Raptors Mailbag: Ronald Roberts, Raptors Royal Rumble, redundant trade talk, and more

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I don’t know what’s more surprising to me: That people still have trade questions, or that I’m still willing to answer them.

Before we get into the mailbag – now a regular feature when the Raptors have two-plus days off – a quick reminder that I’ve already spilled a lot of bandwidth on trades. That’s not a Barry Horowitz-like pat on my own back, it’s just meant as a refresher in the event it appears I glossed over an answer quickly (though I believe I answered every question, even if I had already answered it). Here’s a quick look back:

So, if you deem one of my answers insufficient, I guarantee I’ve written more about it elsewhere. Please don’t take it as me being dismissive of the question, there’s just a lot to get to. The mailbag starts with trade questions, then moves on to more general topics.

Trade Talk

He makes $15.5 million this season, which means finding a workable deal for him that would make the team better impossible. You’re talking Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph, or Patterson and three lower-salaried players to make the cap math work. Assuming Patterson is the highest-salaried player the Raptors are open to moving, $9.5 million is the top salary the Raptors can take back without moving multiple pieces. If you go Patterson and James Johnson (the other piece with a decent-sized salary I assume the Raptors believe is fungible), then that amount swells to $13.3 million. You’re just talking too many pieces to make a Lee deal work, and with his defensive shortcomings, he doesn’t improve the team enough to justify that.

As discussed with a Suns writer in the giant trade column, the Suns aren’t yet at a point where they’re willing to pay a team to take Markieff Morris. In this three-team framework, the Suns are surrendering a second to flip Morris for Patterson, something they’re not going to do (yet?). I also think if Houston wanted Morris, they’d work something out directly with Phoenix to get him cheaper – here, they’re giving up a useful piece in Trevor Ariza and a really talented player in Terrence Jones for Morris, cap filler, a lower-end prospect, and a pick they’d only find valuable for the purposes of flipping it.

While we’re here – I know Raptors fans love the idea of Jones, and I totally get it. I think he’s great and would be a nice fit. But why, exactly, do we think the Rockets are so gung-ho to deal him? Sure, he’s a restricted free agent with a cap hold that could limit flexibility in the summer, but he’s also a really useful player who’s super cheap for this year. Unless the Rockets fall out of the race further and are told Jones won’t re-sign (or they deem Donatas Motiejunas their guy), I think you’d have to make a pretty good win-win deal to pry him.

As for Morris, here’s what I wrote in the trade column (and the comments):

I think if the Suns would do a straight Patterson-Morris swap, you have to think long and hard about whether that inexpensive talent upgrade is worth the very real risk, and whether you think your culture can get the most out of a malcontent.

He’s shooting 30.9% from 3, is at 32.7% for his career, and is only hitting 25.4 percent from 16 feet to the 3-point line. I think the issue people have is not only the chemistry risk (off-court stuff that Lowry didn’t have, throwing a towel, you’re a towel, etc) but that even though he has more potential, right now it’s not clear he’s better than Patterson. He’s only once hit league-average offensive efficiency, and advanced metrics (Real Plus-Minus, DRE) rate him as one of the worst PFs in the league this year. It’s a lot to weigh, with current talent and potential and chemistry.

I don’t disagree that he’s a distressed asset, but you asked why people aren’t more geeked up about it, and I’m trying to explain why (I think).


It doesn’t. Even with a third team, things are tough, because it’s not so much an issue of the Raptors sending salary somewhere other than Memphis but simply sending out enough salary in total. Valanciunas makes things incredibly tough because of the poison pill provision, and the Grizzlies are a tough trading partner because they’re above the tax and triggered a hard cap by using exceptions to do so.

In terms of just salary matching, you’re talking something like Valanciunas, Patterson, Johnson, and Delon Wright. In terms of sending back enough value that Memphis is interested, I assume you’re also talking three of the team’s four first-round picks over the next two seasons.

Would I do this? In a heartbeat. Gasol is on a short list of “potentially but probably not available players” for whom I’d surrender just about anything if you don’t have to break up the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan-DeMarre Carroll perimeter corps (not that anyone is ever untouchable, I’m painting with broad strokes here). If the Grizzlies decide to blow things up this year (unlikely), they can name their price.

