Today officially made trade deadline season real for Raptors fans. After bandying about names that may or may not be available or attainable for weeks, we finally received reports that directly tied the the Raptors to potential trade targets:P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris of the Phoenix Suns.
If you’re one of the foolish folks who follows all of the Raptors HQ crew on Twitter, you probably saw our day-long tweet chain debating the merits of the Raptors pursuing a win-now trade, and whether or not Tucker and/or Morris would be substantial upgrades for this Raptors team. There was some common ground, but a lot of disagreement as well.
Before you go any further,read this post from hated enemy and Raptors Republic contributor Will Lou, who detailed why this is the time for the Raptors to make a win-now trade. Will’s one of the smartest guys writing and talking about the team, and you should definitely read that post. It’s probably a lot more articulate than what you’re about to read.
That said, there are areas of Will’s post that can be argued against, and that’s what led to the lot of us falling into a work-day-killing conversation about what this team’s strategy should be heading into the February 18th trade deadline.
Here now are Sean Woodley and Harsh Dave to talk things out without the 140-character straightjacket that Twitter still imposes. 10,000 characters can’t come soon enough. Let’s get
SEAN WOODLEY: So the whole conversation we were having today centred around a question posed by you on Twitter, Harsh:
Serious question re: Raptors - when do you want/expect Masai's patience to culminate into a move that puts them over the top?— Hindi Crawford (@IamHarshDave) February 3, 2016
This is a fascinating question to me. Given where the Raptors stand right now, as the second best team in a flawed Eastern Conference, it would make a lot of sense for the Raptors to make a big move in order to solidify their position as the number one challenger to the Cavaliers in the East. But the thing I keep coming back to in regards to this question is this - what constitutes "putting the team over the top?" Does a win-now move mean turning the Raptors into a realistic contender for the NBA Championship? Eastern Conference champs? A Conference Finals lock?
What does "over the top" mean to you, Harsh?
HARSH DAVE: I probably could’ve been a little bit more coherent when referring to that eh? The shackles of 140 characters strike again. But back to your question, "over the top" means a team that has a reasonable shot at getting to the NBA Finals. I think of a team that, if one or two breaks go their way, a rotation player emerges out of nowhere, they could conceivably challenge for the title. To me, it’s a team that is on the cusp of becoming a contender. I don’t see that here.
The Raptors are a good, solid team. They are, in more ways than one, the mid-2000s Atlanta Hawks. I’ve long been a proponent of that. There’s no shame in making the playoffs year-in, year-out, making a boat-load of cash for an ownership group that sees the team as the red-headed step-child. This is how the Raptors stay relevant in a metropolitan city that always has something else to turn to.
But whether you feel this is okay or not, there’s no harm in asking "where to now?" We’ve always preached patience when it comes to Masai Ujiri. I hear that, I support that. I’m simply asking this - given the pieces we have and the limitations on the roster, when should Masai strike to give this core a realistic shot at being more than a treadmill playoff team?
SW: That all makes total sense. And I agree that in a league that is so clearly being dominated by the Warriors this season, it’s not at all realistic to expect "over the top" to mean a team that can contend for a title. Being on a level that would make a series with the Cavs at least competitive is something that is totally reasonable to strive for, and the time is now to make a move if one is available to Masai Ujiri.
My issue though, is that I don’t see a deal out there that will bring the Raptors on par with Cleveland. Bringing in Al Horford from Atlanta might be enough to do it, but I don’t see that deal coming together in the next 15 days. As much as it may seem like the Hawks are on the verge of hitting the reset button, I would be floored if they dealt one of their two best players while sitting in fourth in the East, even if they don’t fancy their chances of retaining Horford this summer.
If that trade isn’t realistic, I don’t see another deal out there - whether for someone like Ryan Anderson, or Markieff Morris - that appreciably raises the ceiling of this team. As it stands, the Raptors are the second best team in the east, they’ve been remarkably consistent and they’ve being doing it all without DeMarre Carroll in the lineup. I think this is a Conference Finals contender already, and adding a flawed power forward to the mix doesn’t bump the team up to that next level with the Cavs. Thoughts?
HD: The main thing for me is that I’m operating under the premise that we’re talking about potential ideologically. I’m not so concerned with the specifics (until the Markieff/Tucker news came out), because naturally, this isn’t the ideal time to be making drastic changes to how this roster looks. Creating a blockbuster trade mid-season for a Horford-type would be the antithesis of the continuity and chemistry that Masai Ujiri considers so valuable. In an ideal scenario, we’re talking about these parts having a training camp to adjust and acclimate to their new teams.
But, where we do disagree is on the ceiling of this team. I’m simply not convinced that a team with a fleet of one-dimensional, situational bigs in Jonas Valanciunas, Patrick Patterson, Bismack Biyombo, and Luis Scola doesn’t need matchups to fall their way to get anywhere meaningful in the playoffs. This is a team that rides one star and one very good supporting guard to win games. Kyle Lowry’s minutes are trending in the wrong direction as he enters the tail-end of his prime (see Hackett’s piece), and we’ve seen this script play out multiple times. Playoff defenses simply know the answer to this team’s offensive system, and while the East isn’t so top-heavy anymore, they’re going to need a ton of breaks to reach the ECF.
I’m curious, why do you think this season is so different from last year, and even more so, two years ago?
SW: The reason I’m higher on this team than past renditions boils down largely to how Lowry and DeRozan are playing. I’m not sure you’re giving DeMar enough credit when you call him a good supporting guard; while his game is unconventional, he is playing like a Top-20 player in the league this season. Two seasons ago, he just wasn’t that. He was truly one-dimensional, and when he wasn’t getting foul calls, he had nothing else to fall back on. With his enhanced playmaking ability, I’m confident in his ability to contribute in the playoffs even if defenses start to key in on him. We’ve seen it this season against the likes of Jimmy Butler and Avery Bradley - guys who would normally ruin DeRozan - that he’s become almost match-up proof.
On top of DeRozan’s development, I’m less worried about the durability of Lowry than I was last season. He wore down last year because he was the sole engine of the offense when DeRozan was sidelined early, and it caught up to him. This season, it’s pretty clear he’s in better shape. More than that, his minutes, while plentiful, don’t seem quite as arduous as they were last season. He’s playing off the ball and spotting up a lot more thanks to the playmaking of DeRozan and his shared court time with Cory Joseph. Plus, Joseph is helping alleviate the defensive burden on Lowry when they share the floor.
When it comes to the bigs - I agree. It’s almost a Celtics-esque mishmash of guys with particular skillsets and obvious holes. But, because of the added versatility a guy like Carroll will provide upon his return, and the many combinations Casey can play with in the front court, I don’t see it as being a fatal flaw for this team. As uneasy as the Raptors front court makes people feel, there are way more debilitating concerns with the rest of their Eastern competition. Chicago’s front line is equally tumultuous and they start E’Twaun Moore or Tony Snell at the three. Atlanta’s regressed thanks toKyle Korver and Jeff Teague’s inability to replicate career seasons. Miami doesn’t fit. I could go on. Every team below Cleveland has issues. I think the Raptors’ have the least paralyzing ones.
Question for you - how much do the failures of the last couple years play into how you view this year’s team?
HD: One quick point about the Lowry. Him wearing down concerns me more than anything else about this team. Two years ago, he played 79 games at ~36 minutes/game. This year, he’s above that minute threshold and hasn’t missed a game yet. He turned 28 in the middle of that season and was squarely in the middle of his prime. Lowry’s turning 30 in a month. His usage is higher now than it was then (25.9% vs 22.9%). Here are the guards within Lowry’s realm of win shares per 48 minutes who have played as many minutes in a season as him.
That’s simply not good enough. Lowry’s by far the smallest guard out of that group. It’s an unreasonable burden on his body right now.
The experiences of the last couple years do play into it. Offensively, this team has been a top-10 regular season team for 3 years now. They have ball-dominant guards who need to be effective in isolation. This team goes as Lowry and DeRozan go. When healthy, they’re likely marginally better than they were two years ago. But there’s no one on this roster who plays the 4/5 as well as Amir Johnson did on both ends that year. Patrick Patterson’s become a disaster offensively, Bismack Biyombo brings energy off the bench, and teams have started to target Jonas Valanciunas and Luis Scola’s lack of mobility on the defensive end. That’s a definite gap that could be made up via trade. Even if we go by your definition of success, that being winning a series or two, they could certainly increase their odds of doing so by improving that position.
Personally, I think Markieff Morris is the exact kind of guy the Raptors should be targeting, in terms of how he fits on the court and in the books. We need a guy whose number you can reliably call a few times on the offensive end to diversify how we get points. He’s a competent defensive player, so replacing Scola in the starting lineup with him would be a massive plus.
How do you feel about Markieff?
SW: This is something I've been wrestling with all season long. There's no denying that Morris is a skilled offensive player, one you can run your offense through for stretches if needed. He would be a clear upgrade over Scola or Patterson because of his offensive pop. We got a first-hand look at what he can do on Tuesday night. At the same time, I do have some issues with the idea of trading for him.
I know character issues often get overlooked when it comes to talented players, and the Kyle Lowry comparisons have been thrown around when talking about Morris. But I think bringing Morris in is a major risk. How he's handled the situation in Phoenix has been embarrassing, and he's completely handcuffed the franchise during this season-long trade demand. Yes, the Suns have a history of screwing guys over, and they need to take some of the blame too, but Morris has openly given up on the Suns this year. Not to mention the bizarre assault charge that still looms over him. Ujiri obviously values chemistry and locker room dynamics, so it surprises me a bit that Morris would be on his radar.
Secondly, I've also taken issue with the idea of Morris being considered a "stretch four." Last season, in a career year, he shot under 32% from three point range. Of course that isn't everything, and he can be a bruising and efficient post scorer, but Lowry and DeRozan excel when there are shooters around them to loosen the defense and create driving lanes. Having Morris in the starting unit would bring a lot of the spacing issues that Amir Johnson presented when he was in Toronto.
I don't disagree that it would be great to have Morris to spell Kyle and DeMar as the primary option for stretches, but I worry about his overall fit in the starting and crunch time lineups. His defense also isn't comparable to what Patterson has provided this year.
So when I look at what it might take to bring Morris in, it gives me some pause. You're probably looking at a first round pick, one of the prospects and then guys to match salaries. And while I'm not enamoured with someone like Delon Wright and none of the Raptors first-rounders look to be immensely valuable, that seems like a lot to part with for a guy who would undoubtedly be an infusion of talent, but doesn't necessary raise the team's ceiling. To me, I think a smaller acquisition like P.J. Tucker or a third ball-handler to ease Lowry's load (I mentioned DJ Augstin on the podcast yesterday) would solidify the Raptors' Conference Finals case just as much as a Morris acquisition would.
I take it you disagree slightly?
HD: Let’s start with where we agree. The character concerns are real. The assault stuff bothers me a lot, and you’re right, it is surprising that Ujiri’s sniffing around this deal.
I don’t blame him much for how the Phoenix saga played out though. Him and his brother signed together in a tandem deal that gave the Suns a discount so they could play together. Yes, it’s simply business that Marcus got dealt, and the Suns were well within their rights to do so, but by that same token, I don’t blame Markieff one bit for being disgruntled in that situation. He’s within his rights to do the same, especially under an authoritarian coach in Jeff Hornacek who treated grown men like they were college students. It doesn’t work that way, managing egos is part of your job.
On the court, it’s an absolute no-brainer for me. He’s under contract for 3 more years at $8 million per season, which is mind-boggling for a player of his ability. He’s a gifted scorer on the block and mid-post area, with range that COULD be extended out to 3-point range soon. Here’s his shot chart from last year:
I think we have a flawed definition of "spacing" in the era of three-pointers ruling above all. He IS an effective floor spacer in that he can capably operate away from the paint, without dragging help defenders into the middle when DeRozan/Lowry/Valanciunas are working near the basket. Offensively, he’s better at everything besides shooting three-pointers than Patrick Patterson. Literally everything else (Patterson’s only shooting 33% from 3 this year).
Defensively, I think you’re underrating his ability. He had the highest Net Rating of anyone on the Suns who didn’t get traded last year (only Isaiah Thomas was higher). The Suns were better with him on the court on both ends of the floor. Of any regular rotation player on the Suns, the team had the lowest defensive rating when Markieff was on the court.
In my opinion, it’s not even a contest as to how much better Markieff makes the Raptors. While Patterson HAS been a very good defender this year, I think Markieff has similar mobility and rebounding ability that would serve him well in this system.
As far as the cost is concerned, I tweeted this about earlier, so I’m just going to link to it here.
We talk about not mortgaging the future, but I have serious questions about this supposed future. Who's the can't-miss young piece here?— Hindi Crawford (@IamHarshDave) February 3, 2016
There is no future with this core once Lowry's prime is done. And I'm not a believer in JV as the centre-piece of a Raps contender.— Hindi Crawford (@IamHarshDave) February 3, 2016
Prospects and (less so) picks are like cars, they often lose value as soon as you drive them off the lot. I'd trade the shit out of them.— Hindi Crawford (@IamHarshDave) February 3, 2016
Delon Wright isn't getting you a first rounder anymore. There's a bigger chance that Bruno and Bebe fail than them becoming anything.— Hindi Crawford (@IamHarshDave) February 3, 2016
This is why you build up an asset bank like the Raptors have - to make moves when opportunities present themselves. I firmly believe that this is a low cost-high upside move that can change the complexion of this team as Lowry ages. The Raptors are loaded, they have 5 dead roster spots, and a boatload of picks coming in the next 2 years. It’s time to do something with them.
SW: All excellent points. And I am completely with you on the definition of "spacing." I may have dismissed Morris' ability to stretch the floor a little too much. However, I do think his post-up game could stand to clog up the Raptors offense, especially when he shares the floor with Valanciunas. That's a lot of high-usage mouths to feed.
I also agree when it comes to prospects being meat to trade off when you have the chance. I guess for me it's just a question of whether or not the assets Ujiri has stockpiled could be better spent on a player that raises the potential of the team from "can maybe give the Cavs some trouble" to "can definitely make the Finals and compete for a title."
Maybe there is no one better than Morris who might become available at either the deadline or in the off-season, and he is the guy Ujiri has been waiting for to cash in his picks and prospects. I don't dispute that he would be an upgrade, but he's also not a perfect solution to the Raptors' conundrum. I think making a minor move or two, and being patient with and adding to those trade chips might be the better move for the long term outlook. Even if Morris becomes a Raptor, this season is all but certainly ending before June, anyway.
No matter what the right or wrong answer is, I think we can all agree that's it's nice to be able to dedicate 3,000 words to a topic with such high stakes and positive vibes.
What do you guys think the Raptors should be thinking ahead of the trade deadline, and where do you come down on Markieff Morris as a fit in Toronto?