There may not be a season in Toronto Raptors history more fitted to pose the following philosophical question: “Is the glass half empty, or half full?”
The reason being this: currently, the Raptors starting lineup scores at the second best rate in the league. Putting up 84.8 points per game, they trail only the Milwaukee Bucks by a slim margin in that category. It certainly helps that the Raptors starters play an average of 34.7 minutes per game, which is the highest tally in the NBA by nearly two minutes.
Conversely, the Raptors bench lies on the polar opposite end of the spectrum. “What bench?” one might ask rhetorically, and they wouldn’t be out of line to do so. On the season, the Raptors bench averages the fewest minutes per game in the league, in addition to ranking dead-last in points, field goals made, field goals attempted, three-point percentage, and assists. Over their last ten games, the Raptors bench is playing a measly 11.1 minutes per contest. The list of contra-accolades continues, but I’ll spare the grief.
In essence, the Raptors starters are playing well. Their bench – for what exists of it – is not. Hence why Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby currently rank first, second, and third in the league in minutes per game. This type of workload and dependency on the team’s top players is more than unsustainable – it’s borderline dangerous (approach with caution, as Drake might like to add).
Still, they sit eighth in the Eastern Conference; they’re 5.5 games out of the first seed; and they are coming off a week in which they knocked off the top-seeded Miami Heat twice: once in a triple-overtime thriller, and once in regulation thanks to the superheroics of Gary Trent Jr. They’re good enough to take a gamble on, and while they might not win a championship this year, as long as any future assets which Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster decide to sacrifice yield a player who is on the right side of 30 and is signed to a favourable contract, the Raptors should be aggressive in seeking out help.
I wrote last week about the three players whom the Raptors will be most likely to deal prior to the February 10th deadline. Seemingly, nothing has changed since then, other than the fact that the Raptors are unsurprisingly willing to attach a first round pick to the expiring contract of Goran Dragic to seek out a positive-value return. Among names that have been mentioned are Myles Turner, Jakob Poeltl, and as recently as this morning, Robert Williams III.
These targeted players all hold one obvious trait in common: they’re centers. Seemingly, the Raptors have decided that their 19th ranked defensive rebounding, and 23rd ranked rate of scoring points in the paint simply won’t suffice when it comes time to winning a playoff series – which given the expedited development of Scottie Barnes, and the All-Star caliber play of Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam – they’ll certainly be looking to do.
Each of Turner, Poeltl, and Williams III (hereon referred to as Timelord) would shore up those issues. There is a legitimate concern that the stress reaction which Turner suffered in his left foot could sideline him for a prolonged period of time, however by the same token, such a concern should quell the market for him and allow the Raptors to acquire him for a more reasonable price.
Each of the players boast wildly different archetypal profiles despite slotting into the same position, so let’s explore each of their strengths and weaknesses briefly before diving into who might fit best with the Raptors current core.
Turner is widely regarded as one of the best shot-blockers in the league, and rightfully so. For every ten minutes he’s on the floor, you can expect him to turn away a shot at the rim. He’s a solid defender on the perimeter, which would allow the Raptors to maintain their switch-reliant schemes, however against forceful bigs inside such as Joel Embiid, he struggles. Despite standing at 6’11, Turner also isn’t a great rebounder. It’s also noteworthy that in Jared Weiss’ piece with The Athletic when he originally broke that Turner would be available for trade, he mentioned that Turner was looking for a significantly greater offensive role than the one he had in Indiana. He is currently signed to a fully guaranteed contract through the 2022-2023 season with a cap hit of $18M, before hitting unrestricted free agency as a 27-year-old that summer.
After being drafted by the Raptors 9th overall in 2016 and traded to the San Antonio Spurs two years later to bring back Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors appear to be interested in a reunion with the Austrian Hammer. Fans will remember Poeltl as a solid interior defender, a relentless offensive rebounder, an adequate rim-runner, and an excellent screener from his time in Toronto. While he still possesses all of these strengths, Poeltl has also added a convincing mid-range shot to his arsenal. Between 5-19 feet this season, Poeltl is connecting on 45.9% of his looks on nearly 3.7 attempts per game. Since Nick Nurse loves his hustle stats, it’s also worth mentioning that Poeltl ranks second in the league in screen assists, and first in the league in contested shots. Unfortunately, Poeltl’s contract doesn’t hold a candle to that of Dragic’s, so for this trade to work, the Spurs would likely have to include one of Doug McDermott or Thaddeus Young, which would necessitate a larger outgoing package on the Raptors side as well.
It has to be the coolest nickname in the league, right? The 24-year-old first-round pick from 2018 is arguably the Celtics third best player this season, which makes it shocking that he might be available at the deadline, but according to Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Raptors have been one squad to inquire. Despite standing at only 6’8″, Williams makes up for a lack of size with his +9 wingspan and his 238-pound frame. His stats certainly look like those of a big man as well, ranking 5th in the league in blocks, 16th in rebounds, and 4th in contested offensive rebounds. As an additional drop in the bucket, Timelord is unquestionably the most switchable defender of this group, and his free agency looms in a restricted capacity this summer. The easiest way for the Raptors to snatch Williams III for a Dragic-and-pick centric package would be for them to take back some “bad money” – presumably either Al Horford, or Josh Richardson.
Ultimately, it’s easy to see what each player brings to the Raptors. Assuming neither of Khem Birch or Precious Achiuwa is included in an outgoing package, acquiring any of the aforementioned centers will jam up the Raptors frontcourt rotation. If Chris Boucher isn’t dealt in addition to Dragic, that will further exacerbate the issue. Remedies could include using one of Birch or Achiuwa strictly as injury insurance; assigning Achiuwa to the Raptors 905 for more developmental reps; or even opting to play each option situationally, dependent on what the opponent dictates.
Regarding a deal’s effect on the rest of the rotation, it’s likely that if any of the three players were to arrive midseason, they would find themselves in the starting lineup. Given the drop in efficiency and production that Trent Jr. has shown once he’s relegated to the bench, it might make more sense to use Barnes as a sixth man. As an added benefit, this would also allow the Raptors to test Barnes as a pseudo point-guard in a lineup where he could see significantly higher usage.
Stylistically, Timelord would slot in on both sides of the ball most seamlessly with the Raptors current construction, essentially playing the same role as Achiuwa but with a much more polished skillset offensively. Next in that categorical ranking would probably be Poeltl because of his interior-dominant offensive game, and then Turner, who would likely require Toronto to play more pick-and-pop offense than pick-and-roll. Relatively speaking, none of the three would require making drastic changes to the playbook.
Ultimately, it seems clear that the Raptors are determined to add a true center to this group. They haven’t necessarily given up on the “everybody is 6’9″ notion,” they’ve simply decided to add one more piece to it, and it could be just what they need to win a round or two.