Raptors appear forced to make decision on team direction at trade deadline

With Thursday’s trade deadline, team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have the rare opportunity to firmly choose a direction for the franchise. The options are plentiful.

At 11th in East with multiple valuable players, Toronto can either reload or rebuild

A basketball player in a white jersey puts his hands on his hips and he looks sideways.
Toronto forward O.G. Anunoby has been the centre of trade rumours with the deadline coming up next Thursday. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Toronto Raptors don't work.

Really, they haven't truly been successful since the 2020 championship defence when they fell in seven hard-fought second-round games to the Boston Celtics in the bubble.

The Tampa tank followed the next year. Last season, back in Toronto, a second-half run propelled the Raptors back to the playoffs, only to quickly fall behind the 76ers 3-0 in a first-round series that was eventually extended into a six-game loss.

Now, the Raptors are 25-30, in 11th place in the East and 4.5 games back of the No. 6 seed, which clinches an automatic playoff berth. Intriguingly for draft enthusiasts, that's also the sixth-worst record in the league.

It all amounts to nearly three years of evidence that this iteration of the Raptors carries a ceiling of 'feisty first-round opponent.'

It's not where you want to be as a franchise — stuck in the middle, not good enough to truly contend for a championship or bad enough to land high-end talent in the draft.

With Thursday's trade deadline, team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have the rare opportunity to firmly choose a direction for the franchise.

The options are plentiful.

There's the tempting blow-it-up play, in which you ditch the current core of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and O.G. Anunoby in favour of rebuilding around Scottie Barnes and the boatload of picks and young players that would come back in trades.

Or the Raptors could go in the opposite direction. If those players are so valuable, maybe you should just keep them and make the necessary moves to bolster the team around them. Notably, Toronto lacks rim protection and depth.

The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle.

WATCH | Raptors allow 131 points in loss to Jazz:

Raptors fall to Jazz as Markkanen, Kessler lead the way

4 months ago
Duration 0:55
Utah beats Toronto 131-128, Lauri Markkanen records 28 points and 13 rebounds while rookie Walker Kessler ties a career-high with seven blocks and collects 14 rebounds.

Options with Anunoby

Anunoby has been the subject of the most trade rumours. Whispers of unhappiness in his role have floated since the off-season, and a 25-year-old defensive stalwart who is also a dependable three-point shooter carries significant value.

The New York Knicks, per multiple reports, offered three first-round picks for Anunoby. Chris Haynes, an NBA insider for TNT and Bleacher Report, reported that the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are also interested.

Again, the Raptors could simply keep the good, young player with still-untapped potential.

But something about the Raptors just seems off. Their defensive intensity — a key part of Toronto's identity dating back to the beginning of the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan era — is absent. 

And "Vision 6'9," the theory of Toronto building its roster around a group of like-sized players who can fit multiple roles, appears to have resulted in redundancy.

Some combination of picks and young players coming back for Anunoby would provide the kind of flexibility, both in terms of assets and the roster itself, that the Raptors crave.

With the current season, now over 50 games old, looking more and more like a write-off, the trade could help propel the Raptors backwards for now, thus increasing their lottery odds in hopes of landing alien/unicorn Victor Wembanyama, the Frenchman considered the best prospect possibly since Anthony Davis, if not Kevin Durant or LeBron James.

Potential impending free agents

In pursuit of lottery balls, the Raptors could also choose to deal potential free agents VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr., though in both cases there are reasons to be cautious.

VanVleet is the heart of the team, an emotional and on-court leader who became a cult hero with his ascent during the 2019 Finals.

The Raptors' hard-working culture — seemingly absent this year, but exceedingly present for the previous 10 — is embodied by VanVleet, the undrafted free agent who famously bet on himself. If you believe in culture, you're loath to trade a guy like that.

A basketball player in a white jersey dribbles with his right hand as he attempts to get past an opponent in a purple jersey.
VanVleet, left, could become a free agent this off-season. (Rick Scuteri/The Associated Press)

Trent Jr., meanwhile, is the type of player the Raptors need — a 24-year-old career 38.5 per cent three-point shooter on the third-worst distance shooting team in the league. 

Sportsnet's Michael Grange reported that the return for Trent Jr. could be something like "a protected first-round or two good second-round picks, along with a matching salary." Is that worthwhile?

All-in scenarios

A true teardown would also include shedding Siakam, with the idea that the 28-year-old's timeline doesn't match with the 21-year-old Barnes. But dealing your best player in his prime, off a team with hopes of returning to the playoffs as soon as next season, seems ill-advised.

The question, then, is how best to build around Siakam and Barnes, with the hope that Barnes, who won Rookie of the Year last season, eventually evolves into an all-star. 

Maybe Toronto sees that happening as soon as 2024 and will look to add someone like San Antonio centre Jakob Poeltl, a former Raptors draft pick who would immediately shore up the centre position. Perhaps there's a need-for-need trade featuring Anunoby going out for one or two established players instead of futures.

In any case, it's clear that some sort of change for the Raptors is necessary.

What's most fascinating about the next two days is how Ujiri and Webster choose to define that.

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