With wild day now behind them, Raptors face even more pressing questions

Members of the Toronto Raptors watch during the closing minutes of the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023, in Detroit. The Pistons snapped their 28th-game losing streak and won 129-127. (Carlos Osorio/AP Photo)

DETROIT — As diversions go, it was brilliant. Let’s just get that out of the way.

The Toronto Raptors have much at stake as they try to navigate a U-turn from rapidly advancing irrelevance, back towards vague competitiveness midstream. Certainly, timing massive, potentially franchise-altering trades to shift attention from the possibility the woeful Detroit Pistons could end their NBA record 28-game losing streak against them shouldn’t be anywhere on the to-do list.

No, just a coincidence, but you couldn’t beat the timing given how a wild Saturday played out, getting weirder as it went along.

The Raptors and the New York Knicks began ironing out the details of the trade that sent veteran defensive ace OG Anunoby, rotation big man Precious Achiuwa and backup point guard Malachi Flynn to New York in exchange for guard Immanuel Quickley, Canadian national team star RJ Barrett and the rights to the Pistons’ second-round pick in the 2024 draft on Friday night and finalized it Saturday morning.

It had been simmering for weeks, per league sources, with the concept of a deal centring on Quickley, a restricted free agent this coming summer, and Anunoby, a likely free agent, gaining momentum in early December when the Raptors lost to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

Toronto investigated its options at the G-League showcase in Orlando the week before Christmas — a mid-season gathering point for NBA front offices — but in the end determined the Knicks’ opportunity was its best avenue.

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The Raptors were at their hotel in suburban Detroit going through their pre-game meeting when head coach Darko Rajakovic relayed the news of the trade.

When a team is struggling to meet expectations the way the Raptors have been, a trade can’t be considered surprising, but the timing of them and reality of them always hits hard.

Scottie Barnes has seen a lot in his three NBA seasons, but a major trade involving three of his closest friends on the team was a first. He was upset enough that he declined an opportunity to comment on the deal when asked about it Saturday.

His veteran teammate, Pascal Siakam, gets it. He’s seen it.

“This is the NBA, that’s the thing, right? Like we got to be robots and just move on. Because that’s what it is. We get paid for it, right?  So you have to move on… (but) it sucks. It’s not easy,” Siakam said while making a point of wishing the best for Anunoby, Achiuwa and Flynn as they head to New York. “For some people is the first time (they’ve been through it) but I’ve seen it happen. So I understand. But you know, we got to be able to move on from it. That’s what it’s about. It’s a business and you learn about it every day, and every day you try to just be out there you know, like look out for yourself, look out for your teammates, and do the best that you can.”

The Raptors’ best — on this night anyway — wasn’t good enough against the Pistons.

Detroit’s epic losing streak had to end at some point, but being the team that they stopped their historic slide against is not ideal. Detroit already had the longest single-season losing streak in league history and another loss would have put them past the 28 games the Philadelphia 76ers lost over two seasons straddling the end 2014-15 and the beginning of the 2015-16. There were plenty of things that could explain the Pistons improving to 3-29 at the expense of the Raptors, who fell to 12-20 in what is shaping up to be a miserable season. However, the scoreboard, 129-127 in favour of Detroit in the end, didn’t have room for them.

With the Pistons getting healthier and trending positively of late, the Raptors catching them on the wrong night, is probably the fairest explanation.

“I’m really proud of the energy that our guys gave, taking everything into account, late coming here (after arriving from Boston in the wee hours of Saturday morning) and a very emotional day for everybody…” said Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic. “…(but) I also don’t want to take away from what Detroit did. Congrats to them. They played a really good game… They deserved that win tonight.”

The Pistons opened a 12-point lead midway through the fourth quarter after Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey hit consecutive threes. Barnes responded with an eight-point burst of his own to cut the lead to seven with 3:38 to play, but the Raptors couldn’t reel Detroit in, despite a quick flurry in the final minute that saw Toronto cut Detroit’s lead to two with 2.2 seconds left, and the Pistons had their first win since Oct. 28.

In the end, the Pistons mainly showed relief — Detroit star Cunningham getting down on his haunches and bowing his head is the lasting image I saw — while the crowd reaction was relatively mixed, given the typically massive contingent of Raptors fans that flood Little Caesars Arena when Toronto is in town.

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The Raptors got 35 points from Siakam and 22 points and nine rebounds from Barnes while Dennis Schröder had 30 points and nine assists in his return to the starting lineup, but Toronto got just 12 points from its thinned-out bench. Detroit got 30 points and 12 assists from the rapidly improving Cunningham, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft where Barnes went No. 4.

So, good for the Pistons.

As for the Raptors? They’re a club with their own issues, and whether they will be able to trade their way out of them and turn into something better remains to be seen, but it feels like a good time to try and find out after nearly 12 months of constant speculation and before the season goes completely sideways.

