Did y'all vote today? 👀
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 11, 2023
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) January 12, 2023
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 12, 2023
The vultures are circling the Toronto Raptors, and it’s no wonder why.
The Raptors are off to a disappointing 18-23 start, sitting five games under .500 after having lost 14 of their last 21 games. They have several relatively young, talented players that any number of teams would love to trade for, but due to a combination of underwhelming individual play, a system failing to get the most out of everyone, and a roster with holes in it, the Raptors have been unable to play as a cohesive unit and string together wins.
It’s no wonder reports are surfacing about league executives keeping a close eye on the Raptors as they reportedly take the rest of January to decide which direction they want to go. Will they they want to fight for playoff positioning or tank towards the draft lottery, likely trading away key players if they choose the latter.
There are reasons for the Raptors to hear offers on almost all of their best players. After all, both Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. are likely to turn down their respective player options and hit free agency this offseason, while O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are likely to hit the open market in 2024. And it’s better to get something for your core players than to potentially see them walk for nothing. In fact, part of the reason the Raptors are in this predicament in the first place is because of talented players leaving in free agency.
The Raptors have to consider trading their pending free agents if they are not confident they can get them to re-sign this summer or if they are not confident they fit the long-term vision of the team. And because people love trades, fans are taking to trade machines to fantasize about what a potential deal for each core member of the Raptors would look like.
But there are also very important reasons not to trade each of the Raptors’ top players. From VanVleet’s leadership qualities to Trent Jr.’s elite spot-up shooting to Anunoby’s defensive prowess, here is one reason to hold onto each core member of the Raptors moving forward:
Fred VanVleet’s undeniable leadership
By his own admission, VanVleet has struggled this season. But regardless of whether or not his shooting stabilizes or his defence gets back to the elite level we have grown accustomed to, one thing that has not wavered is VanVleet’s leadership, which the Raptors depend upon him for.
“I’m not giving up. I’m never gonna hang my head. I’m always gonna stay positive and stay confident as long as we got this group together,” VanVleet said of the Raptors’ recent slide. “It’s the ultimate test, I think for myself as a leader, to try to keep finding ways to will this team to wins and help my teammates. And it’s making me better as a player and as a man and as a leader.”
Since VanVleet joined the Raptors, he has always been a vocal leader. And when Kyle Lowry left in 2021, VanVleet became the captain of the ship. On the court, he sets the tone with his hard-nosed play while organizing the team and making sure everyone is in the right spots.
Off of the court, VanVleet is in charge of holding players accountable and setting the high standard that has become a key part of the Raptors culture. Siakam has taken a big step in that regard, and the addition of Thad Young has helped as well, but VanVleet is the glue that holds the team together in a lot of ways, while being a clear extension of the coaching staff. Losing his leadership could prove detrimental to the way the team operates and the culture it has built.
VanVleet means a ton to the Raptors, on the court and culturally. It’s important to try to separate yourself from the second part to an extent, but not entirely: Leadership is important to any team, and VanVleet carries a ton of weight within the organization.
If you’re the Raptors, you have to look ahead to his free agency, and know what you’re willing to invest in VanVleet’s early 30s. The Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency 2019 because they were trying to keep a championship team together, and they lost Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka the next offseason in part because they were trying to maintain cap room to chase Giannis Antetokounmpo in free agency in 2021. (Antetokounmpo signed an extension with the Bucks soon after.)
There is no such concern with this team. They are not a championship contender, and the front office isn’t trying to create cap space right now. While not having VanVleet on the books could help create cap space in the long-term, moving him wouldn’t help them add players in free agency in the short-term — not on its own, at least. Before this run, Masai Ujiri was known for holding on to his players, even on a sub-optimal salary, in order to not lose them for nothing.
Even in an abysmal shooting year, VanVleet is still making a positive impact on the Raptors. In order to trade him, the Raptors would probably want multiple quality cost-controllable assets (young players or picks), or a single excellent one.
