- Win now
- Keep the future intact
- Retain cap space for the 2021 offseason
Those are the three key items on the shopping list for Masai Ujiri and his Toronto Raptors squad heading into this year’s NBA trade deadline.
Amidst a plethora of injuries over the past few weeks, there has been one question surrounding the Toronto Raptors: they’re really good, but are they good enough for Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster to trade away picks and young assets in an attempt to shoot a gap, and contend for another championship in 2020?
If not, would it make any sense to damage the outlook of the franchise in the coming years, just to increase the team’s chances of making it to the Conference Finals, or even The Finals, just to lose? Nobody remembers second place. Business is booming – as can be seen from the Raptors ranking top-5 in merchandise sales for the first time ever. There’s no pressure from ownership to win, and fans are still recovering from last year’s championship hangover to feel any sort of discontent regarding the outcome of this season.
That’s not to say that you can ever get complacent as an NBA executive. When you have a chance, you take it – no matter how hungover you may feel. Acknowledging the fact that the Raptors have missed each of Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Patrick McCaw, and Matt Thomas for 10 games or more, and still sit just 1.5 games back of the second seed in the Eastern Conference, even after dropping a couple should-have-won’s recently – most notably against the Portland Trail Blazers, and the San Antonio Spurs – Masai has decided that this team is indeed good enough to go all-in and try to earn another parade.
At least that’s what ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported early yesterday morning on SportsCenter, saying, “Toronto is a team that is out there in the marketplace trying to add talent – trying to improve to that core that went to the NBA Finals and won a championship last year…”
The Raptors are 2.5 games out of 2nd place and will look to add talent at the trade deadline, per Woj pic.twitter.com/nbmJ73pQlT
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) January 18, 2020
The question obviously then becomes, what are the trade options out there?
As I mentioned in my piece about the Raptors team weaknesses this season, two key areas that the Raptors should look to improve on are playmaking, and bench scoring. The Raptors currently rank 25th in the league in bench points. While a lot of that can be attributed to injuries, which has given Nurse a depleted bench on most nights, the only true shot creator for the Raptors off the bench is Norman Powell, who is posting averages of 22.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.5 steals in his four games since returning from injury.
There are a ton of players presumably on the trade block who could help solve the Raptors issues, ranging from Kevin Love, to Jrue Holiday, to potentially even C.J. McCollum. Ultimately, the price to acquire any of these players (with the exception of Love, who has his glaring weaknesses defensively, and has a monstrous contract that runs through the 2022-2023 season) would likely have to include either Siakam, VanVleet, or multiple first-round picks. If the goals are to contend this season, without sacrificing the future of the franchise, and keeping the books as empty as possible for July 2021, trading for any of these stars wouldn’t make a ton of sense.
At the same time, it’s not to say that a smaller trade couldn’t turn out to be just as effective. Look at the Utah Jazz, for example, who traded Dante Exum and a pair of second-rounders for Jordan Clarkson a few weeks ago, and went on a 10-game winning streak immediately after. Clarkson has merely been a bench piece for the Jazz, putting up 15.4 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game, however he’s alleviated Donovan Mitchell of having to be the sole shot creator on that team (especially in the time that Mike Conley was out), and the results have spoken for themselves.
Three players whose abilities fit the mould of what the Raptors are looking for, and are also likely to be moved in the coming weeks for a reasonable price, are Oklahoma City’s Danilo Gallinari, New York’s Marcus Morris, and Minnesota’s Robert Covington.
NBA TV’s Eric Pincus reported last week that the Raptors are among several teams interested in the 31-year-old Gallinari, who has a $22.6M contract expiring at the end of this season. While it was also reported that Covington is actively being shopped, and “may be the most currently asked about player in the entire NBA”, according to Keith Smith of The Athletic, the Raptors were not on the list of leaked teams who inquired, but silence is a familiar sound out of Toronto’s front office.
Marcus Morris, on the other hand, has been more of a sleeper trade candidate thus far, however he himself knows that there’s a real possibility he wakes up in a few weeks and doesn’t see the bright lights of Times Square outside his window. Last week, he reiterated that New York is where he wants to be, saying, “I love our team, I love our future. I just want to be a part of helping our young guys grow.” According to James Herbert of Yahoo Sports, the Knicks also have no intentions of trading Morris, although it makes too much sense for them to at least consider moving him, which is likely the root of the rumours that have been flying around.
