With news this weekend that Indiana had signed Andrew Bynum, the Pacers inadvertently sounded the bell announcing the next critical phase of the season: the trade deadline.

Larry Bird was quick to say this move was made as an insurance policy for added depth, but many are second-guessing why this tight-knit squad would open their arms to Bynum, whose presence has been best described as cancerous. Since Frank Vogel is a respected coach and Bird won’t suffer fools, others are speculating the move was made simply to remove Bynum from the open market before their competition did.

Undeniably, this move hastened preparations by each team in the league to finalize their 2014 goals and ultimately determine if they will be buyers or sellers. Buyers will look to fill holes in their roster via one of: role players who’ll function in a specialist capacity, an established star who could push a middling team immediately into the upper stratum, or a veteran to work with a young squad and serve as an experienced leader. Conversely, sellers will look to shed hefty contracts and simultaneously hope to grab additional picks for a draft class touted to be the prime of the decade, much like 1984, 1996 and 2003 were in theirs.

Probing previous February trades here are examples of players who met specific needs:

Kendrick Perkins/Derek Fisher: At the time of these trades Oklahoma City was one of the youngest NBA squads with limited playoff experience. These two veterans brought a winning culture and filled specific holes in the roster. Though OKC have not missed the post-season since the acquisition of these veterans, they remain a relatively young team, especially with James Harden and Kevin Martin having departed. The difference is Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – though only in their six and fifth years, they are now considered playoff veterans by virtue of getting to the Conference Championship in 2011 and the Finals in 2012.

Rasheed Wallace: The late February acquisition of Wallace by the Pistons was completed to fill specific needs of depth, 3-point shooting and defense. He immediately fit in with the existing team which went on to upset the Lakers for the championship and helped Detroit return the following year.

Carmelo Anthony: The most recent example of a deadline deal for a franchise star was when Ujiri dealt Anthony in a multi-player deal in 2011. Looking at where the pick-less Knicks are this season versus the absolute glut of talent that ended up in Denver, it’s no wonder these types of trades are rare. The risk/reward element can make or break a General Manager’s career, not to mention what it can do to the future of a franchise if the bet doesn’t pay off.

With these categories in mind I pondered what, if any, activity Toronto would have in the coming weeks. On January 25th Rod Black asked Ujiri if he would become a buyer at the trade deadline: following a giggle he replied “That’s for you to find out”.  After the initial big trade by Masai, majority opinion was Toronto was about to blow up the roster, but the subsequent emergence of the team as a top-four seed, coupled with the virtual impossibility to fail badly enough to rank among the tankers set the Raptors on their current course.  That and the fact Masai has consistently said Toronto will not finish in the middle leads me to believe he’ll want to add depth so the Raptors can finish strong, take the Atlantic Division, and gain valuable playoff experience.  The dilemma is about who he would shop, especially considering the chemistry of the current unit. Trading the wrong player or adding the wrong piece could completely upset the chemistry and progress made to date.

So let’s imagine we are in Masai Ujiri’s shoes approaching February 20. Some of the questions we’d be asking are:

  • What areas need the most immediate help?
  • Which players can we dangle to obtain a coveted player?
  • Which contracts would we like to shed?
  • Who do we want to retain for the future core?
  • What contracts are expiring?
  • Will the schedule play a role – if a trade is made, what teams will the Raptors face during the adjustment period?
  • Which teams will be most likely to participate in a deal as a direct partner or in a third-party capacity?

The following is my musings on the above questions and suggestions on possible direction; I invite you to offer your own perspective given the many variables. Trust me it’s fun to play armchair General Manager and spend other people’s money.

The back court is arguably the strongest area for the Raptors with Lowry and DeRozan and suitable bench replacements in Vasquez and Salmons. The front court features two improving sophomores (Ross and Valanciunas), a reliable cost effective vet in Amir Johnson, the steal of the trade in Patrick Patterson along with energy, experience and toughness from Hansbrough and Hayes. 

These ten players are the current nucleus of what has worked to vault the Raptors from a losing record of 4-12 to 22-10 or a 68.8% winning percentage since the trade!

I’ve pinpointed our immediate need as a back-up center who can handle some of the bigger, agile, big men, an area Valanciunas is still adjusting to.

In terms of who is the best option to trade I imagine my response will create the greatest debate, but I personally believe our options are extremely limited. In an ideal world we would shed Fields’ albatross contract, but his recent surgery makes him untradeable. Therefore the option is to either chance removal of a key contributor or one of the four players who aren’t receiving consistent playing time.