To Magic: VanVleet and Khem Birch (two years, $13.65 million remaining)
To Raptors: Cole Anthony (two years, $9.15 million remaining, likely RFA in 2024), Mo Bamba (two years, $20.6 million), Terrence Ross (one year, $11.5 million) and a top-8 protected 2023 first-round pick
The Magic’s view: This has to be a no for the Magic. Orlando is not a free-agent destination, and the way the Magic will break through this rebuild is through good drafts and trading for a prime free agent under contract. VanVleet is prime, but he will surely exercise that player’s option. The Magic can’t risk a pick, even a protected one, when the commodity they’re trading for isn’t a sure thing. — Joe Vardon
To Lakers: VanVleet
To Raptors: Patrick Beverley (one year, $13 million), Kendrick Nunn (one year, $5.25 million), Max Christie (two years, $2.74 million, RFA in 2024) and a 2027 first-round pick
The Lakers’ view: Yes. I think VanVleet’s (relatively) down season, particularly as a 3-point shooter, would give the Lakers some pause. They need shooting and size/length on the perimeter and in the frontcourt. VanVleet clearly doesn’t address the latter need, but he could address the former if he returns to his career shooting norms. Regardless, he still grades out well in all-in-one metrics, and I think the talent upgrade — in terms of actual rotation pieces, it’s basically Beverley for VanVleet — is significant enough for the Lakers to say yes to the offer. — Jovan Buha
To Mavericks: VanVleet
To Raptors: Josh Green (two years, $7.86 million), Davis Bertans (three years, $49 million, including player option for 2024-25) and a 2025 first-round pick
The Mavericks’ view: Dallas isn’t expected to trade first-round picks or a young player like Green in any situation this season; the front office understands its ammunition needs to be saved for a major move in the next year or two. This isn’t the sort of deal that would tempt them. VanVleet would help the Mavericks, but he doesn’t fit their timeline and doesn’t offer the defensive upgrade they’re wanting for their 23rd-ranked defence, per NBA.com. — Tim Cato
The Raptors seem to have hit some kind of stride — they’ve played far more better games than bad ones in the last couple of weeks — and now the question becomes this:
Is it real?
And what will that mean for Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster in the four weeks leading up to the NBA trade deadline on Feb. 9 and the second half of the regular season that begins with the nightcap to the Charlotte doubleheader on Thursday night.
It’s not an easy question to answer and people around the organization — as always — can’t get a definite read on what the vice-chairman and the general manager might have up their sleeves.
The last fortnight notwithstanding, the holes in the roster still exist. Not enough consistent shooting, a backup group that runs hot and cold every other week, it seems. Key pieces who have, for the moment, plateaued.
So, what to do?
If there’s one thing obvious about Ujiri and Webster it’s that they do not overreact; they’ve been around far too long, seen far too many seasons, lived far too many ups and downs to get all antsy and make panic deals.
Sure, they get irked when the losses mount and there’s no doubt within the organization that they’re disappointed with where the team is right now but that hasn’t moved them to be too, too active in trade talks.
Conversely, they see the same flaws everyone does: Depth, shooting and stagnated growth that all but ruined the first half of the season.
Being five games below .500 and out of even a spot in the play-in tournament is, and should be, unacceptable.
The players know it, the coaches know it, management knows it.
“What’s behind this is behind us, we got to look to the future and, hopefully, our best basketball is in front of us,” Fred VanVleet said this week. “Put something together and nobody will remember what the first half of the season looked like.”
They will remember, of course. But as they do, Ujiri and Webster are keeping things close to the vest. Executives around the league remain uncertain where the Raptors feel they are.
The word from on high before the season began was that, at the very least, there needed to be some playoff success or else substantial change could be coming. Whether the failings of the first half have hastened that is the great unknown.
It may be best to play out the season with the cast they have to deepen the trade pool. Get another 30 or 40 games with this group to take a longer look at it.