Morris is on an expiring contract, and is having his best season ever, averaging a career-high 19.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.5 assists, and is shooting a blistering 46.7% from three-point-range. With the Knicks looking like they might have finally found a few cornerstone pieces in R.J. Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson, it would be wise to get some future assets in return for the older Morris to bolster their rebuilding process, and give more offensive leeway to their hopeful future stars. Again, we have to remind ourselves that this is the New York Knicks, and nothing about them is wise or makes any sense. Regardless, we’ll bank on Masai’s competency, and assume that he at least gives Scott Perry a phone call to poke around at potential trade scenarios.
Covington’s contract is worth $11.3M, Morris’ is worth $15M, and as previously mentioned, Gallinari’s is worth $22.6M. Each of them have similar trade values, since Morris and Gallinari are both on expiring deals, and while Covington’s contract runs through the 2021-2022 season, his money isn’t huge, and it would be an easy contract to offload later, if need be. Ultimately, whoever the Raptors pursue most aggressively will come down to whether Masai values Morris’ shooting, Gallinari’s experience, or Covington’s defense the most, and also whoever is selling for the cheapest price based on demand around the league.
In any of the above trades, the issue then becomes, who do the Raptors send the other way?
Masai would have to find someone at least moderately expendable on his roster to match the incoming salary, who would provide the trade partner on the other side with enough value to get the deal done.
The most logical trade candidate on the Raptors would have to be Serge Ibaka. Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam are untouchable – barring a trade scenario where the Raptors acquire a superstar – for obvious reasons. Even though VanVleet hits unrestricted free agency this summer and the Raptors risk losing him for nothing, trading him before The Playoffs would be counterintuitive, if the purpose of making a trade is to try and win a championship. Marc Gasol is also too valuable to the Raptors in a Kyle Lowry-lite type of way – combining his leadership, passing ability, spectacular defense, and simply his size. OG Anunoby, and Terence Davis Jr. both seem to be a big part of the future of this team, and are much better than simply throw-ins on a trade package for one of the three aforementioned targets. They also couldn’t be the centerpiece of a trade due to the size of their contracts. Norman Powell is also in the midst of the best season of his career – which some argue may be a reason to trade him – however still at just 26 years old with two years remaining on his deal after this season, and this being his first true opportunity to play consistent minutes while healthy, there’s no indication that this isn’t the true Norman Powell that we can expect moving forward. If it is, he could soon find himself in a starting role, and as one of the top scoring options on the team in the future. Out of the rotation players, that leaves Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Serge Ibaka. Rondae’s $2.5M contract will not be enough to swing a deal for any of Covington, Morris, or Gallinari, so by process of elimination, that leaves out Serge Ibaka.
While one could easily make the argument that Ibaka is as imperative to the Raptors bench as Powell, his position is simply more expendable in today’s NBA. Ibaka also only provides the team with +0.54 wins over his theoretical replacement player, as compared to Norman Powell’s +2.43 wins. Finally, there are numerous big men on the market that the Raptors would be able to pick up for penny change, if Masai decided that the team was too thin at the centre position upon dealing Serge.
Three hypothetical trade scenarios are outlined below:
Toronto Raptors acquire: Marcus Morris, Taj Gibson
New York Knicks acquire: Serge Ibaka, 2020 second-round pick, 2023 second-round pick
In this trade, the Raptors not only bolster their bench scoring with the addition of Morris, but immediately find a replacement for Ibaka, slotting Taj Gibson into the backup centre role. It also gives the Knicks a legitimate starting centre, which won’t serve them much this season given that they’re virtually out of playoff contention, but Ibaka is someone who could help fix their culture. The Knicks also get out of Taj Gibson’s 2-year, $18M contract one year early, who hasn’t filled the role that some thought he might, seeing only 16 minutes per game this season. Still, he would serve as a reliable backup in Toronto as a capable defender, and strong rebounder, ripping 9.3 boards per 36 minutes.
