The Raptors interest in Kevin Durant is intriguing and serves as a potential inflection point in the franchise’s journey to contention. This is a nuanced topic with the ripple effect of action and non-action difficult to predict. There is no right answer on whether to pursue Durant or not, and an emphatic stance on either side of the argument constitutes a leap of faith and a hopeful heart.
The 13th century Persian poet Jalal al-Din Muḥammad Rumi once wrote that patience is the key to joy. How dearly you subscribe to that idea likely influences your view on whether the Raptors should go all-in on Kevin Durant.
When we realized what we had in Scottie Barnes it promised to make the “bridge years” more bearable. It’s one thing to go into year after year of pseudo-contention with players hitting near-peak, and another to have a rapidly appreciating ace in your back pocket. Scottie Barnes is insurance to the Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet era, and it is comforting to know that if Siakam and VanVleet aren’t able to get the Raptors to the next level, there’s always the Barnes era, as distant as it may seem. Tracking Barnes’ development into a superstar requires patience but yields interim dividends and a payout.
The main opportunity cost of acquiring Durant isn’t necessarily the picks, it’s the net present value of Scottie Barnes because his “future cash flows” could simply be higher than what we get with Kevin Durant. I acknowledge that could be a sanguine view given Durant’s accomplishment and Barnes’ short but impressive resume. I am comfortable sticking with status quo because the patience required to forego Durant and stick with Barnes may be worth it.
Having Barnes is like owning Apple stock in 1985. Having Durant is like owning Facebook today. The former promises fans with a journey replete with excitement, waxing and waning through the years as we enjoy his growth while seeing capable management placing bets with him at the axis, much like the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo. For those of us that remember Vince Carter, Barnes evokes similar sentiments. The possibility of a sustained central figure in Toronto who pulls players much like how LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry do. A player that you can build a generation around. On the other hand Barnes could pull a Michael Carter-Williams and we may regret not selling him high. I find this to be an unlikely scenario because at worst he’ll be a high quality NBA starter.
But this isn’t just about Barnes. If this was, salary matching not withstanding, a one-for-one flip, you could convince many people to pull the trigger. If there is one lesson that the Nets have taught everyone is that you don’t trade away multiple first round picks for rent-a-players. And they’ve done it twice, both times with disastrous results. On the other end of the spectrum is Philly, which snorted first round picks like it was all the rage. Both strategies failed, but let’s dig into the first one as that’s the boat we’re admiring.
Whenever we talk about trading picks you have to ask who is making the picks. If this was Rob Babcock or even Bryan Colangelo, one would be less apprehensive about trading future picks away. The idea being that Babcock or Colangelo would not be great at drafting anyway so one star player in hand is worth multiple in the bush. However, we have Bobby Webster and Masai Ujiri and their vast scouting network doing the picking, which should weigh heavily on supporters.
Foregoing draft selections takes a major weapon out of management’s hands, and forces them to look to trade, undrafted and buyout markets. Though not impossible to get significant value out of them (e.g., Fred VanVleet), it is difficult to rely on this strategy to replenish talent over a 1-4 year period. If the Raptors do take a second mortgage out on Kevin Durant by trading Barnes and multiple future picks, and it doesn’t work out, they are writing off the next 2-4 years, perhaps more. It’s a calculated risk which I wouldn’t blame them for taking as I see the rationale in the risk-reward equation.
If the Raptors do pull the trade off, the question then shifts to whether the Raptors become a championship contender. The obvious parallel is the Kawhi Leonard acquisition. It was a time where the big clubs in the East were finding their footing and even after acquiring Leonard, the Raptors had enough assets to obtain final pieces like Marc Gasol. Would that be the case here? It’s difficult to answer in the affirmative because the Raptors have had shallow benches the last three years. Yuta Watanabe, Justin Champagnie, Khem Birch, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malachi Flynn are not Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl. The Raptors brass was unable to deepen the bench so any subsequent moves that complete the puzzle are difficult to make. The Raptors may be in a position where the Durant move is the final move.
Whether Durant is the final move or not, at this point we have to extend our discourse to ask the question whether Pascal Siakam is the Robin to Durant’s Batman. In other words, is Pascal Siakam a viable #2 option on a championship team? This is where opinions may diverge. To examine this we have to look at history. You can make a solid case that on the 2019 championship team Siakam was a legitimate third option after Leonard and Kyle Lowry. Siakam was also second on the team in scoring, 10 points behind Leonard and 2 ahead of Serge Ibaka.
Since then, Siakam has grown as a player and considerably improved his playmaking and marginally increased his scoring. In the two playoff tests since the title year he has had his moments but ultimately fell short. He was shutout against Boston in 2020 and if the Raptors had gotten anything of substance out of him, they would’ve beaten the Celtics handily. As it was they lost in seven games. Against Philadelphia, Siakam shrank yet again and his Game 3 dud saw the Raptors fall to 0-3, which effectively ended the series. Consolation performances at the tail end of the series when expectations are low mean less.
Depending on how much weight you give to the regular season your view may vary, but a rational analysis of Pascal Siakam would at least suggest that he may be capable of a #2 role, even though playoff reliability has eluded him. In that regard he’s closer to DeMar DeRozan than he is to Kawhi Leonard. This is important because Siakam not living up to his end of the bargain is a distinct possibility in a Durant-Siakam combination. Playing with Durant would make Siakam’s job a lot easier and elevate his overall performance along with everyone else’s. We can explore the tactics deeper but suffice it to say that Siakam’s playoff load is likely to get easier playing with Durant, and ultimately the two will complement each other to a large degree.
Siakam is only a piece of the roster to support Durant. Trading away Scottie Barnes and, as some of the reports suggests, Gary Trent Jr., leaves the already thin Raptors top-heavy and reduces the margin of error everywhere else. Earlier I mentioned how the Raptors don’t have the assets to make a subsequent Gasol-type trade, but you could make a case that don’t even have the assets to fill out a respectable rotation. Barnes is a dynamic player pluggable in most lineups, and though Gary Trent Jr. doesn’t measure up to Barnes, he was a reliable resource for the better part of the season. The 2021-22 Nets were evidence that top-heavy isn’t good enough, and what else would the Raptors be if not top-heavy?
And we haven’t even mentioned the situation at center which remains a question mark three years running.
We haven’t talked about Durant himself. A pessimistic view of him would be that he has not led a team to a championship as a #1 option and should be seen as a #2 himself. Personally, I think you can build a championship team with him as the central figure, but I understand the opposite perspective. Durant will be 34 when the season would start. The Raptors would be getting him at the declining end of his career, though he just put up 29.9 points per game, his highest since 2013-14 with OKC. The Raptors would be buying a 2-year window before he turns 36 and it may just take a year to get the roster to something resembling contention material, meaning the title target year would be 2023-24 with a 35-year old Durant. Not a bad strategy but definitely a short window with little margin for error.
The overarching feeling here may be that a franchise doesn’t get too many cracks at a title and the Raptors would be unwise to pass on the opportunity to swing for the fences. That waiting for the Siakam/VanVleet era to reach its apex, and then proceeding to wait for Barnes/OG Anunoby to make their mark is a degree too much for anyone’s patience. Not to mention that the mix of uncertainty injected by father time.
I understand and empathize with that view but caution that this is not a deep enough team to see that strategy through like the Raptors did with Leonard. With all that in mind, if I had to pick, I’d stick with what we got and build rather than swing. But like Rumi, I’m willing to wait and enjoy.