Raptors Pick the Third Way at the Deadline

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TAMPA, FL- MARCH 19: Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors talks with Norman Powell #24 of the Toronto Raptors during the game against the Utah Jazz on March 19, 2021 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Scott Audette/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Raptors ended up calling an audible at the deadline.

There were two camps to the strategy heading into deadline day. One was about selling assets before they expired with an eye to the future – not necessarily a complete rebuild but something where picks and youth would come in for Lowry and Powell. The other about addressing key weaknesses to be classified as enough of a playoff threat to generate legitimate excitement. The Raptors did neither because they realized the hard way that Kyle Lowry’s value wasn’t as high as they had anticipated. Philadelphia and Miami offered packages which the Raptors brass felt were too low for Lowry, and the negotiations ended in a stalemate. As Ujiri noted:

“In the heat of the moment I was surprised (the offers were underwhelming) because, to be honest, I’ve viewed him as somebody that can go out and put a stamp on what you can do this year.”

Miami ended up with Victor Oladipo and Philadelphia with George Hill. It turns out that when the market gets flooded with supply, prices decrease and in this case it was the Raptors who were left holding the depreciating stock. This observer fails to understand the romance of Lowry ending his contract with the Raptors. He’s already stated he’d retire as a Raptor so it’s not like this would’ve been the end anyway. It would much been much better for the Raptors to net something – anything – in return. Give management’s stated desire to accumulate assets, the packages offered for Lowry must have been underwhelming to the point where the Raptors ended up neither stocking up or shoring up.

Here’s where the Raptors stand after an underwhelming trade deadline

There’s also the very real fact that the scope of the market was narrowed because of Ujiri wanting to do “right by Kyle” which “limited in what you can do that way…the teams that you can do something with but that’s the respect you have for him”.  Of course you do. Of course we all do. But even if Kyle was somehow completely open to playing for a crappy team, it’s not like those teams would have any use for his services. The market for Lowry was always limited to 2-3 teams purely due to basketball reasons.

Kyle Lowry staying and Norman Powell departing for a player who you hope will be as good as Norman Powell in two years doesn’t fit the criteria for winning now or rebuilding. It’s a third way. It’s doing what you must do to avoid major asset loss, it’s not doing what you didn’t need to do in accepting minor asset loss. With Lowry staying it also sees more veteran leadership in the ear of youth, and the Raptors are scarce on vets. It’s a way that the Raptors were compelled to accept rather than one taken on their own primary accord.

Even if we accept the third way, the lack of action in addressing the center position is puzzling. If keeping Lowry somehow implies that we’re looking to compete in the post-season, not addressing the center says the opposite. Perhaps much like in the summer when the Raptors waited too long to address the position, they waited too long again to deal Lowry, leaving them little time to address the most glaring need on the team. The trade market for big men was limited and the buyout market consists of Andrew Drummond (being sniffed by the Knicks – ha) and LaMarcus Aldridge being seduced by the Heat.

Trading Norman Powell for Gary Trent Jr. instead of draft picks was more in line with the philosophy of a re-tool rather than a rebuild. The 6’5″ Trent lit up the bubble last season and continued his strong shooting into this year, but at 22 his diversity in scoring doesn’t match Portland’s ambition. Portland could live with a player who may not have a high ceiling but does possess an elevated floor. From the Raptors perspective they get an asset instead of letting Powell walk away for nothing in the summer while avoiding the wait time associated with draft picks developing. Trent’s rookie deal is expiring and he’ll become a restricted free agent this summer with the Raptors having an option to match offers. Toronto felt far more comfortable being in this situation rather than in an unrestricted scenario with Powell, whose player option was simply too low for him to accept given his play.

Trent’s offensive game is his outside shooting peppered with a willingness and ability to drive when closed out (as you can see from his recent highlights below). This area of his game will only improve but the questions lie on the defensive side. He’s an average individual defender but a poor team defender, and Nurse’s system requires strong team defenders. The Raptors strategy of helping frequently and putting the onus on the defender to rotate was exceedingly aggressive early in the season and has lessened of late. It is in this setup that Trent will have to make his defensive mark. He needs to improve his baseline as a team defender to warrant the playing time needed to showcase his developing offensive game.