Nope. I love Will Barton, but DeRozan’s an established All-Star who means a ton to the franchise and the city and the locker room. Barton has an awesome contract, but he’s only a year younger than DeRozan, can’t score at his level, and I don’t think the wing defense and ability to knock down a three quite make up for losing your best scorer. If the Raptors decided to blow things up, then yeah, he’d be an awesome piece to get back, but as things stand now, I think it’s a step backward.

That’s actually the framework that I threw out in the comments the other day, but I don’t think the Nets are going to move him. As I wrote:

I really don’t think he’s on the block. They already have cap space, and I think they think he and Lopez can help lure a 3rd piece. The fact that they’re after Colangelo & Thibs suggests they’re not looking for a proper rebuild.

If they WERE, you’re probably looking Patterson+Johnson (salary matching), and then either one of the good surplus picks or one of the prospects + a Raptors pick. But again, I don’t think he’s on the move. At least not until they have a GM.

Other Raptors topics

This one comes from @alexpennycook, who has a private account, so I’m just providing the text: “@BlakeMurphyODC 2-12 so close in the East. Which potential 1st round opponents do the raps matchup best against? #wearenotarapper”

Despite last year’s result, I think they match up well with the Wizards. I think if Carroll’s healthy you like your chances against the Pacers. I love the Celtics’ defense but I don’t see them scoring enough in the playoffs. If the Raptors commit to feeding Valanciunas in the post, the Pistons match-up isn’t too bad. Really, the only teams I’m sweating are the potential 4-5 matchup opponents – the Bulls, Hawks, and Heat. And obviously, if the Hornets make the playoffs, the Raptors will be swept in the four weirdest games of all time.

I’m not too sad about it. These things happen. Antonio Davis was an All-Star with 14-and-10 on 43-percent shooting, and there are a dozen guys who have been left out in the cold.

I’d love to have two Raptors on the team with the game in Toronto, to be clear, and I still think there’s a good chance it happens still. Lowry getting voted in as a starter would be a huge help – Josh Lewenberg of TSN covered this well – and Lowry’s close enough that it will only take one well-timed marketing gimmick to push him in. If Lowry misses a starting spot, it’ll be tough to get them both in at guard slots with John Wall and Jimmy Butler both needing a place with the reserves, too. One of them, likely DeRozan, might need Adam Silver’s help to get in as an injury replacement.

Anyway, it’d be a shame if one of them was left out. They’ve been two of the best four guards in the East, and they’re deserving. Sadly, the voting is about entertainment and not merit. Life just ain’t fair.

These questions are very much related. The Raptors can’t start getting those guys rest until they start putting teams away earlier. Despite getting hoisted as fervently pro-Casey around here, I get on him a ton about his over-reliance on the backcourt stars. The reality, though, is that Casey can’t hold the leads himself, and bench units need to be able to pull away or at least hold serve. Hopefully, the improved recent play of Patterson and Ross, the resurgence of Joseph, and the presence of Biyombo all mean that the bench is figuring itself out.

That would be huge, because the Raptors without Lowry, for the most part, have been bad. Even with DeRozan propping up bench units, the Raptors have barely outscored teams (+0.8 points per-100 possessions). When they sit together, the Raptors haven’t had a prayer (-9.3 PPC). Ideally their minutes are staggered so one is always on the floor, or at least Valanciunas is out to help Joseph with the pick-and-roll. Until late, when hopefully the Raptors have put things away and can sit their stars.

Now, Casey actually trusting the bench to close out a double-digit win might take some time. They’ve been so uneven all year, and all-bench units so bad, that he’s probably going to need to see that group play well for an extended period before DeRozan and Lowry sit in 15-point games.

If Valanciunas keeps passing the way he has the last few games, it will come. I think some of the concern his teammates have throwing it into them is that he’s a bit of black hole on the block, only looking to pass when he needs to re-post. But since his return from injury, his awareness and willingness to pass seem to have improved. That unlocks more sets for Casey, since Valanciunas can be used as the high man in a high-low or hit a cutter when he’s on the baseline. Casey’s already started to get more aggressive having Valanciunas run some plays normally designed for a wing, and if he continues to show he can make quick decisions and pass on the fly, his usage should increase.

