Raptors left with more questions after trade deadline

The Toronto Raptors are left with more questions than answers following an anti-climactic trade deadline.

For one, is this imperfect Raptors team still trying to salvage this cursed season in Tampa Bay? Isn’t this the same squad that was torpedoed by a 2-8 start and then undercut by a nine-game losing streak? Wasn’t it last week when we watched them get punked by Collin Sexton while Pascal Siakam saved his frustrations for Nick Nurse after being benched for third stringers? Was that not followed by a blowout courtesy of the Houston Rockets who snapped a 20-game losing streak? 

And if they are serious about making up ground, how does flipping their most consistent scorer in Norman Powell into a less capable shooting guard achieve their goal over the next two months?

As the deadline approached on Thursday, it was clear that the Raptors were selling. This is a team that is closer to top-five in the lottery than they are to being top-eight in a three-team conference, so moving off their veterans was both prudent and understandable. Turning Powell into Gary Trent Jr. was shrewd, liquidating Matt Thomas and Terence Davis into second-round picks was good value, and the last move was to bite the bullet and send franchise icon Kyle Lowry off to a contender to recoup some pieces.

But the most pivotal move never materialized. One by one, teams shifted from Lowry to Plan B as the market for Toronto’s most beloved star shrank. The Sixers settled on veteran guard George Hill, which doesn’t move the needle but it also didn’t cost anything. The Heat had Victor Oladipo in their back pocket and never budged on Tyler Herro. The Lakers wouldn’t even discuss Talen Horton-Tucker, who is averaging all of eight points on 25 percent shooting from deep while also the cusp of free agency. And so the Raptors were left holding the bag, and while nobody would ever be so ungracious as to refuse more time with Lowry, it does leave the team in an awkward spot.

First, will the Raptors re-sign Lowry this summer or do they risk yet another championship piece walking for nothing? He was reportedly looking for a two-year, $50-million contract which is fair given his production, but if the Raptors pay up while also accommodating Trent Jr.’s raise, there will be no significant cap room for necessary upgrades in the summer. And in doing so, there would still be a gaping hole at center, and still a dearth of viable bench pieces which are both needed for getting the Raptors back to relevancy. If the Raptors try to lowball Lowry in an attempt to use that money elsewhere, that runs the risk of repeating the Serge Ibaka fiasco where a prideful veteran takes less money to compete elsewhere. A sign-and-trade is possible and perhaps most likely, but the majority of those transactions net little of value.

The Toronto Raptors let the NBA trade deadline come and go without clarifying the direction of this team at all. (Getty)

The Toronto Raptors let the NBA trade deadline come and go without clarifying the direction of this team at all. (Getty)

Second, is pushing for the play-in tournament worth it over a chance to play the lottery? There’s no doubt that the Raptors have enough quality to climb back to even, only concerns over time running out, but what exactly would the be fighting for anyway? For a chance to see Aron Baynes play 40 minutes a night against Joel Embiid? For a sweep against a comically stacked Nets team that would have the three best players in the series? Is that really better than collecting one of the five touted stars in this year’s draft? And if they did truly want to compete, wouldn’t it make more sense to turn Powell into a dependable center to restore balance on the roster? Or will Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby keep playing out of position just to compensate?

There is a reason why the Raptors were sellers in the first place. The culmination of losing both centers last fall, failing to add any impact players, being uprooted to the petri dish of America during a pandemic, having four game-saving shots by Siakam roll in and out, and then being undercut by the most untimely virus outbreak possible made the decision for the Raptors. The prudent move was to reload, to move their veterans, to accumulate as much young talent as possible, to find a promising big to complement the three core wing players, and to score a decent lottery pick as a token for all their misfortunes this season. Maybe it was too ambitious to address all those concerns with only the expiring contracts of Lowry and Powell at the deadline, but were any of those objectives completed?

There is no way that Raptors president Masai Ujiri woke up on Thursday morning, wrote the lateral Powell-Trent trade on his to-do list, and called it a day. What happened on deadline day did not go according to plan, and that is becoming an unfortunate theme. Kawhi Leonard becoming the first Finals MVP to ditch wasn’t the plan, losing home-court advantage despite finishing with the second-best record in the league wasn’t the plan, Siakam turning into a pumpkin against the Celtics wasn’t the plan, Ibaka and Gasol both taking discounts to leave wasn’t the plan, moving 2,000 kilometers away wasn’t the plan, and Lowry still being on the team as the Raptors reload — jammed halfway — definitely wasn’t part of the plan.

That’s not to say the Raptors are stuck, or that their outlook is bleak. It takes two to make a deal, and settling for scraps is beneath that of a franchise player still in his prime. There is the possibility that the Raptors get something better through a sign-and-trade this summer, or that Lowry walking in free agency creates the flexibility to make an important signing. This roster might be flawed to the point where they still collect a high draft pick even if they don’t outright tank. 

But the biggest question left unanswered following the trade deadline is which direction are the Raptors headed? 

And with Ujiri still refusing to answer for his own future beyond this season, it leaves an unsettling feeling to go with a deeply imperfect roster.

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