The Toronto Raptors were expected to come out of Thursday’s NBA trade deadline with a new team and a different direction. They’ll flip Norman Powell and Kyle Lowry — and potentially Chris Boucher — for young players and draft picks to restock their asset pipeline. The thinking went. That way, they can drop further down the standings and obtain a good lottery pick in the 2021 draft.
After dealing Powell to the Portland Trail Blazers for Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood, the Raptors stood pat, holding onto franchise icon Kyle Lowry as the deals for him never materialized into something worth the sentimental and institutional value that Lowry represents to the Raptors, nor were they worth his bird rights. Blame the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers if you want someone to blame, but the Raptors were never going to deal Lowry for pennies on the dollar. They had no reason to, especially considering that he would have been going to a conference rival.
Holding onto Lowry and his bird rights means the Raptors will be able to go over the cap to sign him this offseason, should they close out the season competitively and choose to go that route. If they rather go a different direction — whether it’s a rebuild or throwing a massive offer sheet at one of the few good bigs on the market — they could sign-and-trade Lowry to any of the three destinations that targeted him at the deadline: the Heat, 76ers, or Los Angeles Lakers, who are all capped out (and would therefore require a sign-and-trade to get Lowry) or, in the case of the Heat, project to be capped out if they want to keep Victor Olidipo and/or Duncan Robinson. Jacob Mack from Raptors HQ explains why keeping or sign-and-trading Lowry is more likely than him walking for nothing in more detail here:
Despite people projecting that Thursday’s trade deadline would be a “sellers’ market,” it didn’t turn out that way, and certainly not for Lowry. Now, the Raptors will get another bite at the apple this offseason, where they will need only one desperate team (similar to the Milwaukee Bucks last offseason after flaming out in the second-round of the playoffs and trading for Jrue Holiday) and, looking around the league, there is no shortage of capped out competitors who could get bounced in the second-round.
The Powell deal was interesting in that the front office clearly prioritized the 22-year-old restricted free agent Gary Trent Jr. over a first-round draft pick. While it would have been nice for the Raptors to get both a prospect and a pick, the deal showed that the Raptors wanted to bring in a contributor (or two) for Powell — who is entering unrestricted free agency this summer and could get paid upwards of $20 million a year — rather than a couple “what ifs.”
(The Raptors did get those “what ifs” in the form of two second-round picks, flipping a couple of undrafted players who each took a step back this season and fell out of the rotation in Matt Thomas and Terence Davis II for the Golden State Warriors 2021 second-round pick via the Utah Jazz and the Memphis Grizzlies second-round pick via the Sacramento Kings, respectively. They now have two second-round picks and their own first round in the 2021 draft, giving them flexibility should they choose to move up).
Maybe that signals that the front office believes this team is closer to competing for a title than many fans believe, as any draft pick they could have traded for would likely have taken years to develop. Or maybe they just want to use the remainder of the season to gather more data about how good this core can be before deciding which route to take. By trading Powell for Trent, the Raptors opened up flexibility in free agency, as his cap hold of $2.1 million as an RFA is significantly lower than Powell’s cap hold of $16.3 million as a UFA, and his upcoming contract should be significantly cheaper than Powell’s as well.
There are a lot of ways to look at the deadline that just transpired. On its face, it was underwhelming and disappointing. However, it’s unfair to judge the deadline until we see what the Raptors do in the offseason: how will they use the extra money and flexibility that they opened up with the Powell for Trent deal in free agency? How well will Trent fit into what the Raptors do and what kind of deal will they strike with him? Does Lowry walk for nothing or do they re-sign him or do they trade him for assets?
The deadline also can not be judged until we see how the Raptors close out this season. While it’s fun to fantasize about the Raptors trading Lowry and bottoming out for a top-five pick in the draft, it’s likely that the core is simply too good to bottom out when healthy. Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam have a +1.9 net rating per 100 possessions this season. Add Chris Boucher into the mix, and it jumps to +11.4. The Raptors will likely look to add a big in the buyout market (Gorgui Dieng, Kelly Olynyk, or, if they get lucky, Andre Drummond) to replace the Aron Baynes’ minutes, and OG Anunoby is due to see a usage bump as some of Powell’s shots go to him. With a relatively easy second-half schedule, they could exceed expectations.
Still, the Raptors are not good enough to compete for anything beyond a second-round exit, which places them firmly in limbo. This was marketed as a transition season of sorts and that’s exactly what it has turned out to be. The worst place an NBA franchise can be long term is stuck in the middle, which is where the Raptors happen to be. But to be stuck in the middle for only one season is different than being stuck there indefinitely. Ujiri and the Raptors’ front office are too shrewd to fall into that trap long term.
But by standing relatively pat at the trade deadline, the Raptors put even more pressure on themselves this upcoming offseason, where they will have to pick a direction and execute on it. All of the flexibility that they have cultivated over the past two seasons will need to come to fruition, one way or another. Therefore, it is not hyperbole to suggest that the 2021 offseason will define the Toronto Raptors for years to come. Only then can we look back and judge Thursday’s trade deadline accurately.