So you’re not going to believe this, but discussing Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors is something of a hot button issue. We’ve gone back and forth on the subject a million times. For every game in which Valanciunas dominates — remember when he started the season with a 32 point-11 rebound performance? — there are two or three (or more) in which he disappears. I suspect the debate, as it were, will continue on into April, May, and beyond.
Now, I already know what you’re thinking: the disappearing act isn’t always his fault. Sometimes Valanciunas’ teammates, particularly DeMar DeRozan, don’t find him in the pick-and-roll. Other times he does not get the trust he needs from coach Dwane Casey and his minutes dry up. But often, Jonas just looks a tad lost, as if, try as he might — and he’s usually trying very hard — the game is moving too fast for him. That’s not entirely his fault either — the modern NBA game is moving faster since Jonas came into the league. Tonight he’ll face off against Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, two big men who make Jonas look like a man out of 1985. It’s tough.
To address the team’s obvious deficiency in the front court (which, again, was not JV’s fault), the Raptors went out and got two new big men — one who tracks as a power forward, the other as a small forward. Of course, in this version of the NBA, both are more effective in positions one size up. When the Raptors play Serge Ibaka at centre, with P.J. Tucker (or Patrick Patterson) at power forward, along with anyone else, they are better.
Raptors w/ Ibaka at PF (w/ JV, LN or JP): -15.1 NetRtg in 103 min.— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) March 5, 2017
Raptors w/ Ibaka at C: +22.7 NetRtg in 108 min: https://t.co/BWjWaGXHew
An aside: there’s some noise to these statistics, beyond just the small sample size. Valanciunas, like the rest of the Raptors, has had to weather the last six games — in which these stats were compiled — without leader Kyle Lowry. If there’s a guy in Toronto who can make a player better by force of will alone, Lowry’s the guy to do it. That said, even discarding the recent stats, the eye test suggests the Raptors are more of a force on both ends of the floor when they jettison Valanciunas.
Now the conundrum. Whatever happens this season — a first round flame-out, a climb back into the Eastern Conference Finals, or something in between — the Raptors have to pay some guys this summer. You know all of this too, and I hate bringing up money at a time like this, but we’ve got to think about it.
Lowry, Ibaka, Patterson, and Tucker are all free agents at the end of the 2016-17 season. Lowry will be 31 heading into next season and is most likely to get some kind of maximum offer from the Raps. Ibaka will be (an extremely old looking) 28 years old, and tracks as the team’s starting big man in some capacity going forward. Patterson is the team’s glue guy, and, at almost 28, remains a valuable piece due for a raise. Tucker will be 32 next season, and would be the oldest guy on the Raptors. He tracks as something of a luxury at the moment, but could be re-signed for a reasonable price. Presumably the Raptors would like to re-sign at least two of these players, more likely three, or, if we wanted to get really wild, all four. (My money is on three, though.)
To bring some combination of these four players back, the Raptors will have to shed salary. Lucky for them, they’re sitting on three players with theoretical (and cheaper) replacements on the roster who own contracts that feel movable — Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, and of course, Valanciunas. We could debate the merits of, say, handing the backup point guard duties over to Delon Wright, or relying on Tucker over Carroll, but let’s keep this focused on Jonas.
Is a trade of Valanciunas possible? He’s due an average of $16 million for the next two years, with a player option for a third. In one sense, given the inflated salary cap, this is a reasonable contract, one which some teams would happily take on for JV’s average of 12 points and 9.5 rebounds; but in another, it’s a hopeless albatross. Valanciunas will be 25 next season and still shows brief flashes of... something. We watch as he fluidly passes out of the post, or finishes strong with either hand, or hits an outside jumper, or dominates on the glass for stretches, and we talk ourselves into anything. But then again, is there really any room left for Jonas to grow? How responsible is he for his dips in play? Is he a fit on the Raptors going forward? How about in the league?
The poll I jokingly got started a couple of days ago asked for a definite answer. Would the Raptors trade Jonas for sure next summer? It got almost 450 votes and, setting aside my dumb third option, the feeling was yes they would. So much is left to discover with this Raptors team, so many games — in the regular season and beyond — are left to play. But we’re already antsy to figure out what comes next. I suspect Jonas is too.
So then, what’s the next move?