on what they’ve started.

And why not? Getting back to 48 wins would mean the Raptors finish out the season on a 33-13 heater, the equivalent of a 59-win pace. It would be tough to ignore, and the current slog would fall into the background.

It’s just tough to imagine at the moment, with the Raptors sitting at or near the bottom of the league in several key offensive and defensive metrics.

So what happens if the Raptors – who haven’t won three games in a row all season – can’t reel off some wins and either keep drifting or sink further under .500?

It seems inevitable that changes will be coming, with the Feb. 9th trade deadline a referendum on how much faith Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have in their current direction.

The rest of the league is waiting anxiously.

As one league source who has been monitoring the Raptors situation closely in recent weeks put it to me: “Toronto are the first domino. What they do will affect teams all across the league: Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Atlanta – not that it’s about deals with any particular team, just that people are going to be waiting to see what the Raptors do before they make their moves. Toronto could set the market.”

The problem is that according to multiple league sources, with the season approaching the halfway point, an obvious path forward hasn’t materialized. Instead of things becoming clearer, the waters seem even more cloudy.

“No, I don’t know when they’re going to pivot” joked one league source when contacted recently.

Said another: “It’s all very nebulous right now.”

They’re in 12th place now (a half-game out of 10th, the final play-in spot and 4.5 games out of sixth the sixth seed). If they ride it out and the team doesn’t respond they’ll end up in the mushy middle, missing out on positioning themselves for a top pick in a potentially historic draft class and be at risk of losing talented players in free agency – Gary Trent Jr. or Fred VanVleet for example – for nothing in return.

Whatever direction the Raptors decide they ultimately want to take, it would be hard not to see it as a wasted year.

Fighting for the fringes of the play-in tournament and ending up 11th is one place the Raptors don’t want to be in. Recall that “Play in for what” was the mantra Ujiri introduced as he engineered the ‘Tampa Tank’ during the latter half of the 2020-21 season. There is no indication that this line of thinking has changed in the years since.

But if they pull the plug, are they committing themselves to a rebuild or reboot that wouldn’t fit the timeline of their best player, Siakam, who turns 29 in April? Are they over-investing in 21-year-old Scottie Barnes, who has been playing better recently, but has still raised eyebrows internally and externally for his lack of progress in his second season?  It’s a big bet to make on a player who doesn’t quite look like the surefire all-star he did as his rookie year played out.

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Or maybe they go all in and consider trading Siakam and Anunoby for what would likely be massive returns of picks and young talent. “A s—load” was the ballpark estimate provided by one league insider.

But they are the kinds of decisions that reverberate at every level of an organization.

That the Raptors could be the biggest domino at the trade deadline perfectly encapsulates the Raptors’ odd predicament. On one hand, in Siakam, Anunoby, VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr. and Precious Achiuwa, Toronto has several players in or approaching their prime and on good contracts. They have good reason to believe teams across the NBA would line up for their services.

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On the other, the group hasn’t performed, the organization seems to be lacking in quality depth and lacks an obvious way to fix their roster’s shortcomings without pulling away at the core. Oh, and all of those players referenced are either pending free agents or will be looking for hefty extensions this summer or next. As is head coach Nurse, who will be entering the final year of his contract in 2023-24, which is when in-demand coaches start wondering when talks about their contract extensions might start.

It’s why Nurse was fully supported internally in his recent decision to come down harder on his team after some poor performances. If anything, the hope was that it might have happened sooner. That it didn’t isn’t hard to understand. Nurse himself called the move “a roll of the dice,” knowing that calling out his team publicly for their effort can easily backfire if the results don’t follow. The tactic paid off in Toronto’s win over Phoenix, and regardless of the outcome against Indiana, effort wasn’t the problem.

With six weeks before the trade deadline, it stands to reason that before any decisions are made on the roster, you want to make sure any in-house fixes have been explored and players are being pushed hard and held properly accountable for their effort.

It’s a fine line for a coach to walk, however. As one person familiar with the organization put it, “there is an antsiness” around the team. It’s not tension or dysfunction, but with the core pieces having been together for so many years, the lack of success so far this season, the uncertain direction the team is heading, and the contract issues ever-present in the background, it wouldn’t take too much to tip things over. 

That there is some frustration among the coaching staff about the lack of depth on the roster – Toronto’s bench was out-scored 54-7 by Indiana’s bench on Tuesday night – seems like a safe bet.

And everyone is frustrated – to put it mildly – with the Otto Porter Jr. situation. He was signed to a two-year deal for $12.3 million as a veteran wing with championship experience who could provide Toronto with some much-needed shooting.

He missed all of the exhibition games and the first seven games of the regular season with a pulled hamstring. He then played eight straight before dislocating the second toe on his left foot on Nov. 14th and hasn’t played since.

Of late he’s barely been seen around the team, when asked if he was making any progress towards returning Nurse said Tuesday, “No. He is not.” Suggesting at the very least his return – if he even makes one – is several weeks away and raises the possibility that he may not play in Toronto again, as undoubtedly the Raptors would try to move him before the deadline rather than risk being on the hook for the second year of his contract.

But it’s not just a matter of the Raptors misfiring on a relatively cheap free agent. It’s another example of why Toronto has always favoured building from within. Porter Jr. is just another example of how trying to trade or sign your way out of trouble often means taking on other people’s problems.

It’s another factor to consider when trying to anticipate which direction the Raptors’ season might take and what decisions get made as a result.

The simplest solution is – as always – to win some games; get on a run.

“I can talk about positivity all I want, but winning is going to cure, literally everything,” said Siakam. “And that’s what we have to find a way to do.”

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