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Raptors Mailbag: Horford, Morris, Lion Heart TJ Ross, a lot of trade talk, and more

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The Toronto Raptors have multiple days off, so like we always do at this time, I opened things up for your Twitter questions. We’ll be doing another mailbag next Wednesday ahead of the trade deadline, so if you have questions between now and then, tweet at me with #RRMailbag so I can keep track of them more easily.

This is the sixth “official” mailbag of the season, but there have been a few other pieces answering questions, too. As a refresher, here are those earlier Mailbags and trade-related columns. There’s a good chance if you have a trade question, it’s answered somewhere within one of these links.

Alright, let’s do this.

Trade Talk

Talked about this one a little last week but missed your specific question. I don’t think the Raptors make sense as an in-season fit, given Griffin’s salary is tough to match and given that the Clippers would have little interest in Jonas Valanciunas. Remember, the Raptors best assets are draft picks and they have precious few salaries to send out, so a win-win trade with a team that isn’t folding up is going to be difficult. If there were something that worked, yes, I roll the dice, because he’s the best player that would conceivably on the market. I’d give it a long look in the summer if the Clippers are still selling, too, once Terrence Ross’ poison pill is gone and once there are more teams that may be willing to get involved routing players to L.A. for Valanciunas and/or picks.

All of them. None of them are playing meaningful minutes and the Raptors have a window right now, so if another team wants them to sweeten a deal, by all means. They all have small salaries so don’t add a lot for salary matching, but I’d imagine Lucas Nogueira may have some trade value and makes nearly $2 million. Anthony Bennett is the most expendable strictly by utility and upside, which pains me to say, because I had hoped that experiment worked out.

He’d be a fine offensive fit but his salary is high enough that the Raptors would have to send out either Patrick Patterson or multiple rotation pieces to get him. For a guy who can shoot but doesn’t rebound well for a big and only occasionally plays decent defense, that’s asking too much. I’m also not sure he’s going to age particularly well in the last two years of his deal, though if he was a clear upgrade for this year, that wouldn’t cause me to hesitate.

The issue with a potential Al Horford deal is that nobody seems to know what the Hawks want back. Sure, they’re listening on Horford, Jeff Teague, and maybe even Kyle Korver, but are they retooling for next year or looking ahead to the long-term future? If it’s the former, the Raptors don’t have the pieces, at least not compared to other potential suitors. If it’s the latter, Boston could still trump an offer, but a package built around Valanciunas (or Ross) and that Knicks/Nuggets pick could be enticing. Even then, the Hawks may not have interest in Valanciunas given their preference for a five-out offense, so a third team may have to get involed.

Yes. The Raptors would acquire Horford’s Bird rights in a trade, which means not only could they give him a fifth year and slightly larger raises, but they could also exceed the cap to re-sign both him and DeRozan. There would be potential luxury tax concerns, but Patterson’s deal will be highly movable in the summer if they need to clear breathing room. The bigger concern, at least for some, would be giving a big man max money through his age-35 season.

That’s not a worry for me. I think if the Raptors did their due diligence and thought enough of the Morris risk to bring him in, they’d have to be certain he’d accept his third-banana role. Morris would be killer as a second option when Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have their minutes staggered, and he could even prop up bench-heavy units without either. When they all play together, they’d find him work through the elbows, as a screener, and in occasional face- and post-up situations, similar to how Luis Scola gets his early offense now (albeit with a larger share). It’d be fine, and if it wouldn’t be, the Raptors wouldn’t make the deal.

Kyle Lowry is close with Morris and the Raptors have a strong organizational culture, so I’d bet the Raptors believe they’re a team that could take a gamble on a talented malcontent and come out fine. That said, I don’t think that’s a risk they take in the middle of the season. The downside is just too great, even with the potential talent upgrade.

I don’t think the Archie Goodwin shoving match did anything for Morris’ value, positive or negative. The book is out on Morris, and his post-Jeff Hornacek play only really served to highlight how much he was mailing it in before. I don’t think those couple of games changed people’s opinion much, and I don’t think the Goodwin tussle did either. And if anyone’s mind had been changed, it was quickly recalibrated.

I’ve long been an Arthur fan and thought he would have been a nice get with the Bennett roster spot this offseason. I definitely like the defensive upgrade and the additional bit of range, plus the extra year on his deal (though he’s likely to exercise his Early Termination Option), but I don’t think the Nuggets do a straight swap. Arthur’s been there for a minute and culture matters for a young team, plus they’d hold his full Bird rights if he used the ETO and wanted to re-sign in the same veteran leadership role. You’d probably have to sweeten the pot, and the upgrade isn’t worth a first-round pick – maybe the Nuggets do it for the Raptors’ 2017 second, but that’s essentially a bottom-10 pick the way things are tracing.