That will carry over to the back-to-the-basket game because teams will be more wary of double-teaming him, and Casey can get creative in how they get Valanciunas the ball. (When he plays with Johnson or Carroll, I love the idea of the bigger wing screening for Valanciunas going weak side to strong side, getting him either deep post position, a switch onto a wing, or both.)

Valanciunas has such a unique skill set for a big with his size, quickness, and passing touch, it’s high time his usage rate pushes higher than 20 percent.

Shameless plug: I wrote at length about Murray for Vice this week. I remain very high on him – Kentucky’s offense isn’t doing him any favors with woeful spacing and two other guys who need the ball in their hands to be effective, and they’d be lost without Murray’s skill and shot creation. I’m not yet sold he can be a point guard at the NBA level, and he’s never going to be a good defender, but I think he’s the fifth-best prospect in the draft.

In terms of potential targets at the four for the Raptors, the honest answer is it’s too early. I provided some rough tiers in the last mailbag, but I’m only now starting to ramp up my college viewing in anticipating of March Madness and draft season (I had to go back and pull a bunch of tape for the Murray piece). Given somewhat limited exposure so far, I love Rabb but don’t think he’ll be around by the Raptors’ earlier pick (I have him ninth). I really liked Hayes last year and while I think he probably should have come out, he’s still a late first in my eyes (he’s also hilarious). Deyonta Davis is a solid flier if he comes out, and if you think that 15-footer can extend. One name I really like for the Raptors own pick is Taurean Prince – he’s only 6-foot-7, but I think he can play the four with the way the Raptors play, he can switch freely across three positions, and he’s enough of an outside threat for it to matter. He’s also a senior, which Casey will love.

I will offer this, though: Don’t lock yourself in to a single position when you’re looking at prospects. Given how fluid rosters are and how quickly things change, and given how few rookies contribute, I hate drafting for need. As a tiebreaker, sure. But I’m all about best talent available – get the best players, figure out the fit later if it doesn’t figure itself out. Remember, Wright seemed like he was filling a need at the time, too.

I have. I went pretty deep on it here, but as quick refresher: The Nuggets get first dibs on the Knicks’ pick after the lottery (so they essentially own the Knicks’ ping-pong balls). The Raptors will get the less valuable of the two picks. So right now, assuming no lottery shenanigans, the Raptors would get the Knicks’ pick, which would be 12th overall, and the Nuggets would keep their own (seventh).

Absolutely. I’m with Luis Scola in preferring they sent teams out there for more than just one game, from an efficiency perspective, but it’s good for the organization, good for the brand, good for the team’s international profile (hi, Nic Batum), and it’s probably good for team bonding. The travel might take a toll, but it was the only game in an eight-day stretch, which mitigates some of that. I’m all for it.

Raptors 905 questions

It’s hard to tell this far out because we don’t know who teams will have assigned, and we don’t know who Baron Davis (!!) is going to play for yet. Maine visits on March 5, and they occasionally have Terry Rozier, James Young, and Jordan Mickey on assignment, so they’re fun. The other March opponents (Fort Wayne, Iowa, Erie) are less exciting but they’re more likely to be winnable games.

I caught up with Daniels the other week. He’s been acquired by the 905 but only just recently started jumping and running, so it might be a couple of weeks still.

Just going to copy and paste this from the mailbag earlier this week:

This is kind of an elephant in the room of late.

Here’s the background: The Raptors liked Ronald Roberts enough in summer league to give him a $75,000 guarantee to come to training camp. He had the inside track on the 15th roster spot, but the Raptors opted to sign Anthony Bennett with that space, instead. Roberts opted for the D-League believing he was close to the NBA, and has since shown he’s unquestionably an NBA talent.

He was the victim of some bad luck during NBA cut week, as fewer roster spots were opened up than anticipated, and none of the teams with room have a frontcourt need. A source confirmed to me that Roberts received overtures from Maccabi Tel Aviv. It would have put his NBA hopes on hold for the season, but he’d cash in, and playing alongside Dragan Bender would mean there would be plenty of scouts seeing him play. He’s opted to turn that deal down, and I think that’s smart – roster situations can change between now and the trade deadline, and there will be (lesser) international opportunities in late-February, too.

