Why the Raptors should take advantage of a seller's market at NBA trade deadline
Despite their losing record, the Raptors are loaded with talent and are one of the most intriguing teams to watch at the deadline.
It pains me to say this, but the Toronto Raptors are not a good basketball team.
They are better than their 25-30 record would indicate, but they are not good. Not good enough to contend for a championship, let alone win a round in the playoffs. Not as currently constructed, not right now.
That doesn’t mean the Raptors are without talent. Pascal Siakam deserves to be an All-Star, Fred VanVleet and Scottie Barnes are playing the best basketball of their careers, and O.G. Anunoby is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
It also doesn’t mean that the Raptors are without hope going forward, as their positive net rating and 14-18 record in close games indicates that they are much closer to being good than their overall record shows, especially given how small the margins are in the modern NBA.
But the biggest lesson from the 2022-23 season is that the fit between the Raptors core players simply isn’t there — not on the court where the starting lineup has an average +2.8 point differential and is terrible defensively, and not off of it where the vibes have been suspect all season. The team is simply worse than the sum of its parts.
“We compete to win. We expect to win, and it doesn’t matter what phase we are at as a team,” Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri said ahead of the 2022-23 season. “Are we good enough to win a championship? I don’t know that we are there yet. But are we good enough to grow and make a jump? I think so.”
Rather than making a jump, the Raptors have taken a dramatic step backwards. And instead of throwing everything at the wall in hopes of winning the play-in tournament, they would be wise to take advantage of what is promised to be a seller's market at the NBA trade deadline on Feb. 9 and trade at least one of their core players in order to fundamentally reshape the roster going forward.
Advantages of a seller's market
Due in large part to the play-in tournament, which the NBA introduced during the 2019-20 season to incentivize competition, more teams than ever are competing for a playoff spot and trying to win games down the stretch of the season instead of tanking for better draft odds. In fact, 17 teams are still within five games of .500 despite the season being two-thirds of the way through, while only four teams are fully in the tank having won fewer than 30 percent of their games.
That increased parity has led to a marketplace where the majority of teams are trying to upgrade at the trade deadline rather than selling off pieces and embracing the tank because so many teams feel like they have a chance to win the championship. In fact, almost all of the eight “contenders”, plus the 17 aforementioned middling teams, are looking to buy at the deadline, which has created a seller's market for teams to take advantage of.
Toronto is uniquely suited to do just that.
Unlike the bottom-four teams, who are youthful and without high-end veteran talent to trade, the Raptors have several experienced players that could be attractive trade targets for teams across the league. In fact, the Raptors have an opportunity to create a bidding war for players like Anunoby, Siakam or VanVleet given how many teams would be interested in them and the lack of other two-way wings or point guards on the market. It’s something Ujiri did in Denver in the past when he pitted the two New York-based teams against each other in order to get a haul for Carmelo Anthony.
Which of the core players the Raptors decide to trade could simply come down to who they get the best offer for. However, Scottie Barnes is reportedly off the table, which makes sense given his age and potential. And Pascal Siakam is having the best season of his career as a homegrown superstar, so it would be difficult to justify letting him go, especially midway through the season when his $35-million contract will be a difficult salary for trade partners to match.
That leaves Vanvleet, Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. as the most likely core players to get traded. (It’s worth noting that Trent Jr. reportedly has the least trade value of the group.)
Of course, trading any of them would create a massive hole in the Raptors roster because they all do at least one thing that no one else on the roster does. But getting maximum value for at least one of their core pieces at the deadline would give the Raptors an opportunity to fundamentally reshape their roster in the short-term future, using the picks and/or players they receive in a deal to build a better-fitting team.
Reshaping the team
What that next team looks like is anybody’s guess. There are a number of ways the Raptors can go at the trade deadline, and a number of different types of packages they could prioritize, from pick-heavy packages to player-heavy ones.
But given the way Siakam has played this season and the rapid pace Barnes is developing at, the Raptors would be wise to build a roster around their two interior-based wings by surrounding them with players who maximize their strengths while covering for their weaknesses. That means adding outside shooting, rim pressure, and rim protection.