Talent wise, sure. Gasol does just enough on defense, and offensively he’s so versatile and talented that he could probably fit within any scheme. I’m skeptical, though, that the rumors of Gasol’s availability are true – the Bulls are out Nikola Mirotic, Joakim Noah, and Jimmy Butler, Bobby Portis has understandably slowed some, and this isn’t a franchise that’s going to willingly accept a season outside of the playoffs. They need Gasol for the next while and reports suggest they’d like to re-sign him, too. But hey, if I’m wrong and the Bulls are shopping, that’s a great offensive talent on a really good deal.

Other Raptors Talk

I think the transition will be pretty seamless. While Dwane Casey’s “role consistency” plan has led to some shorter-term issues in the starting lineup, it’s also made it so that eight of the team’s top-nine players have remained largely in their usual roles and rotations. The only people who have to really adjust when Carroll returns are Carroll, James Johnson (back to 10th-man role), and Norman Powell (back to Mississauga). It’s something that looks weird in the moment but should ease the transition when he returns rather than bumping Terrence Ross starter-to-bench-to-starter and so on.

The success of the team in his stead should also allow for him to be eased back in, minutes and assignment wise. Maybe he starts out in the Powell role, spotting up in the corner and defending. The team’s used to that right now. Then he graduates to the Johnson role, taking on a bit more playmaking and transition offense. The team’s used to that, too. And then slowly, he gets back to the role they envisioned for him, defending, making some plays off the cut, and providing spacing the starting group has lacked in his absence.

Is C.J. McCollum still random enough? Probably not, eh? In that case, Shabazz Muhammad. I’m convinced he’s going to average 20 on a bad team eventually.

No. No no no. For one, the East is going to be tight enough 3-through-9 that you risk tanking and still winding up with the opponent you’re trying to avoid. Two, you cost yourself home-court advantage in a potential second-round series. And three, and most important, you want to hit the playoffs with as much chemistry and momentum built as possible, you don’t want to limp in. No matter the opponent, I’d prefer the Raptors to be playing their best ball come April rather than trying to maneuver around.

There’s also the fact that the Raptors might be too far ahead of No. 3 to realistically do it, anyway.

I actually disagree with you here. I think the ACC is one of the best crowds in the league when the team is winning, and the feeling around the league the last few years echoes that. In the lean years, sure, there wasn’t much to cheer for and some pockets of the fan base were still learning the game. But back in the day and since 2013-14, I think the Toronto fans have shown really well, here and on the road, to the point that game ops can probably cease telling people when to cheer and keeping the pumped-in volume at 11.

We have not, though it’s something I’ve mentioned on the radio a few times. In terms of writing something, the reality is that access to those guys is limited, and they’re not going to take credit for specific changes – the coaching staff is a team, and it’s hard to figure the contributions of one from another.

In terms of just appreciating them, though, hell yes. Andy Greer helped install the new defensive scheme and the team found their footing in it pretty quickly, and Rex Kalamian has been a great all-around addition, particularly with the development of Ross. Good on Casey for having an ego that allowed for big-name assistants to have a prominent role beneath him and good on Ujiri for being aggressive on that front.

Maybe he could use it better, but I also think it has more value as a trade chip than as an actual pick. The Raptors already have four (five if you include Bennett) young players developing on the roster, and I’d guess that at most, two of the four first-rounders in the next two years get used. There simply isn’t enough room for that many young players, and people generally overrate the short-term impact rookies have.

Ujiri might be able to nail that pick – he’s had some draft successes but the jury is still out on his Raptors’ selections – but draft picks are currency, too. In this case, the “timeline exchange rate,” a phrase I just made up, suggests, to me, it’s better to cash that chit in.

This is not a question, but yes, The Lion Heart is the greatest Raptor of all time.

As someone who has shaved once in the last two-plus years, I’m always pro-facial hair (Steph Curry and Klay Thompson excluded). More than the beard, though, I think it was RR’s re-branding of him and the addition of a headband (Eli Bandz!) that helped things take off for him.

