Masai Ujiri’s shrewd asset stockpiling has led to this moment.
Last season, when the Raptors stood pat at the trade deadline, fans were angry. The fanbase wanted a win-now move – something along the lines of swapping a first for Arron Afflalo, Wilson Chandler, or maybe even Luol Deng – but no deal was made. There wasn’t even a tiny Austin Daye-for-Nando De Colo swap that went down in 2014.
Ujiri stood pat, and I stood behind that decision. I argued that the war chest would be more effectively spent this season, where they had cap room (used on DeMarre Carroll, as I unintentionally predicted), and a fistful of prospects to deal. It made more sense to give them one more year to grow, and to make a move down the line.
I still stand by that notion. Ujiri has done a masterful job of asset collection, and he’s built a really sturdy team along the way. Now it’s time for the master stroke.
At this point in the season, we have a good grip of the Raptors’ strengths and weaknesses.
They’re a disciplined team that likes to play a slow, halfcourt game, the offense largely runs through their three lead guards, and there’s just enough shooting around them and individual brilliance within them to make it work as a top-10 offense. Their defense is solid enough, and there’s enough go-to stoppers between Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo (situationally useful, globally suspect), and DeMarre Carroll to counter different looks. Credit Dwane Casey, too, for being much smarter about managing his defensive match-ups this season.
That sounds like the profile of a great team, and their record (33-16) is no fluke. They’ve proven to be stingy home team (just swept a seven-game homestand) and a 15-10 record on the road is really solid. They’re fine – they’re great – as is.
But they do have problems.
First off, the frontcourt of Jonas Valanciunas and Luis Scola has been a season-long disaster. They’re two of the slowest players in the league, and their skillsets don’t mesh well. To Scola’s credit, his emergence as a capable standstill 3-point shooter has given them some options, but nobody guards him out there, and Valanciunas’s presence always leaves a defender waiting around the hoop, which isn’t idea because Lowry and DeRozan love to drive to the hoop.
Defensively, they can’t keep up in transition and even the most benign stretch fours – Markieff Morris, Marvin Williams and the like – torch them. Did anyone see the Phoenix game? Or the Nuggets game? Or the Cavaliers game? Or the Pistons game? Or the Warriors game? (you get my drift)
Second, the Raptors have settled into a comfortable and predictable rotation which has largely yielded four distinct units. Those are:
- The starters (Lowry, DeRozan, Johnson, Scola, Valanciunas)
- The DeRozan and bench (Joseph, DeRozan, Ross, Patterson, Bismack)
- The Lowry and bench (Lowry, Joseph, Ross, Patterson, Bismack)
- The closers (Lowry, Joseph, DeRozan, Patterson, Valanciunas)
Notice a trend? Every single lineup includes one (or both) DeRozan and Lowry. Casey has opted to stagger the minutes of his two all-stars so that save for garbage time, the Raptors never go without at least one of Lowry and DeRozan on the court.
The cost to this approach, however, is two-fold.
One, it leaves almost no latitude for DeRozan or Lowry to rest. If one of them is getting rest, the other one is out there pulling teeth. So unless the Raptors absolutely demolish the competition (and sometimes that’s not even enough, as seen with Lowry and DeRozan playing in a 17-point game with 3 minutes left against the Wizards last week), there’s no rest for either player. That’s why they’re 5th and 6th in the NBA for minutes played this season.
Two, they’re not good enough to overcome the shortcomings of their teammates. The Valanciunas-Scola combination is a sinkhole and it’s why the Raptors always get themselves into a huge hole. It’s always on the DeMar bench crew to stem the tide until Lowry and bench can regain the lead. And with both of them apart, it’s hard to even build up a lead large enough to sufficiently put teams to bed.
The problem is this: the regular season is a marathon, followed by a dead sprint in the playoffs. There’s no sense in having DeRozan and Lowry sprint for a huge lead over the course of 26 miles, only to be utterly lapped by fresher teams for the final dash.
The Raptors have assets to address their weaknesses. They have prospects, they have surplus picks, and they even have two decent young players in Ross and Valanciunas signed to long-term extensions (albeit, trading them would spark the poison-pill thing that I have no idea how it works but it sounds fucking awful).
The Raptors have what it takes to load up before the playoffs. It becomes a question of a) who’s available, and b) who they should get.
(I’m not going to get into trade rumors and the sort. They’re already out there. Playing GM is really hard, and quite honestly, it’s frustrating as hell to discuss unreasonable proposals with unrealistic people. So there won’t be any tangible proposals in this column)
I have no inside information, so I won’t speak to (a), but the answer to (b) is pretty simple. They need a capable frontcourt player, and past that, maybe a larger two/three type who can score enough to allow for Lowry and DeRozan to rest.
