How the Raptors can escape NBA purgatory

The Raptors are stuck in the middle. How should they escape?

The following is a guest post by Kyle Ramnarine. You can find him on Twitter.

 The Toronto Raptors are in one of the worst places an NBA franchise can be: purgatory. 

At the moment, they lack any type of direction. The Raptors find themselves in a similar situation to other teams of being not good enough to win a championship, but not bad enough to be a top lottery team. However, unlike other top lottery teams teams like Orlando, Charlotte, and Detroit who are actively trying to rebuild through the draft, or teams that try to make trades to immediately contend, It seems as if they are unsure if they want to go down any of these paths. 

Simply put, the Raptors have to pick a direction — that’s the goal of this offseason. It should be to rebuild for the future. 

It all begins at the top. The team requires a leader to help guide them back in a direction to build a better future. While Nick Nurse was an incredible coach for the 2019 championship run, he only won a single playoff series after Kawhi Leonard left the team. The Raptors could use some fresh eyes, someone that can improve the team each season and instill a winning culture back into the locker room. According to Masai Ujiri, this is what he hopes to accomplish after getting rid of Nurse. 

“This is an opportunity for us to reset, to refocus, to put into place the personnel and the players who will help us reach our goal of winning our next championship,” Ujiri said in a statement. 

The Raptors have a few top coaches they can select to lead this team, but the best fit would be Mike Budenholzer. 

He was hired by the Bucks in 2018 to replace interim coach Joe Prunty, and he took a team who finished as the 7th seed the season prior to the 1st seed. He has proved that he can take charge of a team and drill a winning mentality into players while leading them to a positive record. The young players on the Raptors need a pillar that can help them remain resilient after tough losses and lead them forward. Budenholzer has seen his share of failures, but he has also had his share of successes. 

Budenholzer was let go after the Milwaukee Bucks fell to the Miami Heat this postseason. However, for the past five seasons, he has led the Bucks to a top-three seed every time. After two crushing playoff defeats in the 2018 and the 2019 seasons, he helped the Bucks keep a winning mentality and come back better the next season. This success resulted in a 2021 championship for the Bucks. He also led the Atlanta Hawks to one of their best seasons of all time with a record of 60-22 in the 2014-15 season, culminating in him winning Coach of the Year. 

It’s time to move forward. 

It’s clear that after these past few seasons, this core isn’t going to get it done. The time has come for hard decisions to be made regarding Pascal Siakam.  

The Raptors have seen the best they will from Siakam in a leading role. He cannot be the best player on a championship team. He still has a high trade value, and other superstars see the potential Siakam can bring to their team. 

According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Kevin Durant asked the Nets for Pascal Siakam before the trade deadline. 

“They tried to get Pascal Siakam now in the intervening 96 hours because K.D. made it known he likes Pascal Siakam. He thought he would be a good fit,” Lowe stated on his podcast. 

This past season, Siakam averaged 24.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 5.8 assists while shooting 48 percent from the field.  The Raptors should look to capitalize on this immediately, and the Portland Trail Blazers might be the best team through whom Toronto can  jumpstart a rebuild. 

With Damian Lillard wanting to contend, the Raptors would be a perfect team for Portland to trade with. The Raptors can offer Pascal Siakam and this year’s 13th pick for the Blazer’s 2023 third pick and Anfernee Simons. The Raptors would have to take on a big contract from the Blazers to make the salaries match, and there are three players they could take: Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkić and Simons. The Blazers would not want to give up their franchise player in Lillard, and Nurkić is on a bad contract. Out of the three Simons would be the best fit for the Raptors. 

Simons is a 23-year-old guard coming off a season where he averaged 21.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 62 games played. Simons showed off his ability to make shots from beyond the arc, shooting 37 percent from deep. He also has incredible shot-making ability from the midrange and off the dribble. The Raptors have had issues shooting the ball last season, as they were 28th in 3-point percentage and 27th in field-goal percentage. Simons would be able to stretch the floor for the Raptors,allowing for the offense to flow more fluently, while also creating offense on his own when needed. He has also developed greatly as a passer to the extent that he was top 20 in assists per game last season among shooting guards. . 

However, Simons doesn’t have great defensive ability, but with elite defenders on the Raptors like O.G. Anunoby and perhaps a more conservative scheme under a new coach, they should be able to cover up potential mistakes.

Simons can slide right into a starting shooting guard role, and with the Raptors looking to rebuild for the future, he could be one of the pillars of the future of the team alongside Scottie Barnes.

Furthermore, if the Raptors were able to complete this trade, they would land the third pick in the draft. With this pick, the team might have the amazing opportunity to draft point guard Scoot Henderson. With the future of guard Fred VanVleet unknown, Henderson could quickly fill a role that could need replacing. He’s a tremendous athlete and would immediately offer the rim pressure Toronto has lacked at the guard spots for years.

In addition to Siakam’s future, the front office has decisions to make regarding VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., and Jakob Poeltl who will all be free agents. 

It is unknown if VanVleet will return on his 2023-24 player option, but it’s doubtful. , If he chooses to opt out, he might look to re-sign for more money or test free agency.  However,  the front office should seek out a potential sign and trade for the guard with a team like the Lakers for D’Angelo Russell. Russell would be an amazing sixth man for the Raptors. He could help lead the squad off the bench when needed. Russell also has his fair share of experiences he can help share with this young Raptors squad, and help guide the newly drafted guards and ease that transition into the NBA. 

The Raptors should look to re-sign Trent and Poeltl, Trent is coming off a season where he averaged 17.4 points per game, while shooting 36 percent from three and 43 percent from the field. He’s an elite catch and shoot player and can help out the Raptors offense going forward. He is also only 24-years-old, giving him more time to develop other parts of his game such as defense. Also, if the Raptors were able to land Simons, Trent would be able to provide some extra firepower off the bench. 

Poeltl has been a big help defensively this year for the Raptors. “With Poeltl on the floor, Raptors opponents take 6.9 percent fewer shots at close range,” per Bleacher Report.  If the Raptors are unable to land a big man such as Turner, Poeltl has been doing a solid job at the five for them this past season, averaging 13.1 points per game, 9.1 rebounds per game and 1.3 blocks per game, while shooting 65 percent from the field. 

A draft decision

If the Raptors cannot make the Siakam trade happen, they would remain with the 13th pick. Whether or not the Raptors retain VanVleet, an explosive point guard is a significant need. Nick Smith Jr. is a very talented guard that can play both the one and two. 

Smith is six-foot-five with an incredible six-foot-nine wingspan, allowing him to be way more flexible on defense. He is a crafty scorer, difficult to guard with quick handles, and has a quick first step can make him a problem for defenders. Smith also can let the ball fly from three when required. In the 17 games he played at college, he averaged 4.2 threes a game while shooting 33.8 percent. He doesn’t mind taking shots from the midrange, and with his handle and speed, he can create his own shot whenever he needs to.  

Smith will need to develop his ability to attack the rim, as he tends to settle for jumpshots. However, with time in the NBA and his body naturally getting stronger over time, he should be able to round out his offensive game. With some time around the training staff and the young core of the Raptors, Smith can become a promising young star. 

The Toronto Raptors have got to start rebuilding for the future to get out of the abyss known as NBA Purgatory. They need youth and talent. But it all starts with getting a leader in someone like Mike Budenholzer, and making the necessary trades and draft choices to help the team build into a contender down the line.