Ultimately I settled on the two players who represent specific assets playoff teams would be seeking: Steve Novak for his three point shooting and Tyler Hansbrough for his energy and rebounding. Ideally we’d keep Tyler given several losses occurred during his absence, but perhaps Masai can turn his unique assets into an immediate and future positive. The other possibilities would affect the existing core and would require immediate decisions of Toronto’s long term plan.There are a number of options which could include any of DeRozan, Lowry or Vasquez but given the choice and barring an absolutely lopsided steal I’d keep these players so the existing functioning squad gains valuable playoff experience and offers Ujiri the opportunity to assess their performance in the post-season.

When determining who the core assets were I chose to follow the OKC and Portland model of keeping the youthful foundation together. Obviously our two sophomores form a crucial portion of this nucleus, Valanciunas due to his projected potential and because there are so few true big men in the NBA and Ross specifically because of how rapidly he has displayed growth on defense and potential on offense since being inserted into the starting line-up. I’m of the opinion that Amir Johnson is an untouchable for a number of reasons but mainly because he is a steal at his price, is a vet with 8 years in the league who won’t turn 27 until May and literally functions as the on-court defensive captain and off-court team ambassador.

After these three things get tricky, but bear with me on why each has a valid reason to remain a core asset.

DeRozan ranks 11th in the league in scoring has become the team’s main go-to guy and is comfortable in that role, has improved in areas beside scoring since Gay’s departure,  is durable and at $40 million over four years (in the 2nd year of this contract) would be difficult to replace for the price.

Patrick Patterson is a steal for his current salary especially given his upside and age (24). As a restricted free agent the Raptors could match any offers he receives this summer. Perhaps more importantly he is an intelligent guy who works hard and is dedicated to improving his entire game.

vasquez-ross-patterson

Conceivably the biggest question mark surrounds the future at the point and it’s where I’m most adamant in my stance.  I feel the Raptors should lock Kyle Lowry down right now. He is and always will be a bulldog competitor as it’s in his DNA. The fact it’s a contract year is irrelevant; his Raptor tenure began following off-season surgery which affected his preparation, regardless he was consistently the player trying to spearhead comebacks when the Raptors were already predestined to go fishing. My belief is he’ll want to remain in Toronto since the only team I think that could honestly sway him has Michael Carter-Williams earmarked for the long term.

Lowry has had a tumultuous career having to prove and re-prove himself as a starter and this season he’s not only underlined that, but in doing so he’s been the most consistent Raptor on the floor. His performance since his best friend’s departure improved exponentially when he no longer had to give the ball up only to watch it die in isolation. Lowry’s excelled in the role of quarterback, spearheading decisions and picking his spots to score when necessary. He’s one of only two guards this season with 100 three pointers and 300 assists (Stephen Curry is the other). We saw recently how easily he can put up 30 points and still achieve his assist average when DeMar DeRozan was injured, so the fact his focus remains on ball distribution speaks volumes.

If you are of the belief we should trade him ask yourself who replaces him; certainly not Greivis Vasquez. Granted Vasquez’s contrasting style is a perfect complement to Lowry and offers the opportunity to play them together. But Vasquez is nowhere near ready to assume the lead role nor has he yet proved he could come close to filling Lowry’s defensive shoes.  What point guard who isn’t currently in the top 5-7 at their position can do for the team what Lowry can, and would cost less to re-sign than Lowry? Exactly!

Salmons and Hayes have demonstrated the true value of veteran leadership so retaining them through to the end of the season seems like a no brainer.  Recently, these two vets have played valuable minutes in close games and the Raptors have reaped benefits from these efforts. Imagine what they’ll offer during a playoff run with the majority of the team experiencing the post-season for their first time. There will be time in the summer to assess what to do with these two players but for my money, veteran leadership is an undervalued commodity in today’s game. Just ask New York or Cleveland.

To that end, each of these nine to ten players receiving the bulk of playing time provide a piece to the puzzle, but perhaps the reason this specific group is proving to be so successful is that they are quality people. No one person is selfish, acts like a prima donna or puts his individual game ahead of the team.