It’s not been in the nature of Ujiri and Webster to make huge deadline deals just to shake things up.
A shakeup may be needed — and if the Raptors go on another extended losing streak before the deadline all bets are off — but it may not be possible in the middle of a season.
Toronto Raptors midseason grades: The starters
Scottie Barnes: Let’s just say it: Barnes has not lived up to expectations this year. That doesn’t mean he’s been bad, though he’s certainly had a few tough moments. But he still shows those flashes of playmaking and athleticism that seem like glimpses of the future of basketball, and his numbers, while all down from last season, are still pretty solid. But the Raptors doubled down on the current roster last summer because they were expecting Barnes’ role to expand, and he hasn’t been able to meet those expectations — and that’s a big part of why their record is what it is.
Gary Trent Jr.: Everyone’s favourite trade target! Like everyone else on this cursed team, Trent’s overall shooting numbers are down from last year, but he’s still scoring 18 a game, and is often the team’s best shot creator. Furthermore, he’s been awesome since missing four games with a hip injury; in the 8 games since he’s averaging 23 points on 47/45/89 shooting splits, with 3.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.9 steals. Maybe all he’s doing is boosting his trade value (which is fine too) but the Raptors need everything they can get from Trent.
O.G. Anunoby: O.G.’s Defensive Player of the Year campaign may have taken a hit as the Raptors’ team D has gone down the toilet, but watching Anunoby has been a treat. He may not be the DPOY, but he’s still an All-NBA-caliber defender, capable of locking up the opposing team’s best player, and he intercepts passes like a cornerback (oh yeah, he’s leading the league in steals). Offensively, his shooting numbers are about on par from last year (a rarity on this team) — in fact his two-point shooting is up, and he’s averaging a career-highs in points, rebounds, and steals. If he keeps this up, we’re gonna start saying “we’re not only wasting a great Pascal Siakam season, we’re wasting a great O.G. Anunoby season too!”
Fred VanVleet: VanVleet’s grade is the hardest to determine. On the one hand, he’s had some terrible shooting nights, including missing some clutch three-pointers that could have swung games; and on defense, he’s given up an alarming number of blow-bys, likely fueled by a sore back. On the other hand, they probably have six wins they wouldn’t have had without VanVleet putting his hands all over them. Much like Barnes, though, the Raptors simply needed — and expected — better play from VanVleet to allow for progression from last year’s 48-win team. They haven’t gotten it.
Pascal Siakam: I almost feel like a 17-win team that barely beat the tank-tastic Charlotte Hornets last night shouldn’t have (and doesn’t deserve to have) a player with an A grade. But Siakam is having an all-time great Raptors season — 25.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 6.5 assists, on 47/43/78 shooting splits. And that doesn’t even mention the defensive effort, which remains elite (look at his defense on Damian Lillard late on Sunday, for an example). If the Raptors’ record were better, he’d be in the MVP conversation; as it is anyone who ever questioned Siakam’s All-NBA credentials should be forever silenced. It will be a damn shame if Siakam doesn’t get the opportunity to put up these numbers in the playoffs, but I for one am glad to have this guy on my team.
Coach Nick Nurse: Nurse’s flaws as a coach (inability to trust role players, lack of offensive creativity, over-adherence to defensive scheme) have been on full display this season as his players have struggled. It’s definitely frustrating to watch the same anemic offense and the same scrambling defense, now suddenly a step behind, and not see the gameplay adjusted in a meaningful way. On the other hand, sometimes as a coach you have to step back and trust your schemes — and more importantly, trust your players to execute it, especially when you know they can do it — as they did last year. But at the end of the day, this roster should have more wins, and a good chunk of responsibility for that has to lay with the head coach.
The Raptors prepare for their second consecutive game at home against the Hornets after collecting a victory in the first affair. Gary Trent Jr. played a huge role in the win with 24 points and has found himself playing a lot with the second unit lately, a change that Chris Boucher has welcomed.
