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Raptors Contention Meter: To trade or to stand pat?

How good are the Raptors really?

So much of this season — on the back of last year’s championship run — seems to hinge around figuring out exactly what’s what with Toronto’s roster this year and just how good they can be without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Championship goggles, basically. That’s why I’ve created this report that will zero in on exactly how the Raptors are performing against stiff competition in relation to those around them.

Upper Tier Rankings

There are currently 13 teams with plus-.500 records, and so, those teams playing each other are what I consider measuring stick games to varying degrees. Below is one table showing how they’ve fared against each other, and another on how they’ve fared against everyone else in the league. The game data used to create this is from Cleaning the Glass, a site that filters for heaves and garbage time.

As of games played through Jan. 13.

As of games played through Jan. 13

The biggest caveats to be noted are as follows:

  • Toronto has played 17 games against plus-.500 teams but 11 of those games have come in the absence of either Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka or Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Norman Powell.
  • Miami has played five of their 16 plus-.500 games on the second night of a back-to-back. No other team has played more than three. Taking away just two of those games to make things even would push their net rating to around plus-3, which would only be second to Milwaukee.
  • The Clippers’ first six games against plus-.500 teams came without Paul George, of which two (losses to Utah and Milwaukee) came without Leonard as well. One of the two has missed meaningful games since then as well.

General observations

Toronto has the second-worst offense of plus-.500 teams when they play each other. The previously mentioned caveat is certainly the biggest factor, but what was expected of this team before the season began seems to be playing out: The Raptors are a defensive juggernaut whose offense can sputter for stretches at a time.

Over the past month, more and more teams have decided to give Nick Nurse a taste of his own medicine by more than sprinkling in some zone. In the absence of Gasol, the Raptors have struggled to consistently find answers and haven’t had the requisite shooting on the floor to overcome it. At this point, even with the injuries muddying any coherent thoughts about what this team can be at its best, one can’t help but feel there’s a need for one more scoring playmaker if they are to give themselves a healthy shot at returning to the NBA Finals.

They have the third-best defensive efficiency against plus-.500 teams, and that’s what has allowed them to remain competitive despite the numerous absentees in the lineup.

Let’s also appreciate the Raptors’ ability to take care of business against sub-.500 teams. 20-2 with those two losses coming most recently to the Trail Blazers and Spurs is worthy of praise, even more so when considering how shorthanded they’ve been. They’ve needed to get wins against them to stay in contention for home court for at least a round and have done so admirably.

To buy or to stand pat?

The trade deadline is now just over three weeks away. In terms of serious competition in which to further evaluate Toronto’s biggest weakness — halfcourt offense — there are games against the Thunder and Sixers. That’s it (unless you want to include the Pacers game one day before the deadline). An improving Spurs in their own building will also present its own set of challenges, but in terms of gauging where this team is at, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster don’t have much more to work with before Feb. 6th.

It seems safe to assume at this point that Toronto won’t be sellers. They’ve been too good for that and keeping the team as is would only help the likes of Siakam and VanVleet improve, not to mention the other younger players who have stepped into more prominent roles.

Can you seriously upgrade, though? One would imagine that any noteworthy trade would include one of Gasol or Ibaka — the two expiring contracts on the table (Yes, VanVleet is also expiring but he would appear to be off the table at the minute). With the former, the team would be sacrificing a critical hub for their offense as well as a true anchor on the defensive end. If there is a Raptors-Sixers playoff series in April or May and Gasol is not involved, you can bet the house that Embiid will be laughing away all the tears of last postseason.

Trade Ibaka and now you run the risk of running Chris Boucher at the backup five for real playoff minutes. Having both Gasol and Ibaka during last year’s championship run was a major area of strength, and it’s hard to imagine Boucher being quite as impactful. Ibaka had big time performances in Toronto’s biggest games, has emerged as a true mentor to Terence Davis, and does the lion’s share of the work in ensuring the Raptors remain the most handsome team in the league.

One name that has been floated around is Danilo Gallinari and this is arguably the most intriguing of the reasonable scenarios out there. The ever increasing problem, though, is how good the Thunder are looking and their ever decreasing need to be sellers. Led by Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, they have been one of the league’s best stories and don’t have a pressing need for Ibaka considering they already have Steven Adams, Nerlens Noel and Mike Muscala as their center rotation. Oklahoma City is likely facing a first-round exit anyway, but whatever they acquire from Toronto in a deal for Gallinari is unlikely to alter that fate.

There’s also the importance of keeping the 2021 cap books in order, and it should surprise no one if presentable deals on the surface are being put aside because of what they may do to damage how much money Toronto has to play with in a couple summers.

Current contention status

Milwaukee looks the favorite to come out of the East. People will joke that they did a year ago, too, but it’s important to remember they were a point in regulation away from going 3-0 up on Toronto in the Conference Finals. Also, the Raptors won’t have an “In case of emergency, put Kawhi on Giannis” move to turn to this time around. No one in the East will.

Looking down the line, based on current standings and who would have home court advantage, I would consider the Raptors slight underdogs against the Celtics, and at virtually even odds against the Heat, Pacers or Sixers. It’s fascinating when you think about it, because I do feel on some level we take for granted just how good last year’s version of the Raptors, Bucks and Sixers were. I honestly believe that either of the Bucks or Sixers would have defeated those Warriors that played the Finals, but alas, they had to defeat the Raptors first.

Each team looks a lesser version of last year’s selves, and that’s why Toronto’s window should still be considered open.

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