To put this in perspective, imagine where Toronto would be had they started the season together. Further, looking at the Portland game offers even more evidence to sway the scales to retain them. Portland is a top seed in the tough Western Conference, but on three day’s rest they faced a Raptor squad with 3 players just back from injury (4 if you count Hansbrough) who were playing in the second game of a back-to-back and yet Toronto almost beat them. The reason is Portland’s bench doesn’t come close to offering what the Raptors have gained through the addition of the four players who came over in via the trade, nor do many teams in the league have a defense as tough as the Raptors which will only improve the longer the core remains intact.

fullteam

Breaking down Toronto’s remaining 34 games they have 6 games left to play versus the top 8 seeds in the West and 5 versus teams above them in the East; 3 of which are against their current see saw partners for the third seed: Atlanta.  Twelve games feature cellar-dwellers:  Orlando, Boston, Sacramento and Milwaukee (2 each), Philadelphia (1) and Cleveland (3). Assuming Toronto can maintain their winning percentage, which isn’t a stretch since 23 of the 34 games feature teams either below .500 or not currently seeded I estimate Toronto will finish with 48 wins. This number merits pause.  That’s one more than the year they won the Atlantic Division and would set a record for the highest win total ever.

In review, my assessment calls for the core 9-10 players to stay put through to season’s end, Lowry’s contract to be renewed, focus of any trade be on adding back-up front court depth and for Novak to be isolated as the bait with Hansbrough on the back burner should an equivalent value be available.

With these armchair GM decisions in place all that remains is to be deciphered is what teams would be open to trades and whether they:

  • Have something the Raptors need/want
  • Are looking to add a 3 point specialist
  • Could be leveraged in a multiple team deal
  • Have multiple draft picks available

Available Bigs:

  • Omer Asik: Currently rides the pine in Houston suffering a similar fate to what Lowry experienced under Kevin McHale’s leadership.
  • Greg Monroe: Detroit failed to negotiate a contract extension allowing him to become a restricted free agent, but with money invested in Josh Smith and the long-term upside of Drummond, he’s likely to be at the forefront of deadline discussion.
  • Spencer Hawes: An unrestricted free agent who Philly may want to shop rather than sign long-term.
  • Channing Frye: Is in a player option year, offers size, 3 point shooting, plays in a similar team style and likely is affordable.
  • Boston has several big men who could fill a need, especially if a third team enters the equation looking to pluck one of the picks the Celtics have accumulated.
  • With the current demise in Cleveland, Tristan Thompson may be available. Certainly returning to his home town would be met with excitement and the Cavaliers are another franchise which holds multiple draft picks. At 6’9″ he’d be an undersized center, but he’s filled in for Varejao during injury and is a capable rebounder.

Frye offers the best option in my opinion because he could function in the back-up role and with the Suns holding up to four picks in this year’s draft (all protected at 10 and above) there is the possibility to involve a third party who can provide an immediate asset for the Suns in exchange for either Novak (and/or Hansbrough) with the potential to negotiate an inclusion of one of those 4 draft picks.

Teams looking to add depth with three point shooting:

Current 3-point Shooting FG% ranking:

  • Chicago – 27
  • Houston – 26
  • Minnesota – 23
  • Clippers – 21
  • Indiana – 19
  • Memphis – 17
  • Although Miami ranks ,8th the loss of Mike Miller has yet to be remedied

All the above teams (other than Miami) will most certainly be interested in adding a proven three point shooter of Novak’s caliber. Marrying the list with the previous Big Man list, Houston stands out as a possible contender especially if we return to looking at incorporating a third team like Phoenix who are seeking to add talent in exchange for draft picks or may be enticed to part with Frye.

Teams with multiple draft picks available:

  • Phoenix Suns
  • Boston Celtics
  • Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets
  • Cleveland

One Caveat

Vasquez offers versatility, but his defense and turnovers in late-game situations is an issue. Management may wait until the summer to address this but if there is an opportunity to pluck a vet (Andre Miller from Denver?) who can create off the dribble for a song it would be worthwhile.

I’d look to capitalize on the number of upper-seeded teams seeking 3-point shooting (sorry Steve, I’m sure you’re a nice guy) while trying to add an agile back-up center. And if I could have my cake and eat it too, I’d look to involve one of the teams with multiple drafts in an effort to pick up a second draft pick which could be married with the Raptors pick and possibly bundled in a package for one of the coveted top 5 picks.

But hey, I’m just role playing, I’ll leave the real work to Masai; the thing is I wouldn’t bet against him pulling off exactly what I’ve outlined.

Tipping off to another exciting week of Raptor basketball, follow me on Twitter.

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