The Raptors (sadly) should move on from Gary Trent jr.

Gary Trent has been great on or off the bench. And yet, the Raptors might want to move on.

The following is a guest post by Ian Finlayson. You can follow him on twitter here.

Gary Trent jr. has been many things during his time with the Raptors. One of the NBA’s best high-volume catch-and-shoot 3-point shooters, among the league leaders in steals, a starter, a bench player, a consummate professional, a god of drip.  

To say it plainly, Trent is cool as hell. 

For a second straight offseason there is a possibility of him leaving in free agency, and this time there is no unexpected player option to be picked up. As a result, Toronto may not be the best destination for Trent when free agency starts in July, especially if they are going to continue to lean into refreshing the team’s style of play filling out a roster that matches it. 

Trent has occupied the Raptors off-ball gunner role ever since he joined the team March 25, 2021, in a trade that sent his predecessor in that role – Norman Powell – to the Portland Trail Blazers.

When the trade was announced, I was distraught. We all loved Norm; he was responsible for some great moments during the greatest run of Raptors basketball in franchise history, from the steal and superman dunk versus the Pacers to his game three and four performances against the Bucks during the finals run. My old neighbour named his great Dane after him. His heartfelt goodbye to the city in The Players’ Tribune was an emotional read. 

But Trent was young, well dressed, and an electric shooter. It didn’t take long for him to ingratiate himself to the fan base. 

Four games in he shot the lights out putting up 30. Two games later Raul Neto took a tumble while frantically back pedaling as Trent pulled up and hit the game-winning 3-pointer – joining the ranks of Raptors who have put the Wizards away at the buzzer. In his ninth game he scored 44 in Cleveland, shooting 7-of-9 from distance. Gary Trent jr. had arrived in Toronto. 

Over the past couple of seasons Trent frequently floated between the bench and starting lineup and after posting better counting stats with the later, a narrative emerged among the fanbase that he “plays better as a starter.” These numbers can be deceptive, and Trent’s skillset is limited in the context of Darko’s system. 

So, let’s address it quickly. 

Blake Murphy continuously lamented the idea that Trent was better as starter on Sportsnet’s The Raptors Show, citing that any player would be better as starter.

His reasoning is that when a fringe starter like Trent plays with better teammates, the skill on the floor helps elevate his play. Playing with better shooters provides better spacing, playing with more talented and clever playmakers creates better shot opportunities. 

When playing with the starters, there is also less defensive attention on a player like Trent, but in a bench-heavy unit he becomes one of the primary scoring options and is therefore more likely to be a priority of the defense. 

Despite the benefits of playing alongside better teammates, when you take a closer look at the numbers, Trent has actually shot better off the bench than as a starter. This is kind of puzzling given that he theoretically should be getting better shot opportunities generated for him when playing with the starting unit. It could be attributed to shot variance, or maybe Trent just steps up in these moments when he is handed more responsibility to create for himself. Either way he has shown a propensity to perform as a bench player. 

Over the last two seasons (he only came off the bench once in his first full season with the Raptors) his 3-point shooting has been a full percentage point better when coming off the bench. Also, while he has averaged five more points when starting, when you scale it to per 36 minutes, it’s a closer affair.

Past two seasons (2022-23 and 2023-24)

Starting position Starter Bench
PTS per 36 minutes 19.217.4

Trent’s ability to remain efficient and productive when coming off the bench has been impressive, and if anything, this suggests he has fit either role based on a team’s needs, which is valuable in itself. 

Trent is an exceptional shooter and that alone has made him a compelling addition. We’ve seen plenty of half-court offense from the Raptors that has lacked spacing over the past couple of years, and it isn’t pretty. And replacing one of the NBA’s most reliable catch-and-shoot 3-point shooters wouldn’t be easy.

That isn’t hyperbole – Trent has been one of the best high volume catch-and-shoot 3-point shooters in the league over the past few seasons. He ranks 20th in three-point attempts over the past three seasons, and out of the top 20, he has the sixth-highest percentage at 38.2. His average on catch-and-shoots is 41.6 percent.