For me, someone like Ryan Anderson or Markieff Morris would make a huge difference on this team. Al Horford would be a dream. Basically, any mobile four who can shoot and make plays would be huge because Lowry and DeRozan will face traps come time for the playoffs. Being able to shoot and exist without the ball is also important because they can’t bring in someone who would disrupt the Raptors’ existing schemes.
Past that, the Raptors should also look at a wing who can do a bit of scoring, or at the very least, a combo guard in the mould of Lou Williams (BUT NOT LOU HIMSELF, I’M THE ONLY WILL LOU ON THIS TEAM) – someone they can pair with Joseph and Ross.
Nic Batum would be a dream. Maybe the Rockets move Trevor Ariza. I wouldn’t mind Arron Afflalo from the Knicks (weakening them in the process would be fun), and hey, maybe even an Alec Burks (if he comes back healthy).
The biggest hurdle in all of this is the Raptors’ cap structure. They would need to match salaries within 25 percent for any deal. That means Scola and Johnson would need to be included in any mid-tier salary range ($5-10 million) and anything more would have Patterson in the mix (up to $14 million with all three).
Trouble is, with the Raptors already being so weak at power forward, parting with a struggling Patterson might be really tough, especially since his defense is still incredibly vital to the second unit.
But in terms of assets, the Raptors have enough liquid assets (picks, prospects) to rival anyone outside of Utah, Philly, and Boston. So after Boston and Utah make upgrades (they’re not as win-now as the Raptors, but they’re trying to make a jump too), it’s the Raptors who have best rebuilding package.
Any talk of trade deadline decisions has to take into account the big picture. How have the Raptors gone about their team building strategy, and how does a win-now trade disrupt their plans.
It’s fair to hold reservations over Ujiri trading future pieces for rentals. Who knows what Delon Wright turns into, or who will be available with those spent picks? It’s tough to give those up for someone like Anderson, who is a free agent this summer and is in line for a massive raise. Think about it in just pure financial terms: Wright and a pick would cost no more than $5 million for the next three years. Anderson could get a max deal (~$100 million) this summer.
That being said, there’s also an opportunity cost to development. We’re already seeing the effects of how having Wright-Bebe-Bruno-Powell-Bennett is seriously cramping the Raptors’ playable depth. It makes any injury – even tiny ones like James Johnson spraining an ankle – thrust undue stress on DeRozan, Ross, Joseph, and Lowry because Powell isn’t ready.
It’s basically impossible for the Raptors to keep their next four first-round picks because there’s simply not enough room on the roster. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine a) that any of them will be meaningful contributors next season, or b) gaining trade value while they’re sitting on the bench.
Is developing these players worth punting some of Lowry and DeRozan’s prime?
To not try in all earnest to win with this current core, frankly, is wasting the current core. DeRozan is a free agent this summer, Lowry will be next summer. They’re 26 and 29, respectively, and they’re at the top of their games.
There’s also the added wrinkle of the Raptors’ soon-to-be bungled cap sheet. Once DeRozan re-ups for the max (it’s a certainty), the Raptors will be capped out. There will still be small exceptions for them to fill their current small exceptions (ie: Scola, Biyombo), but there’s not much room for much else.
That’s why grabbing someone’s Bird Rights, even on a rental, is still valuable for the Raptors. So what if Nic Batum and Ryan Anderson might leave? Sheeeeiiiit, if they play a huge part in the Raptors going to the Eastern Conference Finals, why not retain them?
Finally, I hate to even bring this up, but I think it’s a good idea to recalibrate our expectations for how far this team, led by two guards who failed carry their team out of the first round in each of the past two seasons, can really go.
Barring the impossible from Ujiri in terms of a superstar acquisition, can the Raptors ever beat LeBron James and company in a playoff series? And honestly, even if they do, is there any team on Earth that can knock off the Warriors any time soon (seriously, they might get Kevin Freaking Durant)?
The answer is no.
But we are where we are. The Raptors have built a strong team around two really good players. And while they might never make the championship, that’s not enough of a disincentive, at least for me, to not try their best to win. Everyone said coming into the season that winning a round would be a huge success. Well, what about two? And if they somehow take a few bites out of the Cavaliers, then that’s enough of an achievement for me to rock my DeRozan jersey while having a one-man pity parade down Yonge St. It’s about as much as any team could hope for while the LeBron and Curry are still near their peaks.
If you will, I just want to end with a trip down memory lane. Two and a half years ago, the Raptors were in complete shambles. Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan formed the devil version of the Splash Brothers with all their bricked long-twos, Lowry was out the door for Iman Shumpert and a pick, Ross was a disappointment, and Valanciunas was the lone future of this franchise.
Things didn’t turn out that way. By sheer luck, we got to where we are now. DeRozan became an efficient scorer, Lowry became a fucking superstar, and we’re sitting in a position where we could even have a conversation about making a win-now move. It’s crazy how things work out, or how some things don’t work out (sorry, JV). But we’re here anyway.
Let’s make the most of it.