Now, as to where the Raptors figure in: They have no recourse if Roberts walks for an NBA team or international opportunity (he could be subject to a buyout in the latter case but it seems unlikely the organization would be sticklers about it). Roberts is free to sign with any NBA team, and the only thing the 905 would get is a) first waiver priority once Roberts has been up for 21 days, and/or b) first dibs on him if he re-enters the D-League player pool. That’s not much, and many have asked me why the Raptors would bother investing in the development of someone who could benefit another team later. The long answer centers on the D-League growing so rapidly since the last CBA, but the short answer is that this is life for a D-League squad. You build relationships and build culture, hope it rubs off on your assignees, and just be happy for a guy if he gets a chance. That’ll change in the future, but for now, it is what it is.

The Raptors could call Roberts up themselves, but doing so means cutting someone. They have 15 guaranteed NBA contracts, and it doesn’t work like MLB/NHL where, say, Anthony Bennett could be sent down and Roberts called up, while the team keeps a claim to both. Calling Roberts up means cutting Bennett (or a 2-for-1/3-for-2 type trade before the deadline), and the organization obviously hasn’t saw fit to do that.

My take on it, without the benefit of any inside information, is that the Raptors see Bennett as having more long-term potential. That certainly makes sense, given that they think he can guard threes and fours and stretch the floor a bit, and given that he’s a young, recent No. 1 pick. Roberts has more utility to an NBA team right now – his energy, rebounding, and ability to get cheap, easy buckets is unparalleled int he D-League or on the Raptors roster – but the Raptors don’t really have a spot for him. They have three centers, and Roberts would be filling Bennett’s limited role as the sixth big. He’d also be tough to play with Valanciunas or Biyombo, because even though he can knock down an 18-footer, teams aren’t going to guard him as such (and he’s most valuable round the rim).

If the Raptors think Bennett’s a better longer-term prospect, and if Roberts would only be filling Bennett’s minimal role, the trade-off favors Bennett (in their eyes). Personally, I think the Raptors are risking watching a guy who could be a team’s fourth big get an opportunity and prosper with someone else, but they (ostensibly) know better than me.

Allow me to add a note to this: NBA teams can have one in-season affiliate if they didn’t use all four affiliate slots after training camp. The Raptors only used three (Shannon Scott, Axel Toupane, Michale Kyser), SO, if they wanted to keep Bennett within the organization, they could cut him, and if he clears waivers, assign him to the 905 as an affiliate player. There’s still the risk another NBA team would sign him (the Raptors would have no recourse to stop it), but that risk is fairly small, and that would be a means of continuing to control his development while getting Roberts on the roster. This might be something the Raptors would consider after the deadline if Roberts hasn’t been picked up and they haven’t opened up a roster spot.

Strangely, a bunch of Bebe questions

Lucas Nogueira is not eligible for an extension until after next season. I wouldn’t “shop” him, but if he can help facilitate a win-now trade, he’s probably the prospect most teams would be enticed by.

It’s a little early to start worrying about this, but Biyombo is definitely declining his player option. The Raptors could always re-sign him at a higher pay grade, replace his minutes with Nogueira, or look for another Biyombo-like bargain (if they prefer someone functionally similar, maybe Dewayne Dedmon flies under the radar?). My preference? Sign Boban Marjanovic and play him 48 minutes a night.

I don’t think the D-League even factors in here, really. Nogueira will be 24 years old and in his third NBA season at that point. If he’s not ready for consistent backup minutes, he’s no longer a prospect at that point. Conditioning is not his issue, either, so it’s not like the D-League will help in that regard. Inconsistency and minor injuries have plagued him, and while the D-League is awesome and would be a good chance for him to further develop his game, promoting him to backup center in the offseason isn’t contingent on a long-term assignment.

Personally, I think Nogueira’s ready now and that his up-and-down play is more a mental hurdle than a talent one.

Miscellaneous basketball

Neil deGrasse Tyson couldn’t figure out the physics of that shot. My best guess? Noah’s body was temporarily inhabited by the ghost of Shawn Marion (hey, if Ghostface Killah can appear to Huey Freeman as a ghost while alive, allow me this), and the struggle between two spirits trying to take equally ugly but mechanically different shots resulted in Marion’s soul entering the ball. That weighed it down, and Noah didn’t account for the additional downward gravitational pull of a human spirit.