Only Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Buddy Hield, C.J. McCollum, and D’Angelo Russell have been more efficient among the highest-volume shooters in the league. 

Also, 81 percent of his 3-point shots over that span have been of the more difficult above-the-break variety. 

Whether he starts or comes off the bench, the stability of his 3-point shooting helps make up for his deficiencies in other areas. It just might not be enough to make him a viable option for the Raptors going forward. 

Last summer, Trent picked up his $18.5 million player option, betting on himself in hopes of raising his stock this time around, and the opposite happened. His skillset was a square peg trying to fit into the round hole that was Darko’s new offence, and his role shrank in a contract year as he struggled to find his fit. Towards the end of the season, Trent became a prominent scoring option only by necessity once injury decimated the team. In many ways, his chaotic season was a microcosm of the madness that was the 2023-24 Toronto Raptors. 

Before this season, the consensus was that Trent Jr. would be valued at north of $20 million; now he may be getting significantly less. 

To his credit, through the tumult, his attitude never soured. He continued to show up with the same demeanor and put in the same work as he always did. He said to Raptors Republic’s Samson Folk that he’s “getting a hell of an opportunity to play in the NBA,” and that he’s just trying to be a good person/player. 

And he has been! He is well liked by his teammates and has specifically acted as a mentor to Gradey Dick, who will likely be Trent’s eventual replacement, one way or another. Despite having his role shifted back and forth, and not receiving a long-term contract, he has been a consummate professional. He has never complained to the media.

However, even with the value of shooting being at an all-time high, and considering what he means to the organization as a person, Trent’s inability to drive, create for others or defend makes it difficult for the team to pay him. Especially considering the direction of the team. 

With the way his role fluctuated, the drop in his counting stats, and because he is another year older and continued development is less likely to be priced in, Trent will likely receive less money in free agency. 

This probably won’t be with the Raptors – players don’t often take pay cuts and remain with the same team, barring veterans who are in search of a championship.

If Trent leaves in free agency, the Raptors would have to try to recreate his shooting in the aggregate, Moneyball style. Using players who have far less of a proven track record, but come at a fraction of the cost. This, of course, is referring to Dick and Ochai Agbaji.

This could be a preferred option for a few reasons. If the Raptors aren’t going to contend anytime soon, it would be beneficial for younger and less experienced players to get more development reps. That both are on far, far less expensive contracts is another meaningful consideration for the Raptors. A potential byproduct of this approach would be finishing lower in the standings, and possibly adding a valuable player to the team through next year’s draft. Also, having less money on the books gives the Raptors even more flexibility to continue to build out the roster of the future. 

Trent’s limitations on both sides of the ball are, perhaps, his defining factors. He struggles to get anything going off the bounce, driving at a low frequency and even lower efficiency. He finishes poorly at the rim. This doesn’t bode well in an offensive system meant to flow freely, where shot opportunities are created by all, not just taken. 

He also is small as a defender in his role and doesn’t have the athleticism to be the on-ball stopper that the Raptors require. The Raptors lost in the playoffs in 2022 in some ways when the Philadelphia 76ers started targeting Trent with their half-court actions.

For now, Dick would be a downgrade defensively as he continues to adjust to the physicality of the NBA. However, if the Raptors are going to aim for a high draft pick in 2025 (now that they have their own pick), they might not mind bleeding some of those points on defense this upcoming season. And with Dick’s 6-foot-8 frame, he has the potential to grow into a defender better equipped to guard against size down the road. 

There is a possibility that the Raptors have extra money this off-season and end up throwing Trent a couple million extra to stay. They have overpaid their own free agents in the past, such as Khem Birch.

But it is more likely that we will see Trent rocking his reversible Gucci cardigan while walking down another team’s tunnel this fall, and that’s ok. Saying goodbye is sad, but Raptors fans have already begun to embrace the franchise’s next sharpshooter.