Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors are faced with tough decisions As the nba trade deadline approaches
One year ago Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors were faced with a very tough decision: Bring back the same team or blow it up? Some very smart people suggested they blow up the best roster in franchise history by letting Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka walk in free agency, accumulating assets, and giving their young players the chance to further develop. They argued that with LeBron James still on the Cleveland Cavaliers and Gordon Hayward going to the Boston Celtics, the Raptors would have no shot at contending in the Eastern Conference.
Raptors President of Basketball Operations Ujiri ultimately chose to stay the course, electing for a “culture reset” rather than a roster reset. He brought back the big three of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka along with head coach Dwane Casey and gave his young players an opportunity to run an NBA bench. Meanwhile, he preached ball movement and three-pointers in favour of isolation-heavy ball. One year later the NBA has changed more than anyone could have predicted and the Cavaliers are reeling, the Celtics are without Hayward, and the Raptors sit just 2 games back of the Celtics for first place in the Eastern Conference, 5.5 games ahead of the third place Cavs, and are sending DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Dwane Casey to the all-star game.
In retrospect, it appears that Ujiri made the right decision. Their young bench has the best +/- in the league at +3.2 and the team has a whole ranks third and fourth in defensive and offensive rating, respectively. DeRozan has once again added pieces to his game, thriving as a facilitator with a newly developed a three-point shot, while Lowry, Ibaka, and Valanciunas are all well rested and succeeding in the new system. As the trade deadline looms (February 8th at 3pm), the Eastern Conference is as open as it has been in recent memory and the Raptors are as good as ever, forcing Ujiri to make another tough decision: Stay the course and bet on the current roster being good enough to make it to the franchise's first NBA Finals or make a move that sends out young assets in favour of a proven scorer that can push them over the edge.
Stay the course
Ujiri is an unpredictable man but the general feeling is that this will be a quiet trade deadline in the NBA and the Raptors will follow suit. Here's why:
1. After sending their 2018 first and second round picks to the Brooklyn Nets as part of the DeMarre Carroll deal, the earliest first-round pick the Raptors have to trade is in 2020. That, coupled with the fact that draft picks are especially valuable to the Raptors due to Ujiri's proven ability to find talent throughout the draft, makes it unlikely the Raptors will trade a significant pick for a rental player.
2. After acquiring Serge Ibaka at last season's trade deadline, the power forward struggled to find his footing on his new squad. Ujiri preached patience, and after a full training camp in the offseason Ibaka looks like a new and improved player. The reality is that shaking up an NBA roster midseason can have detrimental impacts on team chemistry, in the worst case, but more often than not it is just difficult to maximize a player's potential without giving him time to adjust to a new system and environment. Thanks to this year's trade deadline being moved up ahead of the all-star break, players will have slightly more time to get settled in before the playoffs, but due to the precedent Ibaka set last season the Raptors should be careful before shaking up their roster this time around.
3. The Raptors have arguable been the best, most versatile, and most consistent team in the Eastern Conference this season. Baring Cleveland making an big deadline acquisition or Hayward miraculously coming back from injury in time, the Raptors might already have what it takes to make it out of the East. More importantly, the Raptors might already have that clutch scorer / three-point marksman they desperately need sitting on the bench in the form of Norman Powell or C.J. Miles. The problem is that both guys are having poor seasons, scoring a combined 16.3 points per game on .394 percent shooting, and both currently sit at the wrong end of Dwane Casey's rotation. However, if the Raptors can get at least one of those guys going they could hypothetically solve their problems without giving away assets or shaking up the team's chemistry.
Make a move
Hypothetically the Raptors could be good enough to make it out of the Eastern Conference as currently structured, but as long as the best player of this generation remains on the Cavs and the Celtics continue to lurk, the Raptors aren't guaranteed a thing. The team is good, but they still struggle in crunch time and they still lack enough guaranteed playoff performers (no one on their bench has proven themselves in this regard). That's why it might be time for Ujiri to make a short-sighted move to push this team over the edge. After all, in the franchise's 28 year history they have never had a team this close to contending for a NBA Championship and just making the Finals would be a huge milestone for the city and it's historically bad basketball team.
What would a move look like and how much of their future are the Raptors willing to leverage in order make something happen? Those are the questions Ujiri must ponder as the trade deadline approaches. It has been reported that the Raptors' young players are generating plenty of interest throughout the league, with rookie OG Anunoby, sophomore Jakob Poeltl, and third-year guard Delon Wright being asked about the most. Those guys are a crucial part of the team's future, though, and baring an overwhelming offer they are off the table. Norman Powell has been made somewhat expendable due to the impressive play of Anunoby, but after signing an extension in October he can't be moved until the offseason. In terms of young assets with value, then, that leaves us with the undrafted fan-favourite Fred VanVleet, who is on the final year of his contract but his stock is higher than ever after a remarkable start to the season; Pascal Siakam, the versatile power forward with three years remaining on his rookie contract; and Lucas Nogueira / Bruno Caboclo, two Brazilians on the final year of their rookie contracts who are looking to prove themselves on an NBA roster. Although trading any of these guys for a rental who will likely sign elsewhere in the offseason is risky, risk is exactly what's required of a team that plans to contend in the NBA.
At the top of the Raptors wish list is a veteran shooter who can play off the ball, space the floor, and deliver in crunch time. In other words, they want what every team wants. Although there are only a few players in the entire league that fit all their needs, there are certain guys on the trading block that would be an upgrade.
At the top of that list would be a guy like Lou Williams, the current Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner who is averaging 23.4 points per game on .441 percent shooting. Not only has Williams played in Toronto before, but he is a good three-point shooter who performs well in the clutch and can catch fire at any moment.
Other interesting trade targets are Tyreke Evans or Troy Daniels, two lethal three-point shooters who are averaging 19.5 and 8.6 points per game, respectively. Targeting any of these guys would be risky, especially considering they're all unproven in the playoffs, but if the Raptors are willing to make a deal it would likely be centred around a couple young assets including VanVleet, Siakim, Nogueira, Caboclo, and a second-round pick.
The other option, the safe, low-risk, low-reward option, is to play the buyout game. Without leveraging their future for this postseason, the Raptors could resist the urge to make a trade and wait until a veteran like Channing Frye, Ersan Ilyasova, or Marco Belinelli becomes available in the buyout market. After all, the Raptors have finally positioned themselves as a favourable destination for veterans looking to make a deep playoff run. The buyout market is the safe option but it might also be the smart one. Ujiri is an unpredictable man, one who has never been safe but always been smart.