Despite much being made about the Raptors lack of on-ball creation heading into the season, they have a top-11 offence despite shooting just 33.5 percent from three (28th in the league), so creating advantages and good shots isn’t actually the Raptors biggest problem offensively — extending and finishing those advantages is. Between Siakam and Barnes’ continued development, those two project to have the ball in their hands a lot going forward, which is why the Raptors may be able to get away with trading one of their other ball-dominant players and instead focus on filling in the gaps around them.
I went long on the Raptors need for three-point shooting here, and it’s obvious with where the league is heading that the Raptors have not done a good enough job prioritizing outside shooting in their roster building. That is even more true if the plan is to build around Siakam and Barnes, who both do the majority of their work in the interior and are both very good playmakers when the defence packs the paint or double-teams them.
However, we also know that the best teams in the league aren’t over-reliant on three-point shooting. And while Siakam and Barnes are both good mid-range shooters, the next best shot after three-pointers is at the rim, where the Raptors take just 33.3 percent of their shots (18th in the league) and convert on just 65.7 percent of them (20th). They would be wise to add players who can not only spot-up off of Siakam and Barnes, but also attack the basket and finish there.
Defence is where the Raptors really need help. They currently have the 18th defense in the league while being one of the worst rim-protecting teams, allowing opposing teams to take 35.3 percent of their shots at the Raptors basket (23rd in the league) while converting 67.5 percent of those shots (19th). Precious Achiuwa playing more and potentially stepping into the starting lineup full time after the trade deadline should help the rim protection numbers, but the Raptors need more of everything to be a good defensive team, from point-of-attack defence to players who can cover ground and smartly rotate to head coach Nick Nurse’s liking to actual bigs who can protect the rim.
Those are the three biggest issues currently plaguing the Raptors. And while they aren’t going to fix them all with one move — in fact, trading any of their core pieces could actually cause them to take an immediate step back in any number of categories — those are the issues the Raptors should be looking to fix if they want to build the best possible team around Siakam and Barnes. Therefore, those are the skill sets they should look to be acquiring as they reshape their roster moving forward. And trading one of their core players at peak value this trade deadline could help them get enough assets to eventually fill some of those holes.
Other reasons to sell
Just because it’s a seller's market right now doesn’t mean it is always going to be that way. The NBA trade market is a pendulum that swings back and forth, and while it appears to favour sellers right now, it might be more of a buyers market this summer considering all that is at stake this season.
Think about it: multiple teams are under immense pressure to go on a deep playoff run and, if they don’t, there could be several star players who become available in the summer, from Kevin Durant to Trae Young to Karl-Anthony Towns. And so the Raptors could theoretically take advantage of a seller's market this trade deadline to bolster their asset capital while their players are at peak trade value, and then turn around and buyers by the time the summer rolls around with the extra assets they acquired. They could even potentially take another look at acquiring a perfect-fitting star in Durant.
Plus, there is the draft to consider. The Raptors currently have the sixth-worst record in the league and therefore an eight percent chance at the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, Victor Wembanyama. They also have a 34.5 percent chance of landing a top-four pick in a very exciting draft class with players like Scoot Henderson at the top — players that could be immediate contributors for the Raptors next season.
But there are only three games separating Toronto from the 10 next teams directly behind them and the 16th-best odds in the draft lottery. And trading one of their core players at the deadline would make it more likely that the Raptors finish closer to where they are right now than moving up and finishing in a play-in spot, where their odds of a top pick would be dramatically worse.
While I usually don’t advocate for tanking, Toronto would be silly not to at least consider their draft odds in a draft with one of the greatest prospects in NBA history. They have had 55 games to showcase what they are, proving that they are clearly not contenders as currently constructed, even if they are better than their record shows.
Tanking in two of the last three seasons would be a very tough pill to swallow for a franchise that has gotten so used to winning. In fact, it could be a big hit to the gritty, hard working, win-at-all-costs culture the Raptors have tried to foster over the years. But the best organizations are flexible, not stubborn.
The Raptors need to acknowledge that what they have right now isn’t good enough, and the best thing for the franchise long term is to reshape the roster by taking advantage of a seller's market.
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