The Toronto Raptors find themselves in unfamiliar territory approaching the 2021 trade deadline. Currently 17-26, 11th in the Eastern Conference and on a nine-game losing streak, the Raptors can no longer look themselves in the mirror and see a competitive team. Instead, for the first time in a very long time, they need to consider the future.
Not the future, future. The Raptors still have a relatively young core in Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby — one good enough to be competitive again as soon as next season with the right supporting cast around them. Those three are signed for three more seasons, and in the always-changing modern NBA, that means the competitive window is the next three seasons, so Toronto would be smart to stay young while building a competitive roster that fits around that core.
Enter Lonzo Ball, the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft who, despite all the gossip that follows him, is having a career season with the New Orleans Pelicans. Ball is averaging 14/4/6 on 43/39/77 shooting, efficient but not eye-popping numbers that mean more when you consider that he is doing everything asked of him a Pelicans team that plays slow, has bad spacing, and uses Ball primarily off-ball as a spot-up shooter.
Ball is a 6-foot-6 point guard who can defend multiple positions and shoot the three, yet the Pelicans and him did not agree to a contract extension ahead of the season, meaning he will hit restricted free agency this offseason. Plus, Ball’s (loud) father Lavar recently remarked that Lonzo “can’t stand New Orleans,” Marc Stein of the New York Times reported that the Los Angeles Clippers were inquiring about Lonzo ahead of the deadline, and Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported that the Pelicans are looking for “at least one good first-round pick or young player” for Ball. That is all to say: Ball could be had, for the right price. The Raptors could likely get there by sending Powell to a third team (like the Grizzlies, Hawks, Mavericks, or Hornets), who send their draft pick to New Orleans and Ball to Toronto. Or they could construct a deal around Chris Boucher (and Malachi Flynn), a potentially nice fit beside Zion Williamson in New Orleans.
While we don’t know what will happen with Kyle Lowry at the trade deadline or beyond this season, we know that the Raptors need a guard to grow beside VanVleet in the backcourt (Flynn does not project to be a starter anytime soon). Fortunately, VanVleet has proved that he can play either on or off-ball, opening up more possibilities for his backcourt partner. Maybe you think that partner should be Norman Powell, who is also having a career year and is already on the Raptors. But at only 23 years of age, Lonzo is a higher upside prospect who would fit in nicely beside VanVleet on both sides of the floor.
It starts with the defence. Ball is already a significantly better defender then Powell, and while he can defend on or off ball, his biggest strength on that end of the floor for the Raptors would be his off-ball defence, especially because VanVleet is one of the best point-of-attack defenders in the league.
Ball is a high-IQ player with quick enough instincts to make the right rotations, bumping the big man off his spot or jumping passing lanes to come up with 1.3 steals and 2.5 deflections per game, both among tops in the league for his position. Ball is also strong and agile enough to defend one-through-three, so he could switch on-ball actions with VanVleet similar to how Lowry does now. Crucially, Ball manages to keep his man in front of him consistently, not allowing dribble penetration so that the defence can stay set instead of entering a scramble situation, something the Raptors have done far too much this season. His block rate, steal rate, and foul rate all rank in the 70th percentile or better for his position this season.
The other thing Ball does extremely well on the defensive end is rebound from the guard position, which is increasingly important when playing beside a 6-foot-0 point guard in VanVleet. Anyone who has watched the Raptors this season knows how big of an issue rebounding has been, and Ball, who has a career defensive rebounding percentage of 15.4 (6.4 rebounds per game), would immediately alleviate the problem.
Plus, it’s not just that Ball would be a great fit beside VanVleet in the backcourt as an off-ball defender and rebounder — he would also be a great fit for Nick Nurse and the Raptors’ system. In fact, his style aligns perfectly with how Nurse and the Raptors like win: on the back of their defence, by forcing steals and playing in transition.
Ball is at his best when playing fast. He grew up in a basketball ecosystem in Chino Hills where he and his brothers learned the art of the outlet pass and how to make good decisions with a head of steam. In fact, Ball’s best skill is his ability to play in transition, and he is like Lowry in that he can turn steals and defensive rebounds into transition opportunities with go-ahead passes or by taking the ball the length of the court himself. Unfortunately, the Pelicans prefer to play slow and don’t use Ball to the best of his abilities, with only 18.7 percent of his offence coming in transition for 0.93 points per possession. Still, they are more effective in transition with Ball on the floor due to his rebounding and playmaking.
In the half court, Ball would present another creator to play alongside VanVleet, taking turns with VanVleet and Siakam to run the offence. Ball has already taken strides as a playmaker in the half court, with 22.2 percent of his offence coming as a pick-and-roll ball-handler this season, scoring 0.98 points per possession, which ranks in the 76th percentile league-wide. He also has a career-low turnover percentage of 13.7 on career-high usage of 19.6 percent (and 24.1 assist percentage), but he still has room to grow when it comes to creating good looks for his teammates. Put him in Toronto’s development system alongside good shooters (the Raptors prefer to play five-out at all times), and he could reach a new level as a half-court facilitator.
Ball would also immediately make an impact in the half-court as a catch-and-shoot operator. This season, 37.7 percent of Ball’s offence is coming in spot-up situations, scoring 1.19 points per possession, which ranks in the 85th percentile league-wide. Plus, if his defender closes out too aggressively, Ball is smart enough to attack the paint or make the right read consistently, moving the ball quickly to find an open shooter.
It’s no wonder the Pelicans are +10.9 points per 100 possessions better with Ball on the floor this season: He is an extremely smart player who doesn’t get in the way of things and plays to his strengths. A very Masai Ujiri player, if you will.
The biggest problem with a VanVleet/Ball backcourt would be that neither player is good at applying pressure to the rim, especially in comparison to Powell. Ball is somewhat hesitant to attack the rim, with just 21 percent of his shots coming there, but part of that is due to bad spacing and his improvement from behind the arc, as 36 percent of his shots came at the rim in 2018-19. He is shooting 60 percent at the rim this season, which is a career-high, and if he continues to add weight to his frame and learn how to use his size better, he should have an easier time finishing through the trees in the future.
In the short term, the Raptors offence could become even more reliant on the three-point shot, leading to even more high-variance games where the winner is decided by who hits the most threes. But Ball has never had as much space as he would have in Toronto to attack the rim, and at just 23 years of age, he has a lot of room to grow as a finisher.
Still, the Raptors would not be replacing Powell with Ball. They still would lack the type of player who can put pressure on the rim and finish there with consistency, and they would need to address that in free agency or through the draft and internal development.
But by adding a savvy defender, excellent rebounder, transition playmaker, and spot-up shooter in Ball, the Raptors would have a nicely fitting backcourt for many years to come. One with high enough upside that it’s hard to find a reason not to go out and get Lonzo Ball at the trade deadline.