Life hits you fast, huh? It was just one year ago that Norman Powell was considered the best young talent that Toronto had to offer. There was certainly some fanfare over the pick of OG Anunoby, but nobody excited Raptors fans quite like Norm did. With DeMarre Carroll finally gone, there was nobody standing between Norm and his ceiling. After two years of promising play from the bench, he was finally rewarded with a starting spot. He was given a four-year contract extension just two weeks before the season began; signalling to the NBA that this year was going to be Norman Powell’s arrival. Everyone was ready to see how high he could soar.
As it turns out, nobody was expecting how low he could fall. It took all of 12 games and a right hip injury for Norm to fall out of the starting lineup. And then he kept falling. And then some more. He fell all the way to the 11th spot in a 10 man rotation.
For an athlete, the worst thing you can be is invisible, and saying that Norman Powell was invisible this season would be generous. Sporadic injuries and matchup issues gave him a few chances at some kind of redemption, but he almost always wasted them; whether it was his bull-headed drives to the rim or his eternally bricked threes, he rarely made a good or even memorable impression. Heading into the 2018-2019 season, what do the Raptors do with him?
“Why do I even care about Norman Powell anymore?”
If that is the question you’re asking, I can’t really blame you. With the emergence of guys like Anunoby, Siakam, VanVleet and Wright, the Raptors have more than enough young talent to distract you from Powell’s fall from grace.
You should still care about what happens to Norman Powell, though. If not for the fact that he can be great at both ends; if not for the fact that he was the spark that flipped the Milwaukee series, and if not for the fact that he is responsible for one of the most iconic plays in Raptors history, you should care about Norman Powell because he has the longest-term contract on the team. This complicates things greatly.
While some believe that Norm is soon to be traded, and there were certainly rumours that the Raptors were shopping him as recently as two months ago, I find it hard to conceive of a trade that Masai Ujiri will feel comfortable making. Powell’s stock has fallen, and his four-year, $42-million contract looms over every potential trade. Teams typically attach picks to get rid of a contract like Powell’s, and Toronto has already dealt their 2019 first round pick to the Spurs. The “Stepien Rule” stipulates that teams cannot trade first round picks in consecutive years, meaning that if teams are demanding a first round pick to take on Powell, it will be the 2021 pick that Toronto will give up.
Every contract on the roster, Powell and Anunoby aside, expires by 2020. This is part of a clear effort from Masai Ujiri to give the team the financial freedom to blow everything up and launch a rebuild, if deemed necessary. Kawhi Leonard’s decision will likely be the deciding factor in our decision to commit to contention or rebuilding. So until we know whether Kawhi intends to stay, it is fairly safe to assume that we will be holding on to all future picks.
Yes, we could try to place restrictions on a traded 2021 pick as a failsafe. I just don’t get the impression that Masai Ujiri wants to pay anybody anything to get rid of Norm. “Everybody’s looking for wings in the NBA” Ujiri said about Powell in May. Around the same time as the Norm trade rumours, it was rumoured that Toronto was looking to trade for a lottery pick. Obviously no deal happened, and Powell would have just been a piece in a larger package if one had happened, but it’s clear that the Raptors still see some value in him. Meaning that If other teams aren’t willing to take him without a pick, he will not be traded.
In the short term, nothing changes. Assuming there’s no trade between now and October, we will enter the season with Norman Powell as the 11th man. Perhaps we’ll see a Delon Wright trade open up a path for Norm to get minutes. Wright is a more valuable trade piece and is on an expiring contract, after all. But Norm will have to prove from the ground up that he is worthy of meaningful minutes for that to happen.
I have to say, I wasn’t as excited as most when I first saw Norm’s contract extension. I loved his play, but I couldn’t understand how the team planned to start him as a small forward. At 6’4, I felt he was way too small to play that position. I felt that he would never get to truly flourish as a full-time starter unless he was a shooting guard, and DeMar DeRozan’s existence ensured that that would never happen. But now, with DeRozan gone, Powell’s long-term status just got way more interesting. Both of Danny Green and Delon Wright are on expiring deals. CJ Miles can opt out after this year if he wants. If Norm can stay in the organization’s favour, there is a realistic avenue to him starting in 2019-2020.
Heck, there’s a plausible avenue to him starting this season. The NBA year is chaotic; injuries, cold streaks, and everything in between will happen. Norm will get to play meaningful minutes at some point, and for the first time in his career; he will not see DeMar DeRozan’s name entrenched above him. As counter-intuitive as it may seem right now, this season presents possibly the greatest opportunity of Powell’s young career. He has nothing else to lose at this point, and he better see it that way.
What to expect this year
Raptors fans should know by now to expect the unexpected, one year is such a long time in the NBA. The hefty contract that has made Norman Powell such an unfavourable asset was signed just over 10 months ago. Still, I can’t help but feel that the Stormin’ Norman’ that stomped all over Milwaukee must still be in there, somewhere. If Powell is unable to find his footing, then his contract will be one of the few black marks on Masai Ujiri’s great resumé. Norm’s storyline will be crucial to watch this year.