Breaking News

By acting conservatively at trade deadline, Ujiri still put Raptors in a place of risk

There is always the chance that it will all make sense in time and the logic of the moves made or not made will seem self-evident in retrospect.

But the reverse is also true: that in time — and maybe sooner than later — some decisions will be exposed as overly cautious or choosing short-term gain over long-term benefit.

Or maybe Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster are just old softies, and they couldn’t bear to part with players who they drafted, developed, and won with, so much so that the only move they made was to reacquire an old friend they never wanted to trade in the first place. 

What they did do was defensible. In adding one-time Raptor and now former San Antonio Spurs centre Jakob Poeltl, Toronto got the best player in the trade, one that fits a need and fits culturally. And they did it without giving up a rotation piece, apologies to veteran out-going centre Khem Birch.  

But it feels like a half measure, and maybe it is. Maybe it’s a management team looking at the Raptors’ NBA-worst 3-10 record in close games and thinking that before they hang it on the coach or rush to judgement about players, ‘let’s see if a few leaks can be plugged before everything gets tossed overboard’. 

As well, bigger picture, if Scottie Barnes is auditioning as the Raptors No.1 option and franchise lynchpin, maybe let’s have him play in a balanced lineup rounded out by a high IQ veteran big man (Poeltl) and see if his growth can be accelerated that much more.

In that context, while adding the Spurs big man seems at first glance like the Raptors lunging clumsily for a play-in spot, maybe a larger purpose is being served. 

Because without that kind of strategic ballast, the move on its own — and the lack of other moves to compliment it — seems underwhelming. 

Virtually all the discussion surrounding the Raptors for the past month has been in the context of a team that’s playing poorly and has chemistry issues — Ujiri brought up bouts of selfish play more than once when he spoke Thursday after the deadline — among a core of players facing contract decisions and a roster with more holes than a single move could address. 

Add it all up and it seemed this was the time to be bold. 

And if being bold wasn’t an option in the short term, it was at least a time to chart a course and explain for the people how a team now four years removed from their championship glory was going to get back there again. 

Talk is cheap, of course. 

And it’s fair that if the franchise is giving consideration to moving on from O.G. Anunoby or Pascal Siakam — the players on the Raptors roster most likely to generate a franchise-changing haul of young talent and picks in a reset or rebuild or retool — maybe waiting until the summer is the wise move. 

As Ujiri said. “In the summer there are 29 losers looking to make their team better.” 

Again, absent that line of thinking, adding the player who Toronto drafted in 2016 with the ninth pick and traded to the Spurs in the summer of 2018 in the deal that brought Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors feels like doubling down on a low-ceiling group that has struggled play .500 basketball so far this season. 

Maybe some other factors were at play. 

Perhaps the rapid shift in the market, with Kyrie Irving and then Kevin Durant demanding — and getting — trades from Brooklyn to Dallas and Phoenix respectively, was disruptive to other teams trying to make big swing deals. The Nets profiled as a interesting partner for the Raptors to engage with when they still had Durant, but less so when they acquired a slew of draft picks and a pair of good young wings from the Suns. 

And the Suns — another team that were rumoured to have been possible partners in deals for Anunoby or Siakam? Well suddenly they were full. 

Still, even acting conservatively comes with risks. Going into the deadline, a popular line of thinking was that the Raptors would have to trade one of Fred VanVleet or Gary Trent Jr. since both were likely pending free agents this summer and signing both could push the Raptors to the edge of the luxury tax — not the place to be for a mid-pack team.

Now, the Raptors have added Poeltl’s free agency to contend with as well. VanVleet, Trent Jr. and Poeltl together could command salaries in the range of $70 million combined in 2023-24. Failing to sign any or all of them risks losing valuable players for no return, a huge no-no that would be the management equivalent of falling asleep at the wheel on the highway. Meanwhile, the Raptors needing to sign all of them will give each of them considerable leverage at contract time. 

Alternatively? Another way out of a pending money crunch would be to trade Anunoby or Siakam in the summer, a wrinkle that bears watching. 

“The way I look at the deadline (is) it’s really not a great place to make long-term decisions,” said Ujiri. “That’s one of the ways we looked at it in terms of some of the things we were getting … hopefully we can have a little bit of patience. Everything we could have done today maybe we could do in the summer.” 