Things don’t seem all that rosy, as you might expect. Consider Schröder’s post-game comments, where he seemed to suggest that the team isn’t exactly a cohesive, well-oiled unit at the moment: 

“When I got here, Darko [Rajakovic] did a great job just putting this system into the organization. But I think we just got to follow that. Everybody just being unselfish, sharing the ball … to be a winning team, we need everybody, even the guys who don’t really, really play. People got to be grateful, cheering on their teammates when they get a stop, when they get on the floor, dive, pick them up, being excited for one another. I don’t want to go deep into that, but I need to feel that, because in the summer I did. … I went to war with all my brothers from the (world champion German) national team. But we knew we had each other. I don’t feel it here yet like that. Every single day I just want to keep going at it and build relationships. I know it’s hard, because NBA is a little bit individual as well. But at the end of the day, if we keep playing like this, nobody’s going to win.”

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Can a single trade change any of that? Certainly, the view among the league insiders I spoke with after the Knicks trade broke was that the Raptors are likely just getting started. Siakam is likely going to be pursued by the Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks and the Dallas Mavericks, per league sources. As the trade deadline gets closer, there will likely be more suitors. But then again, maybe adding Quickley and Barrett will unlock something that’s been missing so far.

As always, it will take time to determine if the deal favours one team or the other, but in the short term, the Raptors and Knicks can each tell themselves they got what they needed. In the meantime, the stigma of losing against the Pistons became a little less top of mind.

It’s no stretch to suggest the trade was a tough deal for the Raptors to make. Coming off an All-NBA nod in 2022-23, Anunoby was a steal by the Raptors with the 23rd-overall pick in the 2017 draft, making him one of Toronto’s best draft-and-development stories. The Knicks get one of the NBA’s best 3-and-D wings in Anunoby and some frontcourt depth and athleticism in Achiuwa, whose upside has been more theoretical than measurable through his fourth NBA season. Flynn likely doesn’t figure to crack the Knicks’ rotation, but maybe a fresh start will serve the fourth-year guard well.

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For Toronto, the pearl of the deal is Quickley, who has been pegged in many corners as a breakout star waiting to happen. Coming off the bench behind Jalen Brunson and in a lineup where Julius Randle dominates so much of what’s left over, in terms of playmaking, his opportunities have been somewhat capped. Quickley has only started 27 games in his career and never averaged 29 minutes a game, but he has shown he can create offence in a multitude of ways. He’s averaging 22.5 points per 36 minutes and shooting 39.5 per cent through 30 games this season while averaging 3.7 assists against 1.5 turnovers, all with a light touch on the ball as his usage rate is just 23.9 per cent.

The Raptors aren’t big on sharing their roster-building plans, but they’ve signalled widely that Barnes is going to be their cornerstone going forward. Therefore, finding a guard who can both play comfortably off the ball and space the floor for Barnes when he is running the offence was a priority. They had a pretty good prototype in Fred VanVleet before losing him in free agency last summer, but in Quickley, 24, they believe they might have an even better fit alongside Barnes, 22.

In some casual conversations with the Raptors basketball staff, there is a lot of enthusiasm for what Quickley can bring.

“We have another pick-and-roll guy,” said one Raptors source, eagerly.

As for Barrett? The No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 draft has looked the part only occasionally so far in his five NBA seasons. Still only 23, there is hope that he can iron out the inconsistent stretches that have held him back at times. Just this season, Barrett was averaging 22.8 points a game with a True Shooting percentage of 62.0 (bolstered by shooting 50 per cent from three) through the first seven games of the year. He then missed three games with severe migraines and has been slumping since, averaging 16.6 points a game and shooting just 39.6 per cent from the floor in 19 games — all starts. Barrett has worked hard on smoothing out his shooting stroke and (for the optimists in the crowd) the fact he’s shooting a career-best 83 per cent from the free-throw line is a good nugget.

Was this the best deal the Raptors could get? A number of league insiders I spoke with floated the possibility that Anunoby’s representation — he shares an agency with several Knicks players — had already indicated the Knicks were his preferred free-agency destination. In that scenario the Knicks would have some leverage over the Raptors, but only if they had the salary-cap space to sign him in free agency in the summer.

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To do that, they would likely have to get rid of some salary and Quickley (believed to be seeking a five-year extension worth in the range of $135 million) and Barrett (who has three years and $82 million left on his deal after this season) would help in that cause, too.

In essence, the Knicks get their big free agent (Anunoby) now. That the Knicks didn’t have to give up a first-round pick to complete the deal supports that premise.

What happens next is the pressing question. Multiple league sources suggested that this was the first of several deals the Raptors will be looking to make. They don’t want to tear things down, but they do want to reconfigure their timeline. “It’s a reboot around Scottie Barnes, that’s for sure,” said one league source. Their leading scorer, two-time all-NBA selection Siakam, is a pending free agent, as is Trent Jr., their only remaining proven three-point threat. They still have expiring salary that can be aggregated into deals.

And given that Siakam will be looking for a max-level deal that could broach $196 million over four years, and the money that will be required to sign Quickley and money owed to Barrett, the luxury-tax penalties that follow could be pressing.

What the Raptors will look like six weeks or six months from now is an open question. The only safe answer is different. And given how this season has gone, that should be a good thing. 

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