“Focus, mental mistakes … the discipline to do the right thing, even when things aren’t going your way … “ – Raptors head coach not pleased after Raptors fall 112-103 to the Miami Heat. pic.twitter.com/ooLyG37hhZ
— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) December 7, 2023
2023-2024 NBA Steals Leaders:
50 – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
38 – Jalen Suggs
36 – Scottie Barnes
36 – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
35 – Dejounte Murray
— Basketball Reference (@bball_ref) December 7, 2023
I’d give everyone on the Raptors and my soul for Haliburton.
— Chris Walder (@WalderSports) December 7, 2023
But this is different. There was no emotional attachment to Gay, not for Ujiri or the franchise. He was acquired by a different general manager less than a year earlier. Ujiri inherited him and his bloated contract when he took over. That had to make it easier to move on, while also accepting a loss in the trade, which essentially amounted to a salary dump.
Ujiri drafted Siakam. He helped develop him into a star and had a front row seat for his remarkable ascension. They won a championship together. Moving Siakam and accepting the reality that they’re unlikely to get fair value back, given his status as a pending free agent, would be far tougher than the decision he made 10 years ago. What if it doesn’t produce the same result and you’ve traded one of the best and most important players in franchise history for pennies on the dollar? As an executive, something like that is hard to recover from, but is it any worse than potentially losing that player for nothing in free agency a few months later?
One way or another, something has to give. The Raptors still haven’t opened extension talks with Siakam, according to league sources, but the belief is that they also haven’t engaged other teams in trade talks involving the all-star forward since the summertime. That could certainly change over the next few weeks – mid-December is generally considered to be the unofficial start transaction season, as most players who signed contracts over the summer become trade eligible – or as we get closer to the Feb. 8 deadline.
Ujiri is an optimist by nature. He has generally given his players, coaches and teams the runway to determine their own fate, to sink or swim, and he’s always looking for a reason to believe they will figure it out, as opposed to finding reasons why they won’t. When that Lowry and DeRozan-led team began to thrive in the aftermath of the Gay trade, he called off the rebuild and kept that group together until it became clear they had hit a ceiling. When this current group showed some promise after Poeltl was acquired at last year’s deadline, he opted against any major roster shakeups during the off-season.
It’s why this evaluation process remains ongoing. Whenever you’re tempted to write off this Raptors club, they have a way of pulling you back in. Notably, some of their best wins of the season – the latest being a decisive victory over the Phoenix Suns last week – have come directly after their worst losses. Even within the span of one game, like Wednesday’s loss to Miami for instance, they often look like two different teams. That inconsistency and all those wild swings can make it tough to get a read on them. If you’re looking hard enough for reasons to believe, they’ll tease you with them.
But the clock is ticking on this iteration of the Raptors, and any leverage they have continues to shrink as their players get closer to unrestricted free agency. The ever-patient Ujiri doesn’t like to think in those terms, but that’s just the way it is. Time stops for nobody, and this team is running out of it.
“I think the next 20 games are going to show who we really are,” Schroder said earlier this week. “[We’re 21] games in and the next 20 games are going to be really important for the team, the organization.”
“It can’t keep going the way it’s going right now,” Poeltl said. “It’s not horrible, but it’s not up to our standards or what we expect from ourselves. I don’t think it’s necessarily wearing down on our mood, but it’s definitely a serious issue we’re addressing right now.”
The consensus throughout the league after talking with executives, players and scouts this past week is that the Raptors almost have to do something, and the most prominent name out there is Siakam.
Yes, Gary Trent Jr. and OG Anunoby, two other potential summer free agents, are possibilities, but the return the Raptors could get on Siakam and his $37-million (U.S.) salary is the most intriguing asset.
The where and for who changes almost daily. Golden State for a Jonathan Kuminga-led package that might include taking on Chris Paul and waiving his contract around the buyout deadline has been floated. If Sacramento comes calling, Keegan Murray and Harrison Barnes would have to be targets. Many other suitors will come calling.
Don’t for a second think this is all out of the minds of Toronto players.
They know their contracts, they know the record, they know the recent history. They don’t discuss it publicly, but they know.
“It’s 20 games in. The next 20 games are going to be really important for the team, the organization,” point guard Dennis Schröder was saying earlier this week.
One thing team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have done is create all kinds of financial flexibility.
They have small contracts — Malachi Flynn ($3.8 million), Precious Achiuwa ($4.3 million); low-middle deals — Thad Young ($8 million), Otto Porter Jr. ($6.3 million); and high middle — Anunoby ($18.6 million), Gary Trent Jr. ($18.5 million), Chris Boucher ($11.7 million).
Individually, not many of those players would yield any substantial return. But as one agent said this week, there are all kinds of combinations that would make the math work in any kind of transaction.
This is not to say the Raptors will make a deal — Ujiri’s history would suggest he’s unlikely to do anything of substance — but the chatter has begun and it’s not going to get any quieter.
As my pal said: “They’ve got to trade someone, right? And Siakam’s the most logical, right?”
As such, it is time for change — more substantial than putting Otto Porter Jr. into the back end of the rotation, which is a step in the right direction. It might be time for new head coach Darko Rajaković to seriously consider a change to the starting lineup, and more alterations to how the rotation flows from there.
“At some point it has to happen,” Rajaković said of a change to the starting group if things don’t improve. “I still believe in our guys. I still believe that this group can figure it out and do a better job. The last five games with the starters on the floor, we did not do well. … Those guys, they’re going to be better. But our whole team has got to do a better job as well.
