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Off-season Raptors Roster Moves: What about trading a core piece?

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The Raptors may need to make a big change. So what happens if they decide to really shake things up?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

After outlining the basic scenario where the Raptors either completely or mostly run it back last time out, let’s explore some more extreme potential changes to the team, and have a little fun with some possible trades where the Raptors see some or all of their core players outgoing. For the purposes of this article, the core players are Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, the only four players on the team making over $10 million per year.

I recommend taking a look at the off-season salary primer I put together a few weeks ago first to get an idea of the Raptors’ tax situation and the contracts they have.

The Potential Option: Jonas Valanciunas

There is some question as to what direction the team would go in if they were to trade some pieces of the core. Would they simply tear it all apart, try to get bad, and sink to the bottom of the standings? Masai Ujiri would likely refute such an idea, but he’s not one to tip his hand in public either. Or would the team just be looking to tweak the talent they have?

In the case of Valanciunas or Serge Ibaka, the latter seems likely. If they are moved, they probably won’t yield a great return in terms of prospects or picks, except possibly if bad salary is coming back the other way.

For Valanciunas, if the team wants to change the play style, and shift Ibaka to centre full time, the trade would be one to either shed salary, or get a similar player at a smaller position, probably at forward to help fill in depth alongside OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam.

If you wanted to shed his salary, perhaps a team like Atlanta would want to take a chance that Valanciunas could provide some long term value for them, as this summer is probably too soon for them to be chasing a big name free agent with their cap room. They have a lot of low end draft picks to throw around, so a trade of Valanciunas for the 30th overall pick (from Houston) might make some sense for both teams. The Raptors would dodge the tax, get a late pick, and would free themselves up to play a different style. The deal would need to be agreed at the draft, then executed in July when Atlanta has cap space.

I personally think that’s likely a bad move if the team wants to compete, but a move like that might make some sense. Though I also question whether any teams will bite on giving Valanciunas a shot.

A more likely deal could be pursued with bad salary coming back, along with a draft asset. For example, a trade of Valanciunas to the Lakers for Luol Deng, Cleveland’s 2018 first and Chicago’s 2019 second round pick could provide a player who can contribute more to the Lakers than Deng, and (slightly) increase LA’s cap room to chase free agents. The Raptors get a couple picks, but have to carry Deng’s dead weight.

In all, Valanciunas is not a promising trade asset, what with the depressed trade market for centres in general of late, and his player option in 2019-20 making his long term control a concern.

The Impossible Option: Serge Ibaka

The idea with Serge is much the same, though there’s basically no chance a team takes a shot with him like they could with Valanciunas. Moving him would seem like a move to make room for Siakam to move up the depth chart. But unlike Valanciunas, it seems impossible (rather than simply unlikely) that the deal could happen without taking back a similar salary.

In all likelihood, the best the Raptors could hope for with an Ibaka deal would be to take on a worse deal, and maybe get a pick for their trouble if they take on one bad enough.

One example, if the Raptors don’t need a contributor coming back, would be to trade Ibaka to the New York Knicks for the contract of Joakim Noah. The term is the same, and Noah makes a few million dollars less than Ibaka, but Ibaka is a functional player who could contribute to the Knicks right away. Noah would be dead cap on the Raptors, but the slight salary downgrade would help with their tax situation, and the Knicks could offer up a protected future first and the Bulls’ second rounder this year. It would be poetic if Masai could replicate the Andrea Bargnani trade to the Knicks with the Raptors’ newest overpaid jump shooting big man.

As an interesting aside, when Bargnani was traded to the Knicks, he had two years remaining on his contract at $11.7 million per year, in a $58.7 million salary cap. That would pro-rate to two years at $20.1 million per year in the projected $101 million salary cap this summer. Awfully similar to Ibaka’s $22.5 million per year on his remaining two years.

There aren’t many fits for an Ibaka trade though — it’s hard to find a contributor making about what Ibaka makes that a team would want to swap for him, so in all likelihood, if Ibaka is moved at all (I think he’s the least likely of the core four to be traded), it is in a deal like this one. And if the team is chasing a trade like that, they are probably better off waiting until next summer when Ibaka will be an expiring contract and they can likely get a better return in any deal where they take dead money on.

The Rebuild Option: Kyle Lowry

If the team trades Lowry, it really would be a signal that they are bailing on the team as constructed. Lowry has been the primary driver of team success over this era of Raptors basketball, by basically any measure.

There are very few examples of a trade where Lowry goes out and the team doesn’t downgrade rather dramatically. With Lowry into his thirties, and making over $30 million, his trade value is probably limited to a select few teams — perhaps young teams looking to add a veteran star, but almost certainly not any teams that have no shot at winning in the near future, and it doesn’t seem likely a team would want to swap another high paid star for Lowry — adding him to another star would be the whole point.

One scenario that I find very interesting (and this article is becoming rather Bryan Colangelo-themed at this point) is Philadelphia.

Philly is lined up to be able to chase a max free agent this summer. They will court LeBron James, and if that fails, guys like Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. If they land a star, they may want to cash in some of their multitude of role players, prospects and picks to form as close to a super team as they can.

In that case, it’s hard to imagine a better fit for them than Lowry, a star on a short deal, who can be a spot up shooter next to the offense creation of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and whichever other star they manage to land.

And Philadelphia has the pieces to be able to construct a trade for Lowry even after they spend their cap space. The following package might make some sense for them to pursue.

Kyle Lowry for Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless and picks

The picks would likely not be one of their incoming lotto picks from LA or Sacramento, but they could offer a couple high second rounders this year and their own first round pick next year (which would likely be pretty late in the round if they are amassing this sort of star power).

