The Raptors need to trade Pascal Siakam and begin a new era

Siakam, and Raptors' fans, deserve better than whatever this season has been.

Where is the Kyle and the Lowry? Where is the airhorn that was blowing? They have passed like rain on the mountain, like wind in the meadow. The days have gone down in the North behind the hills into shadow. 

How did it come to this?

Good question, Theoden Coach. But we already know the answer to that question. I’ve written about it very very very very very very very extensively. Very. Extensively. But mostly, right now, I’m writing about it because the Raptors just handed a game to the Utah Jazz for no reasons beyond miserable defensive screen navigation and incomprehensible offensive choices. And communication. Well, maybe some other reasons. But there’s no further point to diagnosing why the Raptors seem so broken. 

The question at this point is what to do about it? 

Perhaps the only way out of this is to trade Pascal Siakam. It’s awful, as he’s on the Mount Rushmore for the franchise, in the top five for points, rebounds, and assists. He started on a championship team. But Toronto just doesn’t have a better way forward. This team, as currently stands, is not constructed to be a championship team, now or in the future. Honestly, it’s not particularly close. And the front office can’t keep convincing itself that it is. 

But trading Siakam can give the Raptors a shot to take a step out of their current path. They can reset, figure out the financial debacle coming with Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Gary Trent jr. all upcoming free agents, and fill the future-talent coffers with some youngsters or some picks who can push the championship window down the road. 

There are a few reasons why the Raptors should want to trade Siakam instead of Anunoby. He should likely draw the larger offer from trade partners. After all, he is the better player, with far more accolades to his name. Secondly, Anunoby fits better alongside Barnes; he is the better defender and shooter, and Barnes is so strong at initiating this year that Siakam’s abilities there are less meaningful than Anunoby’s advantages. That shows up in the numbers: Though Siakam has the best on/offs on the team, Toronto’s net rating with Barnes already on the floor is better with Anunoby alongside him than with Siakam

Blake Murphy of Sportsnet recently wrote about how to identify a future star who’s already in the league, and our own Samson Folk also opined about it. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers are in such good positions going forward because they identified the incredible futures of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Tyrese Haliburton before they became All-NBA players. Both teams had to trade established stars (Paul George and Domantas Sabonis) to acquire the youngsters, but neither team could have any regrets now. 

Siakam is in the same position as George and Sabonis before him. He is an established star. But the Raptors need to ensure they don’t regret his loss. If Toronto trades him, it should do so to a chance to acquire a future star as well as a draft pick or two. If Toronto doesn’t trade him, the Raptors have a much narrower road to long-term improvement. Again: It hurts, but the writing is on the wall, from the perspective of the franchise.

There is precedence for success despite the loss of Siakam. The threesome of Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, and Gary Trent jr. has a net rating of plus-15. In criminally low minutes, just 130 total. That’s a very bad look for Darko Rajakovic (even though they have been playing much more recently). It is Toronto’s best three-man unit with at least 100 minutes played. And it has played approximately 500 minutes fewer than Toronto’s most-used group, despite including three of Toronto’s core six players. I don’t understand Rajakovic’s hesitancy there.

Sorry, I’m getting lost in the details. The idea is that Toronto has winning units that don’t include Siakam. (That threesome has played half of its minutes without Siakam and still had a net rating of plus-11.) 

And it’s not like this wasn’t easy enough to predict. Surrounding Barnes with shooting and cutting and movement was always going to be the path forward. Siakam is talented — still the best advantage creator on the roster — and productive and hugely contributive towards winning. He still has the best on/offs on the team. But the Raptors can build a foundation of winning without him. Barnes is the truth, the future, and the reason this season isn’t wholly painful. He just put up 32 points, 14 rebounds, and 7 assists against the Jazz while hitting 4 triples. And that was despite a quiet second half. He is so good at this point that Toronto can’t waste time getting a team that complements him rather than, you know, actively inhibits his or anyone else’s success. 

Furthermore, there are teams who lack power forwards, want to rise in the playoff hunt, and have youngsters oozing talent. The Sacramento Kings (Keegan Murray), Indiana Pacers (Andrew Nembhard), New Orleans Pelicans (Trey Murphy III), Oklahoma City Thunder (Jalen Williams), and Atlanta Hawks (AJ Griffin) come to mind. Murray, Williams, and Murphy are likely off-limits, as they’re just too good already, but if the Raptors can acquire one of those players as well as a first-round pick or two, it would be a coup. The Detroit Pistons don’t fit into the category of a good team that would want to add a secondary star, but if Jaden Ivey could be had, I’m still a big believer. Either way, one of the above trades could change Toronto’s outlook, which desperately needs changing.

Because the above six players are so young, they also are not earning monstrous contracts for a while, so Toronto’s cap sheet would be greatly altered after the trade. And it needs alteration if Toronto wants to return to contention. Let’s use the Pacers as an example.

Pretend the Raptors were to trade Siakam for Nembhard and Buddy Hield. (I don’t think the Pacers would do this, but let’s just pretend. There would need to be a little more money thrown in from the Pacers’ side, so let’s just say Obi Toppin as well.) Hield is an upcoming free agent, so that doesn’t entirely solve the Raptors’ upcoming tax crunch. And he’s so good — one of the best five shooters in the last decade — that the Raptors wouldn’t do this deal just to let Hield walk in free agency. 

But if they chose to, the Raptors could clear a whole lot of cap space this upcoming free agency. The players under contract for next season are Jakob Poeltl, Dennis Schroder, Chris Boucher, Barnes, Gradey Dick, Jalen McDaniels, and Christian Koloko. If they renounced their rights to the restricted free agents (Precious Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn) and re-signed just one of the upcoming unrestricted free agents (let’s say Anunoby), Toronto could potentially open a max-contract slot. Of course, it’s not a particularly deep free agency crop; Hield, for my money, would be the best available (and still realistic) option on the market regardless. So, may as well keep him in this completely theoretical scenario. If Toronto kept Nembhard and Hield, re-signed Anunoby and Trent, then there goes any available cap space. That team is not better in a vacuum than this one, purely in terms of talent — Siakam is outrageously good. But at least it wouldn’t necessarily be in the luxury tax, not if it made a few salary-trimming moves. 

Beyond that, there would be a future in sight. And if Nembhard developed into a star, then the Raptors would be better than they are now, talent-wise. A starting lineup of Nembhard, Hield, Anunoby, Barnes, and Poeltl at least has players at their natural positions and a fair amount of shooting. That’s better than the Raptors can say now. 

To that point: There’s also the hard-to-analyze component of the team no longer seeming to believe in itself. This is certainly pseudoscience, and it’s almost impossible to know unless you’re actually on the team. But that loss to the Jazz was a pretty loud death knell. One of many we’ve seen during this era. Barnes saved the Raptors from what would have been the worst loss of this post-Lowry era against the Charlotte Hornets just the other night. Wait, no, that came at the end of last season when the Raptors lost to the free throw line. So, yeah. It’s been tough out there for the Raptors.

The worst part of Toronto’s loss to Utah was that it might not have been anything special, not for this team. They’ve lost like this before. The Raptors are failing at components of the game that, given the talent on the roster, should come easily. Defense. Rebounding. Defense. Just, talking to one another so that they know what the coverage is.

And so we’re left writing about trades. That’s not how this season was supposed to be, but that’s how it goes sometimes. The Raptors can be fixed. But increasingly, it seems like these Raptors can’t. So change is the only answer.