Raptors’ direction a work in progress, but ready to pivot when time comes

Michael Grange joined Sportsnet Central to talk about Kyle Lowry's future, and how the Raptors could maximize his value in the event he heads to the Miami Head.

The track record Toronto Raptors president (we think) Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have built up over nine seasons is exemplary.

They’ve consistently proven to be expert at balancing patient, long-term thinking while also being quick and opportunistic when the moment arises. They’ve created a strong culture both on the floor and throughout their support staff, but have proven they can be ruthless when they need to make a hard decision in the service of winning, as DeMar DeRozan can attest.

They’re smart, detail oriented and committed – the kinds of qualities that breed success.

So, they’re going to get the benefit of the doubt even during an uncertain off-season.

But in the absence of a broader and more clearly defined plan, it’s easy to look at where the Raptors are in their post-championship trajectory and wonder where the bottom might be, or when it might trend up again.

It’s great to be flexible and poised to pivot on a dime, but what are they pivoting to, or from?

After the 27-45 COVID-19-facilitated debacle in Tampa in 2020-21, the hope was that this summer would provide a signal about where things might be headed and how they’ll get there.

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The belief internally was that a team that finished 16th on offence and 19th on defence wasn’t as bad as its record. That the framework of a contender needed some tightening and fastening, rather than being overhauled.

With Kyle Lowry out the door and the most significant off-season addition to a flawed roster a 20-year-old rookie, Scottie Barnes, and with Pascal Siakam – the lone all-star on the roster – recovering from shoulder surgery, it’s hard to see where things don’t get worse before they get better.

The details around the Lowry trade to the Miami Heat will be finalized shortly. The NBA’s moratorium on signings lifts Friday at noon.

It will be some version of Lowry for 35-year-old point guard Goran Dragic and 22-year-old Precious Achiuwa, an undersized big who has the look of an NBA rotation player as a plus rebounder and (potentially) plus defender, but lacks the offensive chops to project as much more than that.

The trade hasn’t even unofficially been made official because there has been finagling on potential draft compensation (a future second-round pick at best) and the possibility of another player being added, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

And things were bogged down further because the Raptors were exploring trading Dragic to a third team, the Dallas Mavericks, where he would team up with fellow Slovenian Luka Doncic – but couldn’t arrive at an agreement.

One theory on that front is that the Mavericks player the Raptors would be most interested in is second-year centre Moses Brown, who was with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season.

Brown – who was traded to Boston as part of the deal that sent Kemba Walker to OKC and then traded to Dallas as part of the trade that landed the Celtics Josh Richardson – can’t be aggregated in a larger trade for roughly two months.

There is no harm in waiting, in other words.

In the interim, the Raptors look at Dragic as a positive culture fit and a veteran guard who can still play – last season he averaged 13.4 points and 4.4 assists in 26.7 minutes a game largely coming off the bench for the Heat. When the Heat advanced to the 2019-20 NBA Finals in the bubble, Dragic started and was Miami’s second-leading scorer before going down with a foot injury.

The view is that with properly managed minutes Dragic can still help good teams and his $19.4-million expiring contract won’t be difficult to move when the time is right.

Until then, he’s not hurting anything the Raptors are trying to do and may well be helpful.

As for Achiuwa, he’s a high-motor player with decent IQ who lacks a specific position, but certainly fits the Raptors’ seeming interest in accumulating as many six-foot-nine-ish athletes that play hard and figuring out the rest as they move along.

On that note, the team is also nearing a deal with Khem Birch – also six-foot-nine — who showed well in his 28-game Raptors stint last season after he was bought out by the Orlando Magic. The Montreal big man averaged career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals while averaging 30 minutes a game, and showed a nice floor sense too.

He’ll be 29 when training camp opens, and the expectation is he’ll be looking at contract in the range of $5-7 million a year on a shorter-term deal.

Still, what this all adds up to in the bigger picture is somewhat of a mystery, and for all the accomplishments of Ujiri and Webster, having had Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Lowry leave from a championship team while getting only Dragic and Achiuwa (for now) to show for it is not ideal roster management.

Not all circumstances can be controlled, and even the best-run organizations can be victim of them at times.

A couple of things are clear though.

As much as the Raptors’ status and profile has changed around the NBA, like roughly 20 or so other franchises in the league, it’s not a destination for franchise-altering free agents and likely won’t ever be.

It’s telling that the free agents from their own championship team ended up in Los Angeles and Miami – that’s where the gravity is.

It’s more evident than ever that the Raptors’ path to winning – or even being competitive again – will require draft luck and trades.

That’s probably the best way to look at the stage the Raptors are in now, however long it lasts.

Signing Gary Trent Jr. on three-year deal for $54 million – with a player option on the third year – might seem like a bit of an overpay for a fourth-year player with limited track record as a starter.

And sure, at 22 years old there is plenty of time for him to expand his game beyond his quite serviceable catch-and-shoot profile. But another way to look at the signing is that a young player with a defined skill is always easy to add to any trade if and when the time comes for the Raptors to land their next big-salary star in a deal. Having an $18-million contract to add to the package never hurts if the hypothetical trade target is making $30-$50 million and you need to match salaries.

Similarly: do the Raptors have the bones of a contending team? Not now. Teams that win big in the NBA have star power and few, if any weaknesses. A team that projects to start Birch at centre and lack a credible backup for Trent at shooting guard has a few gaps, let’s say.

But the Raptors are deep in good players on good contracts that would be welcome additions on any team looking to make a jump in the NBA’s pecking order. It’s easy to imagine any of Fred VanVleet, Siakam or OG Anunoby – and now Trent – as players that would change the profile of a good team to very good, or a very good team to a contender.

This isn’t to suggest that the Raptors are angling to make any moves like that, only that they are well positioned to if it came to that.

And without anyone coming out and saying anything, that’s where the Raptors are as the 2020-21 season fades and 2021-22 rolls into view.

What are the Raptors doing? They’re positioning, they just aren’t sure what for yet.

But with a title run – heck even the playoffs in a deeper and more competitive Eastern Conference – not looking like a lock, they’re trying find value on the margins: an extra draft pick here; a promising young player there; a young player finding his way from the fringes of the roster into the rotation as they prepare for their next move, their next pivot.

What direction they’re actually headed in is a work in progress.

Welcome to the new Raptors normal.

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