The Raptors get a high end prospect (who comes with loads of risk the 76ers may be glad to get away from), role players (who could contribute or be flipped at a later date), and low end picks to help Masai try to find some late round gems. Plus shed a little salary short term.

This only makes sense if the team is planning to be bad, as they would be supercharging a division rival, but such is the reality of basically any Lowry trade — it only makes sense if the Raps are trying to get worse.

The Interesting Option: DeMar DeRozan

This is the interesting one. A DeRozan trade could mean any number of directions. Perhaps a DeRozan trade is made to lengthen the window, trying to find a younger star whose peak will align closer to the young guys on the roster (especially OG Anunoby), while not taking too much of a short term step back. Perhaps they try to use DeRozan as a piece to get into a superstar bidding war. Perhaps, like some of the above moves, they just want to tear the whole thing down and get value back — and DeRozan’s value is probably at it’s peak right now.

Let’s explore an example of each of those options.

Trade #1: Longer Window

DeRozan to Minnesota for Andrew Wiggins, 2018 OKC 1st round, 2019 MIN 1st round

This trade would need to happen in the summer, but be agreed on at the draft so the Timberwolves could draft the player the Raptors want with that OKC pick (this is a common enough practice with draft day trades, to execute in July if that makes the finances work).

Minnesota is likely suffering some shock from the step back Wiggins took this season, after signing him to a very long deal at about the same annual value as DeRozan’s deal. DeRozan is clearly the better player right now, and looks to be a better fit with Minnesota as well.

DeRozan carries a heavy offensive load, but has also shown to be a capable passer over the past few years, something Wiggins has not done, and that should help him play beside scorers like Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler better than Wiggins did. Having a better playmaking wing there could let Butler ease back from his scoring duties slightly, letting him focus on the defensive end more, and DeMar, for all his struggles defensively, is not significantly worse than Wiggins, who has struggled on that end himself, despite his many tools.

DeRozan’s deal is also only two years in length — if the experiment fails, the Wolves are not on the hook for very long, compared to Wiggins, who is signed to a four year extension that kicks in this summer.

The Raptors take on a lot of long term risk on a player who has disappointed of late, but also has a very high ceiling if he could ever put it together. On top of this, Wiggins is only 23, putting his development more in line with the rest of the young players on the roster. They also get a couple of late round picks for their trouble.

Trade #2: Superstar Bid

DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, 2019 TOR 1st to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard, Pau Gasol

If the Spurs want to move Kawhi Leonard, and they want to go young and get picks, the Raptors can’t compete with the bids other teams will make. But if the Spurs are interested in staying good, and want to get out of Gasol’s deal while bringing back a star for Kawhi, the Raptors’ offer might be pretty good.

Their pick is not likely to be great, but by leaving it unprotected the Spurs may be enticed by the possibility that the Raptors take a tumble down the standings. They could also reverse protect it — similar to the pick that was traded to Houston for Lowry (there’s Colangelo again): it wouldn’t convey as long as the Raptors are good, only moving to the Spurs when they dip back into the lottery. Throw in a couple of prospects, including a recent top 10 pick (who frankly seems very Spursy) in Poeltl, and that’s a decent offer.

It may not be enough, but if teams are scared off by the drama the Spurs went through this year, it may well be the best offer they get. And the risk is worth it to a team like Toronto, who have butted up against their ceiling too many times now.

Trade #3: Dealing for Picks

There are a few options for this one. The two most tantalizing options are two teams near the top of the draft this year who may be disappointed with the result of their tank and might want to get good again quickly. The Grizzlies never sold their top players in the midst of a bad season, and the Mavericks don’t seem like the type of team that would want to be near the top of the draft for multiple years. So, options:

DeRozan to Memphis for Chandler Parsons, the #4 overall pick and 2018 MEM 2nd rounder

DeRozan to Dallas for Wesley Matthews and the #5 overall pick

The Memphis deal has the Raptors taking back some bad salary (but no extra term compared to DeMar’s deal, and they save a few million a year) to get the fourth pick in the draft and a very early second rounder.

The Dallas deal has the Raptors taking back only one year of a useful Matthews, shedding more salary immediately (Dallas has plenty of cap room and will struggle to add an impact free agent after their season) and of course moving into the top five in the draft.

Both deals see DeRozan moved for a top draft pick as the backbone. Whether those teams would be interested is a good question, but the deals at least seem feasible.

If they don’t get any bites on top end lotto picks, they could also chase some deals further down in the lottery.

DeRozan to LA Clippers for Danilo Gallinari, 2018 DET 1st, 2018 LAC 1st

The Clippers get out from under Gallinari’s deal, with him proving to still be injury prone, and upgrade to a star without giving up the main piece in the Griffin trade (Harris). The Raptors get two late lottery picks and hope they can find a player like Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo (who were both taken 15th overall).

Again, Gallinari’s deal doesn’t extend past the next two years, so the Raptors don’t sacrifice any long term flexibility, and with the Clippers likely operating with some cap space this summer they can provide a little short term cap relief over those two years. If the Clippers saw their cap room disappear (due to too many potential free agents picking up their player options), the Clippers could add an expiring contract like Wes Johnson to make the finances work.

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Anyway, that’s the best I could come up with for potential trades of significant pieces. These are really just examples of the types of deals the Raptors may pursue, as almost certainly the details will not come to fruition. And really this is meant as a jumping off point — here are some ideas, now let’s come up with some more.

A helpful tool for matching salaries is the basketball-reference salary page, where you can sort by salary in a given year to easily find contracts that are similar in value. The numbers there are mostly good, but as ever, to be sure, you should check individual player salaries at Basketball Insiders.

Post any deals you come up with, and I can confirm whether they work salary wise. And your peers can mock you (as I’m sure they will mock me) for coming up with such ludicrous suggestions.