If you listen to Raptors president Masai Ujiri and head coach Dwane Casey, Toronto has everything they need to compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers right now. They don’t need a trade to get to the NBA Finals, but the biggest fly in that ointment (aside from losing to the Cavs three-times already this season) is the fact that this team has three rookies and four more players still on their rookie deals, so when Patrick Patterson went down with a sore knee, Casey has been forced into scramble mode to replace him.
“We’re guessing,” Casey said after the win over the Lakers. “I am telling you right now we’re guessing. We are trying to find that combination.”
Seemingly invisible to the “experts” that follow the NBA is the fact that Patterson is the lynch pin that makes two of the top three best five man units in the NBA work. A fact that isn’t lost on Casey.
“Things that Patrick does well in his offensive approach, in his defensive approach, are huge,” Casey said.
Ujiri will only be able to trade Patterson to upgrade his roster by ripping him from Casey’s cold, dead fingers.
To solve what should be temporary problem, Casey has been trying more minutes for rookie forward Pascal Siakam, playing Lucas Nogueira at power forward despite his young big man still trying to figure out what to do at center, giving DeMarre Carroll a turn at the four and even just flat out going with small ball, but the results have been mixed.
The Raptors might find an in-house solution to Patterson’s absence and in the process prove Ujiri right about this team having all the pieces they need, but it’s more likely Toronto finds out their lack of depth catches up to them a bit and their “solutions” need more seasoning before they are truly ready to take this team to the next level.
Almost forgotten, Toronto does have a potential solution in Jared Sullinger assuming he gets back before the All-Star break and rounds quickly into the rebounding and stretch-four/five big man they thought would be available before breaking his foot in the preseason. But, Sullinger isn’t expected to be the “third star player” many think will be necessary for Toronto to get by the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals.
However, the potential for acquiring that “third star” seems to be developing if Ujiri is willing to take the big risks necessary to take his team to the next level this season.
Raptors Trade Bait
Terrence Ross, 5th year, 6’7 wing, 20.8 min., 10.8 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 41.2% three-point shooter, $10 million salary plus 2 more years
Norman Powell, 2nd year, 6’4 guards/wing, 14.7 min., 6.3 points, 1.7 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 40% three-point shooter, $0.9 million on rookie deal
Ross and Powell are equally deserving and in each others way backing up DeMarre Carroll ($14 million and 2 more years remaining). There just isn’t enough minutes to go around, so Ujiri needs to pick two guys to go forward with. What would make things really interesting is if the Raptors believe they could run with Ross backing up Powell at small forward?
Pascal Siakam, rookie, 6’9 forward, 18.2 min., 33 starts, 5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.5 steals, 0.8 blocks, $1.2 million on rookie deal
Ujiri hates to part with “his guys,” but Siakam was never supposed to be a starter in Toronto as a rookie.
Jared Sullinger (injured) $5.6 million expiring, Delon Wright (injured) $1.6 million rookie deal, Jakob Poeltl $2.7 million rookie, Fred VanVleet $0.5 million rookie, Bruno Caboclo $1.6 million 3rd year prospect.
Both Sullinger and Wright are expected to return sometime in January.
Lucas Nogueira was going to be the limited minutes reserve center before Sullinger was injured and it’ll be challenging to take away his minutes once Sullinger returns. He’s improved so rapidly this season that he may have become almost unavailable.
As much as Jonas Valanciunas seems to be a somewhat insignificant part of this team’s success during the regular season, that’s only “seems to be.” JV turns into an indispensable monster in the playoffs. If would take a lot to even get a response.
Atlanta Hawks – Paul Millsap, $20 million, 2017-18 P.O. $21.4 million
The Hawks have reason to believe Millsap will opt out at the end of this season and reason to fear he’ll look for better opportunities elsewhere in free agency, but Millsap is the player that makes the Hawks a playoff team this year and that would make it a 10-year continuous stretch run in the postseason. Plus Atlanta ranks in the bottom half of the NBA for attendance despite their long term success, so it isn’t going to be easy to give up Millsap without a significant return.
