Gary Trent Jr.’s time with the Raptors has been marred by ups and downs, lofty expectations, opulent outfits, but more than anything: good shooting at the NBA level.
The Raptors reliance on Trent Jr. and his spacing had been a major feather in his cap for the first, roughly, 2 years of his time with the team. Trent Jr. had shown an abundance of tough shot-making, and especially at the beginning of the 22-23 season, a keen sense of how he could use his gravity and movement to find high quality looks for himself. Easier looks, higher efficiency, a bit more diversity. Things were going well.
That momentum in his game in concert with being on the younger side of 25, and in a position to hit free agency; it seemed to point him towards a handsome pay day. In the offseason he saw other young guards (Poole, Herro, Barrett) accept extensions in-between 26M and 32M dollars a year – with all 3 contracts going north of 110M over their duration. Halfway through the season, the rumors and reporting indicated that Trent Jr. was looking for roughly 25M a year on his next contract.
At that point in time it seemed lofty, but he had made a couple notable improvements as a scorer that seemed to indicate a little bit higher ceiling for his offense. He proved his jump-shot-making pedigree in 21-22, but in 22-23 he was getting closer to the basket for a push shot (that he was hitting a lot) and getting to the free throw line way more. He had counters. Great shooters with counters are expensive and important, even if they have the defensive shortcomings that Trent Jr. and many other guards do.
Now, the tough part: Trent Jr. got jockeyed in between a starting spot and the bench repeatedly, scored less points per game, created less looks for teammates per game (less assists too), and I don’t mean to hammer this home too much; but I watched every possession of Trent Jr.’s this year and there was no discernable improvement to his playmaking. Numbers regress as usage does (Trent Jr.’s usage dipped), but even outside of the numbers, the passing is stagnant.
Over his last 14 games of the regular season, he finished below double-digit points 6 times. For the guard who doesn’t defend very well, and is relied upon to be a consistent source of scoring (bench or otherwise), that’s really tough to stomach. He also only played in 3 of the Raptors last 10 games of the season due to injury.
The Raptors finding their identity in defense (5th DRTG since the All-Star break), and O.G. Anunoby’s torrid shooting finish to the season made Trent Jr. less of a staple and more of a “if he’s shooting it well, let it ride” type of player. On a contending team, that role makes a lot of sense for Trent Jr. and we’re talking about a luxury tax team that is more than willing to pay the luxurious costs of shooting talent at the back end of the rotation. For the Raptors, who couldn’t make the playoffs, but would be slated for the second apron of the luxury tax if they bring everyone back – Trent Jr.’s ask is too much.
I’ll mention quickly: the luxury tax worries apply to any of the Raptors potential free agents. Letting VanVleet walk would alleviate that problem, as would letting Poeltl walk. However, VanVleet & Poeltl are both valued more highly by the Raptors organization and the league at large. To me, Trent Jr. seems the most sensible option. All of this stuff is subject to change with trades though, and I can’t accurately forecast those – in fact, no one can.
Let’s talk about the money.
The underwhelming finish to Trent Jr.’s season affected his standing as an upcoming free agent. There aren’t a lot of teams with cap space, and for teams to get the most out of his skillset they have to want him shooting the ball quite a bit. The Raptors were one of the rare offenses in the NBA that were led by wings, a dearth of shooting, and a unique tenet of: let Gary shoot.
There aren’t many teams at all that can offer Trent Jr. the money he wants, or the shots he’s looking for. Things broke in a super unfortunate way for him. I still don’t think it’s likely that Trent Jr. accepts the 18.8M player option that is currently available to him, but it’s more likely now than it was halfway through the season.
The shooting guard/combo guard position has a big gap in contracts. There isn’t a single player getting paid between 19M and 23M a year. You go north of 23M and you have a glut of guards that are expected to grow into initiators that can score and playmake to help lift up an offense, and Buddy Hield whose shooting is as electric and proven as they come. Below 19M you have, predominantly bench guards, and many of them have already put a season under their belt that is much better than any of Trent Jr.’s – Norman Powell, Kevin Huerter, Jordan Clarkson, Bogdan Bogdanovic.
This isn’t to say it’s impossible that Trent Jr. can eclipse some of these guards, just that there really isn’t much of a reason for him to make the jump past that group into the upper echelon – in terms of getting paid. The market isn’t signaling to a big payday for Trent Jr. unless a lot of teams say they love the film, the mechanics, and start competing with each other.
The most interesting aspect of this situation is the intersection of the Raptors recent history of moves, and Trent Jr.’s somewhat underwhelming impact. It isn’t uncommon for a player of Trent Jr.’s quality to leave their team in free agency without anything coming back. The Raptors slow bleed after the championship, failure to sign impact players in the wake of said championship, and misses on some draft picks has left them in a vulnerable spot. The optics are that they can’t let another guy go. The question is if Trent Jr. will be viewed as part of that, or in a vacuum. In a vacuum — and I’m repeating myself here — guys like that leave fairly often.
It’s hard to see Trent Jr. getting a major raise, and I have no pulse on the trade market at this point in time – because if Trent Jr. is being moved in a sign and trade, it’s probably to a team that’s currently assessing their roster after a playoff loss, or will be soon.
In talking to NBA staffers, scouts, and media, I haven’t had anyone say they’d be comfortable signing Trent Jr. to a contract north of 20M.
If the Raptors are weighing keeping Trent Jr. on the roster vs. the cost of the luxury tax and the loss of flexibility? It’s conceivable that they decide to part ways. I guess we’ll see.
Have a blessed day.
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