That, or it was the greatest post-entry pass to a player who wasn’t posting up of all time.

Basketball training? No. I’m hungover right now, too, so the idea of running around is giving me a headache. At the same time, I have been ramping up non-basketball activity. So given my glaring lack of skill, maybe I can just tire you out and then try for some easy post-up buckets?

That, or I’m going to put together a Rocky IV style montage of me getting ready with the 905.

I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s not a bad guess. Boris Diaw is a treasure. Boban Marjanovic is the greatest garbage time player of all time. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich would obliterate the candidates from each party if they ran together in 2016, leading America to several titles in the process. Zach Harper might be right that Manu Ginobili is a vampire. Matt Bonner is Matt Bonner. And they play a beautiful offensive game with a historically good defense. I can’t wait for the Western Conference playoffs.

My newfie Mike came with a lot of questions today. Shout out to Conception Bay.

Back in 2012, Drew and Jonathan were on opposite sides in the Celebrity Game, and I was unimpressed with both. Their defensive rotations were sloppy, they didn’t seem engaged, and neither made an impact. Maybe it was a coaching issue (wouldn’t you tune out Dwight Howard) that Drake can correct. Maybe there’s some Morris Brothers stuff going on, where they just really want to play together. Maybe one has been perfecting offense, the other defense, for Bella Sisters-like illegal switching on the fly.

I’m really not sure, but they need to bring it. If my man Skeets can’t get in the game and the Property Brothers flop, I’m going to have real concerns about Drake as a leader in this organization.

Miscellaneous non-basketball

Love it. Not only is Drew Storen awesome, the Nationals picked up the difference between his salary and that of the outgoing Ben Revere, so it was a cost-neutral move (the Jays will be paying $6.25M of Storen’s $8.38M deal). Storen really shores up the bullpen, giving John Gibbons another right-handed option alongside Roberto Osuna and nails excellent Brett Cecil. That’s not quite Betances-Chapman-Miller, but it’s a hell of a back end. Storen famously struggled late in 2015 and had a poor 2013, but for the most part, he’s spent the last six years being nails. He misses plenty of bats thanks to 94 MPH heat and a filthy slider, he rarely walks anyone, and he doesn’t give up much in the way of hard contact. He’s really, really good.

The cost, Revere, was entirely reasonable. I like the guy, but a hot stretch run and (incorrect) placement atop the order led some to overrate him. He doesn’t walk enough to help make up for his complete lack of power, the Jays aren’t going to run much in front of that heart of the order, and his defense is average at best, his range helping make up for bad routes. This is not to discredit Revere, who is immensely likable and played a role in the team’s best season in two decades, it’s just that what he brings is entirely replaceable. I’m a believer in Dalton Pompey long-term, Michael Saunders is good-ish when healthy, and the team’s better off overall as a result of this deal.

Storen improves the bullpen, gives the team more flexibility to try Aaron Sanchez as a starter again, and cost them nothing in terms of money or a significant left-field downgrade. Win.

The hardest of passes. Not only will it cost a draft pick and something in the $12-15-million range annually to sign him, he’s also not good. He hasn’t missed a bit since the mounds were lowered in 1968. (I overstate, but seriously, his swinging strike rate was 6.5 percent.) He’s dependent on ball park and defense, his walk rate bounced back up to previous levels last year, and his ground-ball profile isn’t quite enough to look over the glaring lack of swing-and-miss stuff.

He’s also not the innings eater people make him out to be. Sure, he’s started 30-plus games in seven consecutive seasons, but he’s averaged just 191 innings. Maybe “just” isn’t fair there, but over the last three seasons, he’s averaged fewer than six innings per start. Is he really eating innings for you if you’re going to the pen in the sixth every time out?

Another write-in, from my man @birenball: Who should be the Jays’ fifth starter, and why?

I’m going to assume the Jays are tapped out in terms of budget to answer this one. With Stroman (!), Dickey, Estrada, and Happ penciled in, that means the No. 5 job comes down to Sanchez, Chavez, Hutchison, and maybe some deep fliers like Jenkins, Carmona, LeBlanc, and Penny (they’re long-shots but they might be guys who see a spot start here and there). I just don’t think Hutchison is very good (long on-record as being a non-believer), so to me it’s a Sanchez vs. Chavez question.