“We need playmaking on the court. We need players who are able to play the pick-and-rolls as well and create out of that. We’re constantly trying to improve and get better as a group. And it starts with every single player doing their job on a higher level.”
The specificity with which the coach answered was likely directed at the most obvious move — putting Gary Trent Jr. in the starting lineup, and bringing Schröder off the bench. There are many reasons not to like that possibility, starting with the lack of playmaking Rajaković mentioned, as well as the point-of-attack defence the Raptors could suffer by making that change. Beyond that, there is the issue of meritocracy: Schröder is having a more productive individual season than Trent.
Saying that, Schröder mentioned sacrifice up top, and it is increasingly looking like something has to give.
Following Wednesday’s poor effort, the starters now have a 105.8 offensive rating, a figure better than just one team, not starting group, in the NBA: the 30th-ranked Portland Trail Blazers. The quintet has played the second-most minutes, 235, of any lineup in the NBA, behind only the Houston Rockets’ starting lineup. Among the 25 most-used lineups in the league, only a New York Knicks group with Josh Hart in RJ Barrett’s place, has a worse offensive rating. That isn’t to say things cannot improve. The sample is no longer small, though. The group hits a third of their 3-point attempts and has an assist-to-turnover ratio right around 2-to-1. Both numbers are close enough to the Raptors’ overall numbers using any other lineups. By that definition, it has not been an effective lineup, with even the defence trending in the wrong direction.
Over the last four weeks, the group has scored at a brutal rate of 100.7 points per 100 possessions in 139 minutes. They have a net rating flirting around minus-10 per 100 possessions. It has been bad, never worse than Wednesday against Miami.
Why now? Well, there might not be another reasonable chance for Rajaković to make a move before the front office must make a decision on this roster. The Raptors play 12 games between now and Jan. 3, when they start a six-game Western Conference road trip.
The Raptors have begun to move away from their starting lineup within games more quickly. Gary Trent Jr. is coming off the bench earlier and joining the team in starter-led lineups either as a replacement for Barnes or Anunoby. While those in-between lineups have been far from perfect, they’ve been better.
Toronto’s offense has been 8.3 points per 100 possessions better with Trent on the court this year compared to when he sits, and the Trent-plus-starters lineups all have had a positive net rating regardless of the combination.
But don’t expect the Raptors to move away from their starting lineup anytime soon.
Siakam, Anunoby, and Barnes aren’t going to the bench. This organization went long enough without a center that moving Poeltl into the sixth-man spot doesn’t seem appealing. Schröder, in theory, could come off the bench, a role he’s filled earlier in his career, but that doesn’t seem particularly interesting to the Raptors either.
There’s a reason Toronto has played just 92 possessions with Barnes as the team’s de facto point guard without Schöder or Malachi Flynn on the court this season. While those lineups have been successful, posting a +36.1 net rating, per Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors aren’t ready to turn the reigns over to Barnes as the full-time point guard quite yet.
“You need a guard who is going to help alleviate the pressure, bringing the ball up the floor,” Rajaković said of the lineups without Schröder or Flynn on the court. “When Scottie is just by himself on the court, sometimes teams are just going to pick up full court, make it hard for him to bring the ball.
“He needs someone to help him. I think he’s good at handling the ball in pick and rolls and making decisions and it’s definitely part of his development doing that more and more. I just think sometimes having another guy who is capable of bringing the ball, getting us set and organized is helpful.”
And so Toronto is stuck.
The team’s starters have been outscored in four of the last five games, with the Raptors losing those four where the starters struggled. That includes Wednesday’s winnable game against Miami which saw the starters outscored by 23 points in 17 minutes against a Heat team missing its best defender, Bam Adebayo and one of its most dangerous scorers, Tyler Herro.
The group has made a habit of getting off to terrible starts in first and third quarters (they were outscored by 15 to begin Wednesday’s game and had to rally, and then came out flat in the third again).
“I wish I had explanation there,” Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic said after the game.
“We gotta figure it out. Being outscored, how much of that is a problem defensively, how much of that problem is offensively, that’s always the question there. We’re constantly taking look at everything trying to figure it out. We’re trying to go to different lineups out there,” Rajakovic said. “We went to Otto Porter as a five man there. Even if he did not score points when he was on a court, he just gave us presence and calmness and we were plus-14 when he was on the court. So we’ll be continued looking at everything and evaluating everything.”
Gary Trent Jr. has consistently played better as a starter than as a reserve as a Raptor and provides more reliable spacing with his shooting than Schroder. He could be an option should a change be made. So too could the veteran Porter, who says he’s finally feeling good after a nearly year-long injury layoff. Rajakovic said Porter will now be a regular part of the rotation, capable of playing anywhere in the front court.
“We’ll continue to look at everything and evaluate everything,” Rajakovic said when asked about changing the starting lineup.
That said, a day later, after watching film and going through a practice, Rajakovic indicated he isn’t yet ready to tinker.
“I still believe in our guys. I still believe that this group can figure it out and do a better job,” he said. “The last five games with the starters on the floor, we did not do well.”
There’s no arguing that. The team intends to continue searching for solutions, even though Poeltl acknowledged Thursday that with a quarter of the season already gone, they don’t have the time to keep floundering.
“I don’t think anybody has the immediate answer, this one big solution that’s going to help solve all our problems. It’s on us and it’s on the coaches to figure out a way to get better because it feels like we’re right there,” Poeltl said. “We’re just not winning enough games. It feels like we have the potential to win these games, but we’re not, for some reason,” he said.