Currently the team sits 23rd overall in the standings, but are 14th in defensive rating (112.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) and 15th in offensive rating (113.0 points scored per 100 possessions) for a positive net rating and rank 14th overall in that category league-wide.
They’ve actually outperformed their record.
That’s the glass-half-full version.
The glass-half-empty version is the Raptors, while they’ve won their past two, really haven’t given any great indication that a major turnaround like last year is around the corner.
The bench appears to have found some juice again with Precious Achiuwa healthy again and on his way back to full form. Chris Boucher, who has had his struggles, always seems to play better with Achiuwa in the lineup and his play of late has also been on the rise.
But in an era where the three-point shot is king, the Raptors aren’t even in the same area code as most of the rest of the league when it comes to knocking them down.
At the halfway point, the Raptors as a club are shooting just 33% from deep with only the Charlotte Hornets having more trouble from that range.
The answer is to ensure you have more kicks at the can than the opponent and, for the most part, the Raptors manage to do this on a regular basis with their above-average number of takeaways.
Unfortunately, the Raptors aren’t just a poor three-point shooting team, they’re a poor shooting team overall so far this season.
Their field goal percentage sits at 44.8%, which again is next to last in the NBA with only Houston having a tougher time getting the ball in the basket.
If you accept the starting five along with Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher as the core seven of this team (Christian Koloko is either there or on his way to joining that group), only Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby and Boucher have better or equal field goal percentages than they did a year ago.
From behind the arc only, Anunoby is the lone player from that list of seven who has improved, going from a 36.3% shooter to 36.8%.
Everyone else has regressed, led by VanVleet going from a 37.7% three-point chucker to 32.8%. Achiuwa’s numbers from three have cratered, but he also missed 24 of the first 41 games.
The bottom line is this team just needs to shoot the ball better.
Even marginal improvements in those areas can go a long way, but to go as far as the Raptors need them to if they hope to come close to the kind of second half they had a year ago, this team HAS to get back to its defensive identity.
Head coach Nick Nurse has made the point that defence, particularly transition defence, has become much harder this year because teams are no longer taking the ball out of the basket and inbounding as often as they were. Now, they’re just grabbing a rebound and going and the Raptors have paid the price.
The Raptors’ collective drop off in terms of marksmanship has meant teams are coming at them quicker, giving them less time to get set and they’re taking advantage.
It was almost two months ago that Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse sent a public message to Gary Trent Jr. to start playing better. The words were stern: “We want him to be a disruptor. He kinda fits us if he does that, and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t fit us.”
A few days later the message was sent again when Nurse decided to move Trent to the bench for the first time this season. Trent’s defense had fallen off considerably and he’d been mired in the worst shooting slump of his career.
Some players may not have taken kindly to the move. Scottie Barnes, for example, wasn’t particularly good at hiding his dissatisfaction with his benching back in November. But Trent didn’t sulk, shut down, or give up.
“He’s been as professional as he can be all the way through about all of it,” Nurse said Tuesday. “Even when you go to talk to him his attitude is, man, I’m gonna work and do my job and whatever you need.”
Trent is aware that his name is swirling around trade deadline rumors and there’s no doubt he knows where his contract sits as a big free agency rapidly approaches for him this summer. And yet, there’s been no sign that it’s getting to him.
Instead, he’s risen to the call over and over again. After a brief bout with injuries and illness earlier this year, he’s blossomed into Toronto’s second-best offensive weapon for the better part of the last two months. Since that benching back on November 28, he’s been shooting 48.1% from the floor, 41.7% from behind the arc, and 20.6 points per game, the second most on the team over the stretch.
Part of his resurgence has simply been finding his stroke from three-point range, but Trent is also quickly developing into a more well-rounded offensive player. He’s shooting 63.3% within eight feet of the hoop this season, up from 49.5% last year, and his playmaking has slowly been coming along lately.