And my answer, then, is that you give Sanchez the shot. The bullpen is solid enough without him, and I don’t like the idea of a 23-year-old prospect being shifted to the bullpen permanently when there’s a chance he could start. Two-hundred innings are far more important than 70 innings, even if those 70 innings are in slightly higher-leverage spots. Sanchez’ extreme ground-ball rate makes up for some of his strikeout shortcomings, and even though he walks too many batters, never giving up fly balls keeps those from costing him (he also gives up a ridiculously low hard-hit rate, despite the minor long-ball issues last year). Before he hit the DL last season, he was solid, too, and for me it’s just a question of whether he can finally hold up for a starter’s innings load for the entire season.

Chavez and even Hutchison are nice back-up plans to have, but I think Sanchez is the best pitcher of the three, and shifting a 23-year-old to the bullpen forever without him failing as a starter, to me, is poor asset management.

This is a really tough question.

They’re obviously super high on Crews but he’s far away still and the company has never had their top title on a black person (The Rock is half Samoan, and Booker T/Mark Henry only ever held the lesser world title when there were two). Maybe Crews is that guy (though I think Big E is the closest to being at that level), but he’s still pretty far away. Baron Corbin’s stomach looks too much like emojis. He’s gotten better as a character and worker, to be clear, and I enjoy him way more now than I did even a few months ago. Not sure I see him as a top guy, though. I’m not even sure they’ll ever put Samoa Joe on the main roster, so he’s out.

So Sami Zayn gets the nod. He’s a bit undersized but not that undersized, and he has such a natural charisma that once he debuts, people will get behind him. It might be a slow burn/long build like with Daniel Bryan, and sorry to make the obvious comparison, but they connect with audiences in a similar way. Plus, he’s Canadian, and we all know the best wrestlers come from Canada.

This is the best mailbag question ever. I put a lot of thought into it. Here’s how I see it playing out.

Carroll: Gets attacked from behind on his way to the ring, is injured, never technically enters the match.

Wright: Easily dispatched over the top in a Valanciunas feat of strength Gorilla Press.

Joseph: The best in the bunch at evading eliminations and skinning the cat, the Spurs in him is his undoing as he trusts Lowry to team up, only to quickly be turned on and thrown out.

Ross: Hits a spectacular 450 splash on to several Raptors, gets too pumped up from the crowd noise, and inexplicably launches himself over the top rope and out of the match with a picture-perfect tope con hilo on to Wright and Joseph.

Bennett: Tries to battle on strength with Valanciunas and even gets him up on his shoulder but runs out of gas, allowing Valanciunas to slip out behind him and toss him over.

Powell: Is working on eliminating DeRozan when Bruno & Bebe come up from behind to toss him out together.

Caboclo & Nogueira: Over-celebrate tossing Powell out, allowing Scola and Valanciunas to eliminate them from behind.

DeRozan: With bodies strewn everywhere, he and Lowry finally go toe-to-toe (hey, it’s every man for himself), and they nearly eliminate each other but Lowry hangs on while DeRozan’s feet hit the floor.

Patterson: Has a wide open look at a Lowry elimination, passes it up for a much more difficult Biyombo elimination, and Biyombo tosses him.

Lowry: The smallest man left, he tries his best to weave in between them all but Biyombo mucks up the spacing, and Lowry is eliminated on a double-team.

Biyombo: Goes toe-to-toe with Valanciunas and has the entire crowd behind him, as he’s putting in a ton of effort and bringing great energy, but alas, Valanciunas is just better and throws him out.

Valanciunas: Stares at his Biyombo elimination too long, failing to realize the Rumble has the option to go a little smaller with Scola and Johnson together, and those two flip him over the top.

Scola: His old-man strength is no match for the MMA training of Johnson, who floors him with a spinning back heel kick, then staggers him against the ropes with a superkick, then eliminates him with a Helluva kick.

Johnson: Wins the Rumble, immediately denied his title shot at Wrestlemania by evil authority figure Dwane Casey.


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