Given that the core of the trade is an expiring player for an expiring player, and Morris has better trade market value, the Raptors would presumably have to let go of a couple second-rounders to get the deal done.
Toronto Raptors acquire: Robert Covington, Gorgui Dieng
Minnesota Timberwolves acquire: Serge Ibaka
Here, Toronto gets one of the league’s top 3-and-D wings in Robert Covington, who was a member of the NBA All-Defensive First Team in 2018, and is also stroking the ball above 35% from three-point range on over 6 attempts per game this season. In order to make the trade work, Toronto would also have to take on the 6’11 Gorgui Dieng, who is currently earning $16.2M, and is set to make $17.3M in the 2020-2021 season. Dieng has struggled to live up to his contract upon signing a lucrative deal back in 2017, playing fewer than 20 minutes a game in each of the following three seasons since, and not posting figures greater than 8.1 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in that time either.
Toronto would be doing Minnesota a favour by taking $28.6M off their books in return for the expiring Ibaka, who would serve as their backup centre, and help them make a playoff push this season. If any picks were to be exchanged, it would probably be a second-rounder going one way or the other, but the deal makes sense for both sides as is.
Toronto Raptors acquire: Danilo Gallinari, Nerlens Noel
Oklahoma City Thunder acquire: Serge Ibaka, 2020 first-round pick, 2023 second-round pick
Finally, in a scenario where the Raptors have their sights set on Gallinari, trading Serge for Danilo works out perfectly salary-wise, however in order to avoid having the 200-pound Chris Boucher as Toronto’s lone backup centre, let’s say Masai puts his chips on the table and parts with this year’s first-round pick to get Nerlens Noel in the deal as well.
Noel, the former 6th overall pick of the 2013 Draft, who signed a minimum contract with the Thunder on July 6th, 2019 after the free agent market had already shored up, is having a career year so far. Through 36 contests, Noel is averaging 7.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, and is posting a career high Player Efficiency Rating of 23.7, shooting an effective field goal percentage of 67.2%.
Gallinari, the bigger piece of this trade, is no stranger to playing for Masai Ujiri. Back in 2011 when Ujiri was the General Manager of the Denver Nuggets, he made one of the biggest blockbuster trades of the decade, sending Carmelo Anthony to New York for a package centered around Gallinari, who was just 22 years old at the time.
Now, the 31-year-old Gallinari is still playing upwards of 30 minutes per game, and is dropping 19.0 points on 47.4% shooting, including 40.9% from behind the arc, making him one of the most sought after forwards at this year’s deadline. The Thunder, who seem to have found the centrepiece of their future in the Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, will look to offload expiring deals to recoup even more assets, adding them to the vault of picks and pick swaps that they cashed in on in the Paul George deal.
Any of the above trades would leave the Raptors with a bench unit of:
Point Guard: Terence Davis Jr., Patrick McCaw
Shooting Guard: Norman Powell, Matt Thomas
Small Forward: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Power Forward: (Marcus Morris/Robert Covington/Danilo Gallinari)
Centre: (Taj Gibson/Gorgui Dieng/Nerlens Noel), Chris Boucher
Each trade has their pros and cons. All of them bolster the Raptors bench and put Toronto in true contention to win back-to-back championships, however taking on Dieng’s $17.3M through the 2020-2021 season, or Gibson’s $9M through the 2020-2021 season, would restrict Toronto financially this offseason, when VanVleet, Gasol, Boucher, and Hollis-Jefferson all hit free agency. While the deal for Gallinari and Noel leaves the Raptors books as clean as if they were to stay put, it would determine Toronto’s third straight year without a first-round draft pick.
Other lower-end trade candidates that the Raptors could look at, might include the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma, the Denver Nuggets’ Malik Beasly, the Memphis Grizzlies’ Jae Crowder, or the Washington Wizards’ Davis Bertans.
Masai Ujiri will have his hands full over the next few weeks trying to hit all of the points on his shopping list. He still has until February 6th at 3:00pm EST to make all of his decisions final, but until something happens, we can indulge in watching this finally-healthy Toronto Raptors squad.