The Raptors received another Duke product in swingman Rodney Hood. He’s in his seventh year on a non-guaranteed deal which makes him waivable. Or they could give him a bit part in the tail end of the season if they decide to pseudo-tank, which is a real possibility. The Raptors may try to low-key tank by experimenting with lineups, accumulating losses and bumping up their draft order. The reason I say this is a real possibility is because if they did intend to make a dent they would have addressed the center position.

Powell may end up just being a rent-a-player for Portland, but for the Raptors he was a diamond in the rough. After being drafted in 2015 with the 46th pick he promptly put to rest any concerns about his size at the two-guard. His willingness to play a physical style, confidence in his mid-range game, and tenacious (though spotty) driving ability made him an instant fan favourite as he was earmarked a steal early on. Save his second and third seasons, Powell’s three-point shooting hovered around 40%, culminating in a dizzying 44% this year. His defense improved as well, with him often checking the opposing team’s best guards in key situations (think Paul George for the Indiana Pacers back in the playoffs). He fit well into the Raptors hyper-mobile defense which funneled guards into Ibaka and Gasol, and his aggressive perimeter defense was a natural fit into Nurse’s philosophy of playing off turnovers.

A consistent criticism of Powell was always his finishing at the rim – he could get there but couldn’t close the deal. He addressed this over the last season and a half, though in the bubble it was still an issue. Overall, he was our Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson – instant offense when you need it. There is nothing to suggest that if it weren’t for the financial aspect of matters, Powell could have continued being a natural fit for Toronto. He did seem pretty devoid of emotion after the Nuggets win where he dropped the “I just get paid to play basketball” when prompted on the significance of the evening.  I saw that as emotional hedging knowing what was coming. I’ll wait for The Players Tribune piece. There’s plenty of Norm moments that stick out. Two which strike different chords. First, this steal and dunk against the Pacers – jump out of seat material:

On the other end of the spectrum, this:

It’s the heights that made the depths tolerable.

The Raptors also flipped Terence Davis for Memphis’ 2021 second round pick. The Raptors gave up on Davis after giving him ample opportunity this year to establish himself off the bench. Davis always seemed like he was playing the game on a half-second delay and thus quite turnover-prone. Though he had some chemistry with bench players like DeAndre Bembry, overall he was too offensively single-minded to function in situations where he had to constantly interplay with his teammates, a bare necessity of the game. Defensively, he didn’t provide enough to warrant the offensive carelessness. Davis’ fall from grace is quite a story on its own – only last year was he lauded as a replacement for Norman Powell and most agreed that there was a path from one to the other. Then game the mask/anti-vaxxer thing, then the domestic abuse case, and somewhere in all of that, his game regressed to the point where he became unplayable. A change of scenery and new circumstance is what he needed. Good luck to him.

Matt Thomas got flipped to Utah for a 2021 second-rounder. After being heralded as a potential rotation player in pre-season, Thomas never got the playing time which led many to question what exactly he was producing in practice. In a season where Nick Nurse called upon everyone from Yuta Watanabe to Paul Watson, Thomas’s lack of playing time could only be speculated as him simply either not showing enough behind closed doors, or being another liability on defense, one which Nurse simply couldn’t afford due to the already porous defense.

The Thomas and Davis trades can be simply seen as offloading under-performing assets for more liquid ones which could be composed into a larger package in a trade. Even if the Raptors choose to draft with those picks their track record is strong enough that something might come out of it which is more valuable than what left the house yesterday. The Raptors turned two undrafted players who weren’t getting playing time into two second-round picks. That’s a pretty good swap.

Overall, much like the packages offered for Lowry, the trade deadline was underwhelming for the Raptors who come out of it without a particularly clear direction for the team. On the positive side, they buy themselves more time to evaluate the current roster, though I’m not sure what open questions need to be answered there. They acquire an excellent three-point shooter who can put it on the floor, though it is an area of development. Most importantly, Trent is someone they have a far higher chance of extending than Powell, thus keeping the talent balance sheet healthy. This season was termed a “bridge year” in pre-season and it has proven to be that. Instead of a bridge to Giannis it’s a bridge to the formal post-Championship era. In that era there may still be a place for Kyle Lowry as a veteran voice, so it would not surprise me to see the Raptors re-sign him.

The regrettable aspect for me is not to get something in return for Lowry which could’ve sped up the transition. Though there are many who are excited and even teary-eyed at the prospect of seeing Lowry for the remainder of the season, I am not one of them. I love Kyle Lowry enough that I’m capable of loving him at a distance. Love is not about possession. Love is about appreciation.

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