Toronto would have to send back at least $15 million in salaries to make this trade and it shouldn’t be expected that Atlanta will be easy to deal with. They need a power forward, small forward and/or a guard.
A package of Ross, Sullinger and Wright would be intriguing, assuming Atlanta can be convinced both Sullinger and Wright will be able to play soon. Toronto has the Clippers protected 2017 first round draft pick to use as a sweetener. As much as the Hawks will want a boatload of talent back, the Raptors have to find a way to mitigate the risk that Millsap walks away in July.
The unspoken issue with Millsap is he’ll be 32-years-old in February and looking for a new long term deal worth upwards of $150 million as a free agent in seven months.
Sacramento Kings – DeMarcus Cousins, $17 million, 2017-18 $18 million
If you believe the press clippings, everyone wants Cousins, but there are two issues. One, the Kings haven’t shown any interest in trading him and two, he is a potential chemistry disaster anywhere he goes.
The Raptors acquired Patterson from the Kings and if you read between the lines, he hated it there and there was one very big reason for it. Unless Cousins’ teammates from TEAM USA, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, say otherwise, there is little chance the Raptors would even entertain bringing “the best center in the game” to Toronto.
Assuming Lowry and DeRozan give their blessing and the Kings change their mind, the cost is going to be steep. Jonas Valanciunas, Norman Powell, Delon Wright and a couple of first round draft picks for openers.
Acquiring Cousins is the ultimate high risk high return move and if, stress if, the Kings make him available, there will be significant competition.
Orlando Magic – Serge Ibaka $12.3 million
The Magic traded a pretty good scoring guard to get the pending free agent Ibaka and as of now, they could really use a wing that can score from the outside in the worst way. A backup point guard with a future that could set up their bigs would be very useful too.
Orlando should be motivated to do something. In 12th place, but only 1.5 games out of 8th, the season seems salvageable and on the brink of collapse at the same time. It should be safe to assume that no playoffs equals no chance of re-signing Ibaka.
Ross and Siakam and/or Wright for Ibaka and Mario Hezonja would help to re-balance both teams rosters. The Magic should be able to squeeze a draft pick out of Toronto as well.
Orlando Magic – Nikola Vucevic $11.8 million, plus two years averaging $12.5 million
A starter sent to the bench, Vucevic was a significant double-double machine before this season when the Magic screwed up their big man rotation. He’s not seen as a star, but he averaged 18.7 points and 9.9 rebounds over the past two seasons. As a center with some stretch-five potential (30 percent from three on 0.8 attempts this year), the 26-year-old should draw interest for his current and longer term potential.
Ross and Siakam for Vucevic and Hezonja would re-balance both teams rosters. Not nearly as exciting as acquiring Ibaka for Toronto, but cheaper, more practical and less risky going forward.
Philadelphia 76ers – Nerlens Noel $4.4 million, 2017-17 Q.O. $5.8 million
The 76ers are motivated, but the market is soft for this oft-injured young big man who has fallen out of a terrible 76ers rotation.
Noel could be an impact player right away, despite some obvious concerns. He can block shots, rebound and finish at the rim, if he can learn to accept coaching and accept a role that’s likely less than he wants and less than it will be in a few years, then he’s a guy worth taking a risk on. Noel’s image problem is likely as much a creation of his untenable situation as anything he’s done.
The hard part is figuring out if he moves the needle and who the Raptors would be willing to give up to get him?
There’s still seven weeks until the NBA trade deadline and the Raptors have yet to see what Sullinger can bring to the table. If he can get in game-shape fast enough, he might just sell Ujiri on standing pat. Toronto’s rebounding and starting unit concerns this season should end with Sullinger’s return.
Then there’s the list of teams in the East who will have to decide soon if they are contenders or pretenders and what to do about it. Players who are not on anyone’s radar at the beginning of January could be hot topics in a couple of weeks.
If Ujiri makes a move now, it has to be for a player he would want no matter what shakes out later on and the move that seems to have the highest probability of happening that could actually move the needle for Toronto is to make a hard push for Ibaka.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.