Through 45 games in 2017-18, the Raptors look like a very good (and fun) team. With a 17-3 home record and an 18-2 record against sub-.500 teams, they have a solid grip on the 2-seed in the East and are every inch the team that knows how to take care of business in the games they should win.
Despite all the progress, the Raps are have a few issues around the edges. The two major weaknesses that jump off the page are outside shooting (26th in the NBA in three-point percentage) and rebounding (15th in the league, and significantly worse whenever Jonas Valanciunas sits). While it will be highly unlikely that they’ll be able to fill both needs externally at the deadline — with very limited cap space or movable assets to spare, it might difficult to make even one deal — there’s one name out there. He’s readily available, on an inexpensive expiring deal, and fills a hole. And much like last year’s last-minute deadline acquisition, P.J. Tucker, he used to play for the Raptors. His name is Marco Belinelli.
Belinelli is a solid 3-point shooter, putting them in at about 38 percent clop both for the season and for his career. With those numbers, he’d instantly slide in as the Raptors second-best shooter by percentage behind Fred VanVleet. (In other news, yes, VanVleet is now leading the team in 3-point percentage among players with a decent number of attempts.) While Marco’s stat-line is not elite, he could combine with C.J. Miles to stretch the floor as the Raptors continue to commit to their new-look offense. With two shooters coming off the bench instead of just one, the Raptors look more dangerous — and suddenly, they start relying a whole lot less on Serge Ibaka’s 3-point shot falling. In addition, Belinelli could provide veteran presence and the experience of a Spurs championship to a team that still skews extremely young.
Belinelli is available, but the Hawks’ reported asking price is something the Raptors definitely lack: a high second-round pick. They can offer a low second rounder (next year), or a very distant first-rounder (2020), but next year’s second already projects in the 50-60 range, and wouldn’t likely interest the Hawks. It’s also unlikely they’d be willing to give a distant future first for a rental like Belinelli. As good as the Raptors are right now, a lot can happen in three years, and there’s no guarantee that pick doesn’t slide up towards the top half of the first round. (And even if the Hawks accepted the second straight-up, Toronto would still need to find a salary to send out to duck the hard cap.)
Realistically, between price tag and expendability, there are only two players on the roster that a deal could be built around: Miles or Lucas Nogueira. A straight-up Miles-for-Marco Belinelli could arguably make some sense for both teams — the Raptors would get cap space for next year and a marginally better shooter for this year, while Atlanta would get an extra year of control over a slightly better player. But those upgrades are very marginal, and they have a flipside for both teams. Toronto would have a tiny bit of cap space, but even less 3-point shooting next year after Belinelli leaves, while Atlanta would just have another Marco Belinelli clone to ship out for a second rounder at next year’s deadline.
Moving on to Bebe, we get something a little bit more interesting. Lucas is young and has shown flashes with the big club. He doesn’t have the physical strength or shooting stroke to profile as a starter, but he offers length and skills which could translate into a solid career as a backup big. His value isn’t through the roof, but it’s possible that if Atlanta is only shooting for a second rounder they’d have interest in taking a flyer on a guy like Bebe instead. Second-rounders are long-shots anyway, and it’s definitely possible that Lucas has as much upside as any college player left around pick 40 of the draft next year. A deal with Bebe would likely involve a second marginal asset to make up for the lack of a second-rounder — I have this asset as Bruno Caboclo, but it’s possible it could be the late second mentioned above. Which one it takes really depends on whether Atlanta sees any hope in Bruno developing as a player over the next couple of seasons, or whether they’d rather take that (long)shot on someone of their own choosing.
The reasons to deal Bruno and Bebe are fairly obvious. As detailed by HoopsRumors recently, Nogueira is eligible for restricted free agency at the end of the season and due to cap considerations, Bruno is unlikely to have his contract renewed. A team like Atlanta has ample cap space to bring them back for a couple of seasons during their long rebuild and give them real NBA minutes. Of course, the reasons to deal them are also the same reasons that cut into their value — any team knows that if they wait out the season, they’ll have the ability to sign either player away from the Raptors at a price they simply can’t afford to match. Would an extra half-season of development and the right to match any offers make it worth it? Maybe not, but Atlanta still hasn’t moved Belinelli yet, which leads me to wonder if they’ve had anyone match their asking price yet. Belinelli isn’t a world-beater on his own — two fringy prospects is about the best return Atlanta can hope to get.
Of course, there are issues that come with Belinelli. The Raptors have so little available cap space that no matter what roster machinations take place, it’s almost impossible to fit Marco’s $6 million contract onto the books without dipping into the tax. The only player that accomplishes that is Miles, and as mentioned earlier, moving Miles in this deal is a bit counterproductive. Even the Bebe + Bruno deal, which matches up pretty well dollar for dollar, would put the Raptors into the cap because they would be forced to sign a minimum salary player to fill Bruno’s roster spot. Basically, if the Raptors are committed to staying out of tax territory, this deal is a no-go. But if they really see this as a do-or-die season — a chance to make a real run — tax considerations have to come second.
The other issue with Belinelli is roster fit and playing time. If the Raptors are going to commit to going into the tax to pick him up, then he needs to be a player who sees significant minutes and a player who can make an impact. More generally, there’s the question of whose minutes he would be taking. If it’s all C.J. Miles, then this deal still doesn’t make a lot of sense — Belinelli is only a hair better than Miles from the outside, so while the team might see a handful of extra makes, the overall impact would be negligible. The goal would need to be finding time where Miles and Belinelli could share the floor as the Raptors continue to buy into the offense preached so much during the off-season. And while a lineup featuring Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Miles, Belinelli, and a big would space the floor nicely, it would also play very small and could be killed on defense. And if Dwane Casey opts for bench heavy defense-over-offense units late in games that could mean a lot of Miles and Belinelli sitting on the bench together late.
But if there’s a way to slide Belinelli in without disrupting anyone’s minutes too much — a little bit of OG’s time, a little extra rest time for Kyle and DeMar, a little time spent covering for Miles on his off-nights — then the payoff could be spectacular. With more scorers on the floor at any given time, the ball can move more, and the Raptors offense can rally itself.
Sometimes it seems like the new-look offense is a like an old computer that works mostly fine but every so often needs a slapped to get it going. Those idling moments are the moments when the Raptors fall back into Kyle- and DeMar-ball, as possessions stall out and expire late in the clock. Adding another above average three-point threat to an already contending team gives that offense a chance to keep the fun and good times revving right on through the playoffs.