With trade deadline near, upcoming stretch could determine Raptors’ direction

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) drives to the basket past New York Knicks guard Miles McBride (2) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 16, 2023, in New York. (Adam Hunger/AP)

Whatever happens between now and the first week of February won’t change one simple fact: The Toronto Raptors have a job to do. And the trade deadline approaching and the uncertainty that comes with it won’t make the schedule pause, the standings change or the task at hand get any easier.

The Raptors begin what is arguably the most challenging stretch of their season, and almost certainly a two- or three-week period when the trajectory of the team and even the franchise could be altered.

Which is all well, good and understandably the topic of conversation, but it doesn’t change the fact the Raptors are hosting the NBA’s best team — the Boston Celtics — on Saturday and then the surprising New York Knicks on Sunday.

Or that on Tuesday they’ll fly to California for a 14-day, seven-game road trip.

The Raptors are widely thought to be the team that could be “the first domino” in the trade market, as a league source put it recently, but precisely what direction the club decides to go is yet to be determined.

Which leaves the players left to do their job even while who they’ll be working for or working with or where they’ll be working is an open question.

“We just have to focus on the task at hand … we’ve got to focus on winning games,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, a potential free agent who is among the prominent players who figures to have his name bandied about in trade speculation. “I think if you just lock in on that it kind of blocks out everything else. …

“In my seven years going through it, you realize there’s nothing you can do about it. The better you play and the better your team does, the lower the chance anybody getting shipped out of here. If you [crap] the bed you set yourself up for anything to happen. So we’ve got to control the controllables.”

Which is the issue. The Raptors are coming off a three-game road trip that encapsulates why they’re looked upon as possible, and maybe likely, sellers when heading into the year they would more plausibly be buyers, hoping to enhance a playoff push.

The Raptors are capable of some great stretches of basketball and have a core of players who could help almost any team in the league. But they don’t seem to put games together, and certainly not stretches of games.

The Raptors came back in the fourth quarter and won in overtime against the Knicks in a game they almost gave away multiple times; they scored 130 points and lost against a Milwaukee Bucks team that was short Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kris Middleton and gave up 128 points and an 18-point lead to a Minnesota Timberwolves team playing on the second night of a back-to-back without Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns.

The Raptors rank 29th in the NBA in opponents’ effective field goal percentage and — even after a week in which the Raptors averaged nearly 124 points a game — remain 30th in their own eFG.

They’ve lost plenty of games they could have, or perhaps should have, won and rarely seemed to luck into a couple of wins here or there on off nights that good teams often do.

“There’s been a couple of times this year that we just didn’t compete,” said VanVleet. “But we’ve had tough luck, some injuries. I think we lost somewhere between like eight games by less than [three] points or something like that? [Toronto is 2-8 in games decided by three points or less], so those are all toss-ups.

“[But] there’s definitely too many of the games where we just didn’t compete. Like coach says, you get one of those every once in a blue moon, but we’ve had too many of those.”

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The decision-makers are watching. Raptors president Masai Ujiri has been to see the presumed No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, Victor Wembanyama, play multiple times. Similarly, the Raptors have had eyes on the expected second pick, Scoot Henderson, and the other top prospects in what is considered to be a top-heavy draft class.

They’ll be prepared if the season keeps careening off course. The question is if they decide to nudge the process along by trading key roster pieces for young players or future picks.

For VanVleet and his teammates, all they can do is wait.

“I mean you got to be able to adapt to the situation and look at what’s in front of you and make a decision,” he said. “But our management has definitely proven themselves and they deserve the trust and patience of anyone that we’ll right the ship sooner than later. Progress and development and all of those things aren’t always a straight, linear rocket ship. It’s up and down, it’s all around.”

Before the season started, it would have been hard to imagine the Raptors being at this stage: where they have to contemplate breaking up their core. But after 46 games that scenario seems almost more likely than bringing back a group of players who haven’t been able to improve on last season, and who will be up for some lucrative contracts this year and next.

“We got something here. You know what I’m saying? It might not look good, like what everybody wants it to look like,” said VanVleet, who is averaged 32.3 points and 8.3 assists while shooting 50 per cent from the floor and 48.4 per cent from three on the Raptors three-game road trip. “We got hot the last year [the Raptors were 23-23 after 46 games last season and finished 25-11 to end up with 48 wins and the fifth seed] and changed everybody’s expectation for what this group could do this year, rightfully so.

“We haven’t answered that up until January. So we got a couple of months to figure [stuff] out.”

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