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At a Crossroads: Raptors face a difficult C.J. Miles question

(This is a guest post from Adam McQueen.)

C.J. Miles has assumed the unenviable position of resident benchwarmer on the league leading Toronto Raptors. With a bevy of new faces and blossoming young talent at his disposal, head coach Nick Nurse has toyed with various rotations and lineups in order to concoct the ideal combination come April. Miles has emerged as collateral damage amidst this constant state of flux.

This past weekend, Miles went scorched earth against two floundering opponents. If the Raptors played against the Suns and Grizzlies for the rest of the season then the crux of this article may well be entirely different. For now, his Thursday night shooting clinic and Kawhi Leonard defensive impersonation on Saturday can only be considered an incredibly small sample size in a hugely disappointing season. It may be a sign of things to come, but don’t count on it.

The veteran’s shooting efficiency is cratering towards the lowest of his career and his playing time has subsequently shrunk to a paltry 14.4 minutes per game, when he even plays. Shooters go through slumps, but Miles has plummeted beyond playable. The entirety of Miles game hinges on outside scoring and his effective field goal percentage sits at 41.4 per cent, well below his 50 per cent career average. His three point percentage has similarly fell to a nauseating 28.9 pe cent.

Surely all of these signs point towards a swift break-up between Miles and the Raptors organization in the near future?

Well, not so fast.

Miles has one more year remaining on the mid-level exception (MLE) contract that he signed with the Raptors in July, 2017. It is inconceivable that a 31 year-old journeyman posting career lows across the board would opt out of his juicy $8.7 million player option for 2019-20. Therefore, Miles’ future lies squarely at the feet of the Raptors front office. The organization is headed towards the most important off-season in its history where every dollar will be invaluable. So, what should they do?

A seller’s market

The trade machine is a meditative experience in which us wannabe GMs can flex our hypothetical negotiating muscles and free ourselves of the hefty contracts that haunt our favourite teams. Yes, Miles can be put in a package that allows the Raptors to acquire Bradley Beal! Will this happen? No, despite the fact that Ernie Grunfeld has a fetish for underperforming veteran wings.

In actuality, Miles has a negative trade value and is unlikely to garner something of worth in return. Even dumping his contract will be difficult as the Raptors are unable to attach a future first-round pick until 2021 due to the DeMar DeRozan trade. With the impending free agency of Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Delon Wright (and potentially Jonas Valanciunas, who has a more difficult decision than Miles with his own player option), moving on from Miles will hinge upon how much cap flexibility the Raptors desire and what they are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve it.

What is working in the Raptors favour is the unusual level of parity amongst a large chunk of teams with playoff aspirations. Every team in the West outside of Phoenix is fiercely battling to crack the top eight, while the mid-tier Eastern conference teams continue their slapfight to become first round fodder. This has created a seller’s market – the demand is far greater than the supply.

There is a semblance of hope that the ugliness of Miles’ on-court play and contract could be clouded by a team’s immediate short-term aspirations. Somewhere deep down there is still a proven veteran spot-up shooter, players don’t lose this skill overnight. Stranger things have happened. Even Justin Holiday recently cost two first-rounders!

In a league littered with ugly contracts, Miles’ player-option is merely a wart with minimal implications in the long term. However, the increasingly short leash that Nurse provides Miles as the rotation has slowly coalesced stunts their ability to strengthen his value as an asset.

The not-so magical trade machine

Without going too far down the fantastical world of the trade machine, the realistic options for the Raptors to move Miles are limited. Buyers will initially look elsewhere to bolster their depth, whereas sellers may leverage the Raps’ cramped cap situation against them to demand more assets.

There is not a sexy Miles trade, but clearing up cap space may turn out to be a monumentally important maneuver. If a glimmer of light emerges, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster will not hesitate to conduct business.

One such opportunity could appear in Sacramento. The Kings are in a unique position – a surprising team poised to battle for a playoff position with considerable cap room due to the wealth of rookie contracts on their books. Although Miles would not definitively walk into their rotation, it may be the perfect environment for him to rekindle his shooting touch. The Kings currently rank second in pace and are taking six more three-point shots per game than they were last year.

The injury to Valanciunas displayed the Raptors need to bulk up their frontcourt. Bringing in grizzled veteran Zach Randolph and his expiring contract from the Kings may address this. The 37 year-old is yet to dress this season and is reportedly eager to return to the court. Randolph will not drastically move the needle, and may not even surpass Greg Monroe in the pecking order, yet he clears up cap space and brings a unique physicality along with veteran leadership.

Z-Bo isn’t the same wrecking ball of yesteryear, but could very well be a trump card for Nurse’s bench units in incredibly short spurts. The Kings may be reluctant to take on future money; maybe future second rounders and the returning Malachi Richardson could facilitate a deal given Randolph’s non-existent trade value. The Kings other underused center, Kosta Koufos, could fit into the framework of a similar trade with a lesser, expiring contract.

The surging Utah Jazz could also use Miles’ hypothetical outside shot. The Jazz are currently 20th in three point percentage and are stretched thin in the backcourt courtesy of the mid-season injury bug. The addition of Kyle Korver has caffeinated their sleepy offense, Miles could round out a quality bench unit in need of another player or two. However, it would require both Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh’s expiring contract to facilitate a trade. This would be unappealing for the Raptors as their roster already currently sits at the maximum 15 players.

In equally unexciting fashion, the Raptors could look towards sellers with little incentive to win anytime soon. Enter the Atlanta Hawks. There might as well be a ‘for sale’ sign attached to every Hawks player’s jersey not named Trae Young or John Collins.

Miles and two second rounders for the expiring Dewayne Dedmon frees up future cap space and shores the frontcourt depth. Dedmon would immediately slide into a ‘B-grade’ Serge Ibaka small ball center, while Miles will not inject a sudden shot of wins into the tanking Hawks. Ujiri and co. similarly unloaded Demarre Carroll onto a rebuilding squad two seasons ago, which was a far rougher contract than Miles’ current cap hit. This did cost a first and a second rounder as a result.

If the Memphis Grizzlies continue their precipitous fall then the Raptors could feast on the carcasses of their expiring contracts. Stretch forward JaMychal Green’s improved trade value may exceed the potential Raptors offers, however a like-for-like swap between Miles and guard Garrett Temple is feasible. Temple is unspectacularly solid, while Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace should be desperately looking to acquire draft picks in exchange for the limited assets at his disposal. The combination of chaos and desperation wafting from the Grizzlies front office will no doubt lure Ujiri into discussions.

An ideal Raptors trade would have involved Markieff Morris and the tanking/contending/who-the-heck-even-knows-what-is-happening Washington Wizards. Unfortunately, Morris’ neck injury has sidelined him for six weeks and may extinguish any flickers of trade potential.

Ultimately, the viability of a Miles trade rests on how the Raptors envision the present and the future. Currently, the Raps remain the likeliest Warriors opponent come this April and may not need to make drastic changes if they can maintain some health and continuity during the back stretch of the season. The presence of Kawhi Leonard has changed the air of inevitability that loomed over the franchise’s recent playoff runs.

There are whispers of blockbuster moves every trade deadline across the league, yet a smart exchange for Miles by February may set Toronto up for its most successful off-season ever.

(This is a guest post from Adam McQueen.)

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