Another risk is that adding Poeltl will likely cost the Raptors draft position this season — they’re just 3.5 games out of the fifth-best odds at the top pick in a talented, top-heavy draft. Conceivably the Raptors could still tank, but it’s unlikely. 

And by trading away a first-round pick to the Spurs that’s top-six protected in 2024 (2025 or 2026 if the Raptors don’t end up picking somewhere between 7th and 30th they lose the pick) and two more unprotected second-round picks, the Raptors are prioritizing being a playoff team without any obvious route to being a team that could win a series when it gets there. 

For now anyway. In the meantime? The 2024 draft is widely considered one of the weaker ones in some years, certainly not worth tanking for. The protections are a calculated risk but as long as Toronto plays decently next season — in whatever configuration — sending away a protected pick in a soft draft is not a move that is likely to haunt them. 

But it wasn’t a great day for those who want clarity and certainty. Rather than lines in the sand or a path to the stars, Ujiri offered only the ‘everything in time’ approach. Trust and stick with us. 

As slogans go it’s not the sexiest, but you have to acknowledge the sincerity.

“We’re trying. I think we’re trying. Growth is not linear,” said Ujiri. “We’ve had a really bumpy road (this season). That’s what you expect sometimes with a young team. We have a young team. I think players have made progress individually (but) as a team, it’s been up and down. We had a really rough stretch. But I believe in these guys. We believe in them. We think growth sometimes takes a while. There’s a level of impatience now with how we think about things and do things. Hopefully we can have a little bit of patience.”

They can have all the patience they want. Ujiri is in the second year of a five-year contract and Webster has all the job security Ujiri can offer. They have steered the Raptors to eight playoff appearances in nine years and counting, with their championship rings handy to wave at anybody who wants to push back on their methods with too much vigour. 

But in the NBA patience has a cost too. On Friday night, the Raptors host the Utah Jazz. Poeltl, 27 and with seven seasons as a quality, role playing, defensive-minded big on his resume will likely start. Opposite him will be Jazz rookie big man Walker Kessler who dominated the Raptors at times last week in Salt Lake City. 

Kessler is what happens when you act decisively and go all in on rebuilding quickly, rather than incrementally. This time last season, Utah was an elite team on the wrong side of its peak.

Jazz president Danny Ainge proceeded to not only rip off the bandaids but add iodine to them. He traded franchise cornerstones Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell in the summer and made some additional moves at the deadline Thursday. The result is a treasure trove of future draft assets, a young all-star in Laurie Markkanen, Kessler who has the look of an all-NBA defender and Ochai Agbaji, who looks like a quality two-way player at shooting guard. All this on a team that’s two games under .500 and in perfect position to do anything: try to make the playoffs, tank into a deep lottery position, chase the next star that comes available by trade, package picks to climb in the draft or patiently draft and develop with multiple kicks at the can over time. 

The Jazz picked a path, just as some of the NBA’s other encouraging turnaround stories did before them. The Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic, and Oklahoma City Thunder all made tough choices — or were forced into making tough choices — to move on from superstars or recognize when teams had reached their ceiling.

The turnaround hasn’t always been smooth or without hiccups, and luck played a role, but in each case the results are encouraging young teams with obvious upside. 

Do any of those adjectives fit the Raptors because they added Poeltl? The team’s best players — VanVleet and Siakam — will be 29 by season’s end and haven’t been able to lift the team this season. Anunoby has been widely reported as unhappy in his role with the Raptors and that doesn’t project to change unless he does. The most encouraging elements on the team are its younger core — 21-year-old Scottie Barnes, 23-year-old Precious Achiuwa, 24-year-old Gary Trent Jr. and 25-year-old Anunoby. But adding Poeltl seems to be more of an investment in the present of VanVleet and Siakam than that of the future. Poeltl’s presence could eat into Achiuwa’s minutes, Barnes’ room to operate and rookie centre Christian Koloko’s horizon. 

Seeing exactly how far the current group can go with just a bit of help isn’t a bad investment, but even then it’s a bit underwhelming. On a day when some pretty good players moved for bundles of second-round picks the Raptors didn’t jump on that train either and missed chances at snapping up the kind of role players — shooters and playmakers — that would tell the team and everyone else that they’re going to live and die with the current group. 

Make no mistake. At the end of the day, the Raptors are better now with Poeltl than they were yesterday without him. But for the moment, Toronto doesn’t come across as a team that’s going places, and if they are, they’re heading there slowly. 

Sometimes in the NBA being too patient means you get run over.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *