The Toronto Raptors lost an ugly game last night to the San Antonio Spurs, their first true blowout loss of the season, and the team’s starting (non-starting) power forward, Patrick Patterson is injured. It was decidedly not the best way to start 2017. But, fortunately, there’s an easy way to cheer up: engage in completely irresponsible trade speculation!
As you’re no doubt aware, the Atlanta Hawks’ Paul Millsap may be available for a trade. He’s a 31-year-old power forward with good hands and a high basketball IQ averaging 17.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists, with .44/.32/.76 shooting splits. Millsap doesn’t want to leave Atlanta of course, a sentiment he has already voiced at least once, but if Hawks management and coach/president Mike Budenholzer are sitting by the phones waiting for offers, this decision will be taken out of Millsap’s hands. Working in Millsap’s favour: Atlanta owns a middling 18-16 record on the season, which puts them right on the buyer/seller fence with no clear way forward.
Enter the Raptors. This is a team that definitely has a clear way forward — they are buyers. The roster as currently constructed is quite good, everyone has a role, the average age is a spry 24.6. (And the team even has two first round picks in next summer’s draft.) And yet: despite being 23-11 on the season, they are firmly — and I do mean firmly — in second place in the East. Literally the only hope for Toronto to take the next step is to make a trade for someone who makes them better than they already are. And since the Raptors’ two best players are guards, it makes sense for that theoretical player to be a forward of some type, ideally a power forward, a position at which the team is almost comically thin at the moment.
Now, an aside: the “at the moment” part of that last sentence should not be overlooked. The Raptors headed into this season with a frontcourt plan. They’d start Jonas Valanciunas and Jared Sullinger, and have Patterson and Lucas Nogueira as backups. They’d sprinkle in minutes for rookies Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl if (or when) necessary, and that would be that. But god laughs at plans and so the Raptors find themselves in 2017 with Patterson on the short-term shelf with a strained knee and Sullinger still a month away while recovering from a broken, surgically repaired foot. In this time we’ve also learned that Valanciunas cannot play when the game gets smaller and faster, Nogueira is still an inconsistent player, and Siakam and Poeltl are very much rookies. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld: there’s gotta be an easier way.
We return now to Millsap. The benefits of acquiring him are obvious. There are the aforementioned stats — Millsap can score, he can shoot, he’s a solid rebounder and a heady passer. He fits in with whatever players he’s surrounded with, as he’s shown his entire career, playing with or without the ball in his hands. On defense, Millsap can body big mobile forwards (like, hmm, LeBron James) in the post, and effectively cover the pick-and-roll — which immediately vaults him into rarefied air among forwards in the league. Putting him in a frontcourt with a (healthy) Patterson is a license to kill on either end. The Raptors would have two uber-versatile big men who can shoot, defend and make smart plays. And one of them (Millsap, again) could also be a focal point on offense, which would take some of the obvious load off of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — a useful thing. The bottom line here is that the two teams the Raptors (and the entire league) are chasing can expose the team’s mortal weaknesses — pick-and-roll defense, the lack of a reliable third option on offense — and a player like Millsap helps solve those problems. The end.
Ah, would that it were so simple. To get Millsap a couple of things would have to break right for the Raptors. First and most obvious, the Hawks would have to switch from merely listening to trade offers to actively moving on them. (I like to imagine Budenholzer lazing by the phone Tiger Beat-style in this scenario; is that weird?) They’ve shown a complete reluctance to do that in the past, even allowing a talented player like Al Horford to walk for nothing last season. As Millsap’s deal expires at the end of this season (assuming he exercises his player option, and why wouldn’t he?), maybe Budenholzer will look to avoid a similar event, but then again: maybe not. Remember, the Hawks are still in the playoffs as of right now and don’t necessarily have to blow up their team.
Second, the Hawks are in the East and are competing directly with the Raptors. It was not so long ago when Atlanta was the team in
second first place throwing themselves uselessly onto the gears of the LeBron machine. As such, the Hawks may not be interested in dealing with Masai Ujiri, a known wizard, and trading one of their most talented players to a rival. (Ditto dealing with, say, the Celtics.) It’s unfortunate, really, that all of the teams in the conference can’t just figure out a way to work together to unseat LeBron, but here we are.
Third, assuming a deal does work, it could toss the Raptors’ much vaunted chemistry and consistency into modest disarray. The primary name be bandied about in a deal is Terrence Ross, who is now in his fifth season with the team (and has frustrated fans for most of that run). He’s having what I would call a career year, on what is now a bargain contract ($22 mil total for two more years). Ross’ value has never been, and may never get, higher. Tag Ross with, let’s say, Sullinger, Poeltl and, maybe, a first round pick to sweeten the pot, and I think we’re off to the races. Pushing Ross out would open more minutes for Norman Powell, but it would eliminate Ross’ contributions to the team’s offense (and defense; it’s true). Powell can hit the three, for example, but not quite with the same joie de vivre of Ross. Losing Sully would be no great issue — since the Raptors figure to lose him at the end of the year anyway and Millsap plays his position. But trading Poeltl, who could turn into something special (a big man with good hands, feet and brains), could sting. To be clear: I’m not sure the Raptors have any other assets they’d want to move at this time. (They must keep Powell, they don’t know yet if Delon Wright can fill in for Cory Joseph, Siakam could go but then the salary matching may not work, etc.) There are a lot of moving parts here.
But then again, maybe the Raptors have to throw all of those considerations out the window. Maybe Poeltl is still two years away from having any real impact, which eats more and more into Lowry and DeRozan’s prime. Maybe Powell can replicate most (or more, let’s be honest) of Ross’ production, or fill in for Joseph (if he had to be traded). Maybe Millsap is the piece the Raptors need to balance the team’s offense and defense and actually make Cleveland (and Golden State; let’s dream big) work hard in a title defense. Maybe the Raptors can be given some assurances in advance that Millsap would like to re-sign in Toronto, which would quell fears of this trade idea being a mere rental. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
It’s Wednesday, January 4th, the Raptors just lost an ugly game to the Spurs and Patterson is injured. What do you guys think of a Paul Millsap deal?