Should the Raptors regret their trades given Anunoby and Siakam’s success?

These playoffs are particularly painful for Raptors fans.

The Indiana Pacers looked scared to start their first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Their shooters passed on open shots, and their guards weren’t driving and getting offensive possessions into the whirring dance that Indiana so desires. They looked dead in the water early on against a Bucks team that was missing Giannis Antetokounmpo. But Pascal Siakam was not scared. He rose to the occasion, making practically everything he threw at the basket. Though the Pacers lost Game 1, Siakam repeated the performance in Game 2, and his teammates came along for the ride to even the series. He is now averaging 36.5 points per game to lead the playoffs to go along with 12.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists.

OG Anunoby may not be the best player on the New York Knicks, but he is the spine, the backbone, the steel rod standing them on two feet at all times. And the Knicks are the coolest team in the East, a collection of cast-offs and youngsters who have coalesced into a fist ready to pummel opponents into submission. They break you, over time. And Anunoby has been at the heart of it, hitting clutch triples, defending everyone, and leading New York to a 2-1 series lead over Joel Embiid and (Kyle Lowry and) the Philadelphia 76ers,

But it’s important to note, this was always going to be the case. When the Raptors eventually did trade away Anunoby and Siakam, it was going to be good teams that came a’calling. And good teams, adding such exceptional players, will be successful in the playoffs. That’s life. And the inverse of that is that Anunoby and Siakam, now on good teams, were always going to see their strengths emphasized and weaknesses ameliorated. They were going to be play better with good teams than they did on a struggling Raptors squad.

So this should have been an expected outcome. But expecting a tidal wave doesn’t give you air when it strikes. You still drown just the same.

Ultimately, the Raptors failed to build a team that fit around Siakam and Anunoby. They are championship players. Perhaps not championship leaders, the best two players on a team capable of winning the chip. But they have proven skills that the best teams needs. That’s not true of every good player. Honestly, that’s not true of every great player. But Siakam already won a championship as a high-level scorer, and he’s only gotten better, in virtually every way, since then. Anunoby is perhaps the best wing defender in the league, and a great shooter and finisher. That’s pretty much what every team wants.

Players like that shouldn’t be hard to build around.

And it’s not like Anunoby couldn’t fit around a ball-dominant forward like Siakam; New York’s net rating with both Anunoby and Julius Randle on the court was plus-25, even better than the rating with Anunoby without Randle. Furthermore, Anunoby hasn’t played alongside a shooting big in New York, either. He’s succeeded anyway. Roster construction around him is not particularly hard.

However, it was a death knell for Anunoby to play alongside two ball-dominant forwards, and a non-shooting center. And to not have an elite driving guard (like Jalen Brunson) to stir the mix. And to not have dynamic offensive players on the bench. Honestly, if Toronto could have finagled one of those component into a positive, it might not have needed to trade Siakam and Anunoby. If the Raptors had just had a bench with fluid scorers, drivers, shooters — perhaps Benn Mathurin, or Miles McBride, or Precious Achiuwa, or TJ McConnell. Everything could have been different. If Myles Turner could have drilled triples on pick and pops with Siakam instead of Toronto rolling a big into a crowded paint. Alas, it’s ridiculous to dream about it now.

Similarly, Siakam does not seem to be so hard a player to build around in Indiana. The Pacers have done very little to ingratiate him in Indiana beyond playing him alongside dynamic players across the positional spectrum. The offense has not been changed to suit his strengths. And yet he has scored against Milwaukee in every way imaginable: post-ups, catch-and-shoots, pump-and-drives, transition-seals, hand-offs, handling in picks, screening in picks, and more. He will fit into the structure around him, given talent on the floor.

The point of this isn’t really to think of what should have happened. It’s to realize, once again, just how hard it was to screw up Toronto’s core. Yet they did. Through bad luck and bad choices and bad fits. First the Raptors didn’t have any NBA-caliber centers. Then there was a dearth of NBA-caliber guards. The whole time there was no shooting or rim pressure.

It is a shame to see Toronto’s former leaders finding so much success elsewhere. Siakam and Anunoby should have had one more chance in the playoffs. Losing to the Sixers in 2022 was a quiet end for two of Toronto’s best players in franchise history. But it was the end, and the Raptors couldn’t have changed that in 2024. Perhaps in 2022 they could have, if they had played that summer differently. But too late now.

If you are of the mind that the NBA is a championship-or-bust league, then perhaps the Siakam-and-Anunoby core had too much time as an experiment, not too little. Because neither was going to be the best player on a championship team, the Raptors perhaps were correct, or at the very least cautious, in their decision not to put all their team-building eggs into the basket of that core. In that regard, drafting Barnes despite a seeming poor fit alongside the team’s two forwards was made with an eye to the long term, not the short one.

That would be a charitable view. And of course, the Raptors did not follow up Barnes’ drafting with moves with an eye to the long term. So it’s hard to see a thru-line to Toronto’s approach over the last five years.

The Raptors should not regret the Anunoby and Siakam trades. And certainly not because of a little postseason success for the two of them. But perhaps they should regret so much that came before, so many tweaks and changes that didn’t address what an Anunoby and Siakam core really needed. The Raptors still have plenty of time to build a successful core around the current team. And it does seem like the team is now acquiring the versatile and dynamic offensive talents that so would have boosted the old team. Lesson learned, perhaps, if a little late.

Often it’s hard to judge anything accurately in the present, without the boon of hindsight. That’s even true in a zero-sum environment like the NBA. We now have the benefit of hindsight as we look at Toronto’s team-building approach from 2020 to 2024. It missed on key ingredients. It missed in ways that New York and Indiana perhaps did not. (We’ll find out if that’s true in a few years, when we have hindsight.) So big playoff games from Siakam and Anunoby are simply reminders — even if frustrating ones, from a Raptors perspective — of what could have been. Toronto played 2024 exactly how it had to, given its position. It was just a shame that it was in that position in the first place.