“I’ll keep my jealousy close, ’cause it’s all mine. And if JV’s defense makes you happy, then I’m not the only one lying.” – Lucas Nogueira

This is a tough and sobering question to think about. Lowry is nearly two months older than me, which means he’s going to be 30 soon. He’ll be 31 when he hits the market as a free agent next summer. Given his late peak and life and body changes later in his career, Lowry might be able to stem the aging tide a bit, but it’s tough to predict a star point guard will remain at that level into his mid-30s. DeRozan is still entering his peak years but has a game that may not age particularly well given it’s reliance on drives, though similar players have certainly bucked that trend with a mid-range and off-ball oriented game (and the development of a 3-point shot).

Assuming DeRozan re-ups this summer and Lowry in 2017, I think the Raptors look at a 2016-2019 window for competition. From there, they need to hope whatever young players on the roster are ready to begin taking on some of the load in a transition phase and that the cap has stayed sufficiently high enough that deals for DeRozan and Lowry at ages 29 and 33 aren’t cumbersome.

But hey, those are problems for Future Ujiri.

Prospects and draft picks are food stamps. When was the last time the Raptors had a realistic window to the conference finals? Never? Once? This might be the best Raptors team in history and their best shot at a playoff run, ever. I’m not leaving anything on the table to worry about several years down the line. 

There aren’t any obvious names out there right now, but the NBA’s buyout period is usually Feb. 18 to March 1, so we’ll see in the coming weeks. I’ve written a few times that I think if Bennett isn’t moved at the deadline, he could be cut and made an in-season D-League affiliate player to continue his development with the 905. He just doesn’t have any NBA utility right now, much as I was hoping he would, and entering the playoff stretch with five prospects Casey doesn’t trust is a little too thin for my liking.

We’ll see who gets waived ahead of March 1, but failing that, I think Ronald Roberts (energy and rebounding) or Axel Toupan (defense at three positions) would be able to offer more in Bennett’s roster spot right now, though neither would see much playing time.

Miscellaneous

That’s a tough Q. For those unaware, X-Pac heat is when the crowd boos but not because a wrestler is good at his job as a bad guy, but because they really don’t want to see them. It’s entirely it’s own level of crowd hate. Weird as it sounds to give the nod to a babyface, I think Roman Reigns has moved back into the top X-Pac heat slot with his renewed, boring, plainly obvious push to the top. If not yet, wait for the smark crowds around Wrestlemania.

This one come’s via email from Dave Antone: I saw someOF YOUR interesting feedback on some MLB Fangraphs articles and was looking for some more insight regarding Justin Smoak. To me he seems to be kind of a poor man’s “Chris Davis” and there paying him 154 million! Could not 550 AB’s produce a .245 avg, around 30 hr’s and depending on batting order could he not drive in 100 RBI’s in that lineup? Smoak has not had the benefit of the doubt yet, he’s from the Seattle wasteland where no one seems to hit well in recent years ( ie: Beltre, Cano). Whats your take on his playing time and growth in Toronto?

I think you’re overrating Smoak a bit here. The biggest difference is in plate discipline, as Davis supplements his home runs and strikeouts with a ton of walks, meaning when he isn’t clearing the bases, he’s still getting on. Smoak, meanwhile, has some of the worst plate coverage going and one of the lowest on-base percentages among first basemen. So even if Smoak went homer-for-homer with Davis, his OBP would be about 60 points lower, a huge difference, especially in a potent lineup.

From there, Smoak’s just not going to hit like Crush Davis. Smoak hit 18 bombs in 328 plate appearances, a terrific rate that was inflated by an entirely unsustainable 25.4 percent home run per-fly ball rate, nearly double his career mark. Even in Toronto, that’s extreme, and his batted ball distances and hard-hit percentage both suggest that surge was a major small-sample fluke due for some regression.

Smoak’s probably only a league-average bat, all things considered, and that’s not enough to make him an above-average first baseman, even with decent range and a slick glove. I think he enters the season still in a time share with Chris Colabello, who might actually be a better option for the Jays, even with lesser defense.

HQ starters: Dan Reynolds, Alex Wong, Sean Woodley, Harsh Dave, John Gaudes
RR starters: Blake Murphy, Sam Holako, Zarar Sidiqi, WIlliam Lou, Garrett Hinchey
Final Score (assuming 1s and 2s up to 21, win by 2): RR 21, HQ 17
High scorer: Holako, all on spot-up 2s
High rebound: Hinchey
High assist: Reynolds (because he wouldn’t be able to get past me, he’d be forced to distribute)
Bold prediction: Daniel Hackett comes off the bench and has terrific on-off numbers for HQ, though nobody can see or explain why

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