The Trade Deadline Looms

Despite this being the best Raptors team ever assembled, does Masai Ujiri use the next three weeks before the trade deadline to meddle in an attempt to improve?

So the Raptors are off to their best start in team history. They have one of the deepest rosters in the league, having put a lot of effort into developing their youth and seeing it pay off on the court, and they perfectly compliment the core that have been around for the last several years. Last summer, they made a commitment to ride it out with this group for three years — signing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to deals that match the end of Jonas Valanciunas’ deal — and more so than they have been in the Masai Ujiri era, they are all in on this season.

That makes for a noteworthy next three weeks, right up until the NBA trade deadline hits on February 8th. It’s the last window that Ujiri has to take his impressively assembled roster and, if he so desires, improve it in an attempt to make a meaningful run in this season’s Playoffs.

Now, one strain of logic dictates that you don’t dare breakup a team this rife with chemistry. We’ve reached a point where there is near unanimity of opinion that this is the best Raptors team ever assembled. There may be little-to-no justification for risking busting up such a good thing (remember what happened to a really good Indiana club when they shook things up at the deadline back in 2014?). On the other hand, as good as this team is, it nonetheless remains imperfect. While they are shooting more threes, they aren’t connecting (they are 26th in the league in three-point percentage). They go through maddening bouts where they give up way too many offensive rebounds (they are 18th in the NBA in opponent offensive rebounding). Their youth is playing great, but they have almost no Playoff experience to fall back on. Maybe that’ll be an issue, and maybe not. I depends on how much Casey wants to contract his rotation in the springtime.

That said, every team has flaws, and Toronto’s have hardly been crippling (in fact, in most games these issues barely register), but if they’re all in, then they have to be sure that they are sending the best roster out there in April and May as possible, and they have until February 8th to decide what that roster is.

Make no mistake, that roster may well be (and probably is) the exact roster that they have today. Casey and his staff have done a masterful job reworking their strategy and their rotations, they’ve built a system that leverages the best of each of their players, and — more importantly — have done wonders to mitigate the weaknesses for much of the season.

But still, 2018 offers a rare opportunity. The path through the East has never looked softer for Ujiri’s Raptors than it does this season. Cleveland is struggling mightily (by LeBron team standards), especially on defence, and if Boston has an edge over Toronto, it is a narrow one. By next year, Boston will presumably have Gordon Hayward back, and a year as constructed under their belt, and that might be enough to start putting some distance between them and Toronto’s core. Plus, Washington and Milwaukee are close enough that they may be able to put the pieces in place to surpass Toronto in another year (although, that remains a ‘don’t lose sleep until it happens’ proposition).

The point is, if Toronto has been waiting for window to open to make a run at the NBA Finals, this is probably that year. It’s hard to dictate your fate in this league without a bone fide superstar, and so you have to be opportunistic when an opportunity presents itself. Dwane Casey has compared this year’s group to the 2011 Dallas Mavericks club that won the championship, another group that many had written off before the season started and then caught all the right breaks in the postseason (including a Miami Heat team that hadn’t quite figured it all out yet). It The path hasn’t exactly been cleared for the Raptors this season, but the opportunity before them has certainly helped to justify keeping this core together despite some rocky Playoff runs. You keep teams like this together for the years where the superpowers look vulnerable and the up-and-comers haven’t quite arrived yet. For Toronto, this may well be that year.

So, if this is their chance to play all the way into June, then Ujiri has to make a choice: Ride with the roster that brought you this far, and live with their current warts, or attempt to address those warts and risk upsetting the whole cart in the process.

Of course, it may be a moot point if other teams aren’t interested in what Toronto is selling. Their young players are on such cheap deals that they won’t really net major returns, and so far teams have been cool on taking on Jonas Valanciuans in a trade package. Normal Powell, for all intents and purposes, cannot be traded this season after signing an extension back in October, and moving C.J. Miles would remove the bench’s best three-point threat, basically creating one hole to patch another.

Those won’t be particularly comforting restrictions, however, if the Raptors get to the first or second round and are done in by the fact that a team exploited their inconsistent three-point shooting or their propensity for giving up offensive rebounds. If the Raptors are killed by something predictable, something that everyone knew was a problem back in January, it will really make the postseason feel like a missed opportunity. You can’t patch every hole, but if you’ve been starring at a hole in your wall for months, you can’t really complain when winter rolls around and your house freezes.

It’s one of the biggest reasons going from good to great is so hard. You need to nail just about every fork in the road like this one. The Mavericks still talk about the impact that Peja Stojakovic had on their title run, an under-the-radar move that probably sealed a game or two on their way to a championship. Rasheed Wallace transformed the Detroit Pistons a decade ago. But nothing is guaranteed.

At this point, the smart money is on Ujiri standing pat. He’s a conservative executive, ready to pounce only when he feels strongly about the potential for improvement. There also may not be a move out there, anyway. As a Raptors fan, you just have to hope that in four months time, that conservatism doesn’t boot them out in the second round.