The dream of luring Giannis Anetokounmpo to the Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2021 is officially dead. Earlier this week, the Greek Freak posted to Instagram, announcing that he is re-upping with the Milwaukee Bucks, and locking himself in until 2025. In a decision that seems to balance what Giannis believes is right for his family; what will give him the best chance to win; and what succumbs to his loyal nature, the Raptors are left with a maximum level slot on their cap sheet next summer, devoid of realistic or worthy target to take the money. Beyond financials, Giannis’ late judgement sentences the Raptors to upper-tier mediocrity for the foreseeable future, with a clearly defined ceiling.
Arguably, there has only been one team in the protracted history of the NBA to win a championship without a ‘true superstar’ player – with a ‘true superstar’ being defined as a perennial MVP candidate – and that is the 2004 Detroit Pistons. Since then, each championship team has featured one of Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Stephen Curry, or Kawhi Leonard. While it could be said that players become superstars by winning championships – with the most notable case for that counterargument being Kawhi – it’s often predictable whether a player can become a superstar based on whether they have another uncanny gear to their game, exclusive to them.
It goes without saying that at this point, the 2020-2021 Toronto Raptors have nothing of the sort. Kyle Lowry is still the team’s best player at 34-years-old. The next best talent on the roster is Pascal Siakam – who will assuredly be a multi-time All-Star by the time he retires – but is not capable of being the best player on a championship team just yet. There’s also Fred VanVleet – who at 26-years-old is still an unfinished product – which is encouraging for the future, but doesn’t do much to move the needle this season. Unequivocally, the Raptors are deep, but historically speaking, depth hasn’t equated to wins in The Playoffs.
All of this is not to say that Giannis’ commitment to the Bucks has welcomed doomsday for the Raptors. In the summer of 2018, after Toronto had failed to get over the hump which was LeBron James for the third consecutive time, a superstar became disgruntled in San Antonio, the Raptors consolidated their assets to acquire Kawhi Leonard, and the rest was history.
Coincidentally, there’s another player of such caliber on the trade market right now.
Over the past couple weeks, James Harden has made it known to the world that he is disinterested in spending any more time playing for the Houston Rockets. The pinnacle of his frustration presented itself in his latest press conference. The superstar blatantly lied, telling reporters that he was in Atlanta during Houston’s training camp to be with his “personal trainers,” after reports came out that he was out at a nightclub partying with rapper, Lil Baby.
According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Harden’s most preferable landing destination is the Philadelphia 76ers, however ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported earlier today that Houston’s ‘recent calls’ list is beginning to expand, citing that “several playoff-caliber teams in the Eastern and Western conferences are finding increased comfort in committing high-level trade assets to acquire Harden.” Likely, this includes the likes of the Toronto Raptors, the Miami Heat, and the Dallas Mavericks, who were all conserving cap space to chase Giannis Antetokounmpo next summer, but are now shifting their sights to the consolation prize.
Backdating to TSN’s Josh Lewenberg’s interview with Bobby Webster from 2017, the Raptors General Manager explained that “when a player of that caliber becomes available, you would be remiss not to call,” in reference to Kyrie Irving being on the trade block. Assuredly if the same logic stands, the Raptors will be making an offer for James Harden.
In an earlier piece, I broke down what a James Harden trade might look like if the Raptors decide to go all-in. For salary purposes, one of Lowry or Siakam would have to be included. With Siakam just scratching the surface of his potential, the Raptors preference from a pure basketball standpoint would surely be to ship Lowry.
Obviously losing Lowry would be souring for Raptors fans, especially after losing another fan-favourite star player just a couple of years prior. It would make Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office appear heartless for cutting ties with the man responsible for building a winning basketball culture in Toronto. If Harden doesn’t bring the Raptors another championship, that only makes the move look worse, and harder to justify. Showing Lowry the door would also disallow the greatest Raptor of all-time to retire in Toronto, and leave a true legacy in Canada.
All of that ties into the price to contend for a championship. Because the Rockets are demanding an abundance of young assets for Harden, OG Anunoby, along with several future first-round picks would likely wind up in Texas as well.
Given that until now, the Philadelphia 76ers have been unwilling to include Ben Simmons in a deal, the Raptors package composed of Lowry, Anunoby, and multiple future first round picks could be the best offer on the table, and ultimately Masai Ujiri would hold the trump card to pull Harden out of Houston. The Rockets have repeatedly reiterated that they are in no rush to deal their superstar, so this holdout could turn even uglier. Unless Daryl Morey and the 76ers change their mind though, Ujiri and co. will have their options wide open choose to contend for a championship this season.