February 24, 2024

Toronto Raptors should be dealing liberally at trade deadline: Koreen


NEW ORLEANS — A delicate, resigned song called “Everything Must Go!” starts The Weakerthans’ album from 2000, “Left and Leaving.” In it, lead singer John K. Samson lists a host of items representing his youth and a relationship that has ended— some tangible, most not — that are up for grabs at a fictional garage sale held on a dark night of his soul. You read the title: Some desperation is involved.

As the song winds to a discordant end, Samson has a final message to anybody with some interest: “Or best offer.”

And hey, here we are, the Toronto Raptors are in the final few days before Thursday’s trade deadline. This is not a good team, a fate mercifully accepted with the OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam trades.

“The whole league is in this waiting period now,” Raptors coach Darko Rajaković said Monday, before the New Orleans Pelicans enthusiastically dismissed his team 138-100. “I think all the players, all the coaches, they just want to wake up on February 9th and know what the team looks like and then continue from there. It’s a real thing for everybody.”

As constructed for their 50th game, the Raptors roster can be split into three groups:

• Players who will definitely have a role on next year’s team: Scottie Barnes, Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett, Gradey Dick and, assuming a contender doesn’t offer something notably more than they paid for him last deadline, Jakob Poeltl.

• Young players who might have a chance to compete for a role on next year’s team: Jordan Nwora and the three players on two-way contracts — Jontay Porter, Markquis Nowell and Javon Freeman-Liberty. Only Porter, currently out with a back injury, has played meaningfully for the Raptors this year.

• Players of various ages on short contracts who aren’t obvious keepers: Bruce Brown, Gary Trent Jr., Dennis Schröder, Chris Boucher, Kira Lewis Jr., Jalen McDaniels, Otto Porter Jr., Thaddeus Young and Garrett Temple. For the Raptors, it’s not necessarily an everything must go situation, but it’s not far off.

Let’s rephrase Samson’s work: Everything could go, and it wouldn’t be a big deal.

Any expected return in a Raptors trade must be tempered both because of who they would be offering, as well as what many contenders have to offer. Teams such as the Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns, all with designs on winning, have no first-round draft picks to trade at the moment. Some teams have picks but not much desirable salary. It has gotten to the point where teams such as the Suns have traded the right to swap picks to make moves, given they have nothing else available.

Alas, Brown is the only player on the Raptors roster who has the possibility of bringing in a first-rounder, and even his situation is tricky because he is overpaid strictly from a salary-to-production standpoint, and has a $23 million team option for next year that would either be seen as a boon for a team looking for a rental and then to get under the tax or the punitive second apron, or a negative to a team that wants a long-term contributor. Making matters more complicated: The Raptors will have at least two first-rounders in this year’s draft, considered weak, and possibly a third if their pick lands in the top-six. They have another high second-rounder, from Detroit, via the Anunoby trade. Gathering another draft pick in 2024 doesn’t make a lot of sense other than for the possibility of combining it with other picks and players to get something or someone who fits better.

With someone like Trent, there would come the point where the return, if it is paltry, might be worth less than retaining his Bird rights and the Raptors’ potential to bring him back just above the midlevel exception, which would represent a pay cut. Aside from his 3-point shooting, though, he has not had a good year. With Schröder, if the Raptors are not overwhelmed, it might be useful to keep him and his $13 million salary next year for trade purposes.

However, in general, the approach should be to get what they can for the final group of players, as it behooves the Raptors to see how much the top nine players can give them. That is not because the Raptors should be trying to lose games in order to increase the odds they keep their top six-protected pick this June — the protection would just move to next year, in that case, which would just delay the organizational purgatory. Instead, it is because those players aren’t helping the Raptors win in any event. While keeping a veteran or two is good for the locker room and on-court structure, nobody in that final group is radically changing what this group will be capable of this year or next. None of them are under contract beyond that.

The reality? Boucher doesn’t have the passing acumen to fit in with Rajaković’s offensive system, nor does Trent, although his shooting is a helpful release valve. Schröder is a very good backup point guard, but that position is far more important on a team trying to be good rather than a team fine with being bad for the time being. Young and Porter are potentially useful to good teams at the end of a rotation or as insurance against injury, and their contracts expire at the end of the season. Whether it is through cap space or exceptions, the Raptors will have the means to bring in veterans next year to help steer the young roster toward respectability and responsible play.

So, bring on the second-round picks, and maybe a first-rounder if you can find one. Bring on the expiring contracts or young players other teams have given up on who still might be able to find a place in the league. Bring all of that back to Toronto in trades. Or best offer.

Notes

• This game was not close from the start. Even when equally matched, the Pelicans have way more size and depth than the Raptors. Coming off a double-overtime loss in Oklahoma City, the Raptors were flat from the start. The Pelicans having Zion Williamson and Herb Jones, who have been in and out of the lineup, made the game especially lopsided. The Raptors could not do anything productive offensively early, and it was on from there.

“Fatigue is part of this league,” Rajaković said. “And this is a league in which there are no excuses and nobody’s asking you, ‘What did you do yesterday?’ You have a job to do today. And our performance today was unacceptable. This is not the way we want to go about business.”

Brandon Ingram had a furious close to the third quarter, hitting five 3s in 145 seconds of game time. He finished with 41 points in just three quarters, with only the score holding him below 50.

• I think that was an (unintentional?) nutmeg of Larry Nance Jr. from Nwora to Brown. Look, if I highlighted the bad stuff, we’d been here for a while.

• Dick has been playing much better since his return to regular play following the trades, and that led to a 15-point first half in New Orleans. Dick has gotten much better physically, which has shown up more defensively. Finally, he got it going from all over the floor. His confidence was obvious. He finished with 22 points, one below his season-high set with Raptors 905.

• Temple played 85 games over two years for the Pelicans, and he got a welcome back video. That is nice, and it seems likely that if it had been someone not universally liked throughout the league, maybe there would have been no such honour.

“He brought a ton of leadership to our program,” New Orleans coach Willie Green said. “Especially with me being a first-year head coach, leaning on him on just concepts and how (players) like practice time and, ‘What do you think about team dinners and just doing different things?’ Obviously we got some chances to golf together. So he’s a consummate pro and it’s a reason that he’s having a great career and a long career.”

I like the idea of Temple playing as long as he wants to play for the veteran minimum. The only rule: He must play for a team with a first-year coach every season.

• Barrett did not play on the second night of a back-to-back, with the Raptors managing the swollen knee that kept him out of three games. Trent left the game after the first half with back stiffness.

• There were a fair number of Raptors fans on hand, which I’m sure had nothing to do with the ongoing celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

 (Photo: Layne Murdoch Jr. / NBAE via Getty Images)





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