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Do the Raptors need to add another playmaker?

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Through the midpoint of the season, the Raptors’ offense hasn’t been as consistent as we would’ve hoped. Is it time they looked for more ball-handlers and play-makers?

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting News’ Sean Deveney recently wrote about the Raptors’ troubles with ball-movement this season. He illustrates rather well the impact Kyle Lowry has on the floor, even with Fred VanVleet filling in admirably for the four-time All-Star. In the Raptors’ recent losses, you most definitely noticed this issue too.

In the 23 games Lowry appeared before December 1st, the Raptors as a team shot the three-ball at about a league average clip — 35.3 percent — on 33.7 attempts (making 11.9 threes per game). This helped them secure one of the top offensive ratings in the league, and if sustained, Toronto would’ve ranked among the league’s best offenses in multiple categories.

In December — a month which Lowry played just ten of 15 games (most of them partially injured) — the Raptors shot 32.3 percent on 33.1 attempts (making 10.7 per game). The totals aren’t a drastic drop off, but the averages say something. When those totals are extrapolated we can see the difference — and the impact — they have. In those 15 December games, Toronto had seven in which they failed to make at least ten three-pointers, and four games which they failed to shoot more than 30 threes.

In the previous 23 games, there were just four instances where the Raptors failed to make at least ten three-point shots, and just six games in which they didn’t take at least 30 three-point attempts. There’s a reason for that: Kyle Lowry has been playing hurt.

The Assist Problem

As Deveney points out: the more worrisome statistic — and one which stands out like a sore thumb — is the over-reliance on isolation offensive sets. In this case, a closer study of the Raptors’ assist per game averages all season — not only in December — tell the story.

Prior to December (23 games): 25.5 assists per game

In December (15 games): 21.5 assists per game

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AST% Prior to December (23 games): 57.7 percent

AST% In December (15 games): 54.7 percent

(AST% = Assists/Field Goals Made)

There’s not much variance in the team’s AST% despite averaging four fewer assists simply because the Raptors were making a ton of field goals prior to December. Now that those shots aren’t falling (and Lowry is injured), Toronto’s assist numbers (and AST%) have dropped.

Those AST% numbers, if you haven’t checked lately, are both bottom-third rankings in the NBA — even when the Raptors’ offense was humming along as one of the league’s best. The reason for Toronto’s success despite a below-average assist percentage was due to them making shots they normally wouldn’t have made. With that model, they were due to return to the mean.

The league-leading Milwaukee Bucks (a team I’m beginning to despise) has an AST% of 65.6, just a few percentage points higher than the second-place team, Golden State, who holds a 65.2 mark. They’re not signals for future success, but it does signify what they’re doing is more sustainable.

What Does This Mean?

For starters, as good as backup (and possible future starter) point guard Fred VanVleet is, his ability to affect defensive coverage isn’t as potent as his backcourt partner Lowry — particularly in the pick-and-roll. FVV doesn’t garner the respect from defenses like Lowry does, despite shooting on par (and even better this season) than Lowry from long-range. Lowry has the type of gravity on offense that superstars demand.

Now let me preface this by saying VanVleet will undoubtedly be playing some crunch time minutes in the playoffs — he’s showcased a willingness to shoot (and make) shots when needed, and without hesitation. He’s proven this time and again over the course of the past two seasons. But with Lowry’s return, Fred’s role will likely be with the bench — and as we’ve seen recently, the bench could use one more steady hand, one more guy who move the ball and create offense.

So, I agree with Deveney on this one: Toronto could use some additional play-making off the bench. Before the season began, many fans were under the impression that second-year guard Fred VanVleet was a carbon copy of Kyle Lowry, and would work just as well with the bench unit.

But with injuries forcing VanVleet into the starting unit, and evidence pointing to him being more effective playing next to Lowry as opposed to leading the new bench unit, the Raptors find themselves in an uncertain situation. The bench currently has just two players whose strength is ball-handling (VanVleet by default and Delon Wright, with Norman Powell growing in this area).

However, none currently have the impact of a Kyle Lowry. The Raptors could shore up this need with a veteran who can dictate tempo when necessary — especially one that knows when to push the pace. Basically, the Raptors need a ball handler who functions as Lowry does, but one who can play with the bench. And if he can hit threes too, well, that’s a nice bonus.

Now, the Raps' will never find an exact replica of Lowry because it doesn’t exist. But, players who push the ball up the floor do exist, and smart players also exist. So those will be the criteria in our search.

Potential Trade Targets

Deveney compiled a list of players he believes would be viable trade targets ahead of the February 7th trade deadline. We’re going to analyze each player and whether or not they’re appropriate, plus add in a few of our own options.

We’ll cross Jeff Teague (and his $19m salary) off the list because Toronto would never be able to match salaries. Deveney also mentions Bradley Beal, who I’m sure loads of us would love to acquire — but would require mortgaging the Raptors’ future. At this point, with the future of Kawhi Leonard uncertain, it’s unlikely Masai Ujiri would consider this option.

Instead, let’s dive into some realistic options, based both on price and availability

J.J. Barea

JJ Barea was a name on Deveney’s list, and one that I totally agree with. However, his availability is iffy — he’s been a Maverick favourite for a long time and a player the front office likely values more than we would like to give up. His salary is a very cap and trade friendly $3.7 million expiring deal, making him one of the cheaper options on this list.

In order to acquire him, the Raptors have an option which doesn’t involve giving up any core pieces. Malachi Richardson currently makes $1.57 million, and combined with the trade exception gained in the Spurs trade (via Jakob Poeltl, worth up to $2.9 million) the Raptors could deal Richardson and $2.1 million of the Poeltl exception for Barea, no strings attached. (I’m also not a salary cap maestro, so I could be mistaken.)

Devin Harris

Barea’s teammate, Devin Harris, is an underused veteran who loves to play fast as well. His salary is much more friendly $1.5 million — meaning, if Dallas were so inclined (which isn’t a given), all it could take is Richardson straight up — though they’d likely need at least a second round pick to make it worth their while.

Harris was once a dynamic athlete who, after injuries, settled into a back-up role. As his athleticism has waned, Harris has become one of those deep bench savvy vets that championship contenders like to have around.

Matthew Dellavedova

Okay, hear me out: I know you guys hate him, hell I do too, but: he’s the type of player you hate until he’s on your team. If we’re looking for grit, shooting ability, and an uptempo ball-handler, Dellavedova might be the best option on this list. He’s likely available from Cleveland, he’s just 28 years old, and he’s locked up for two more years. Also, he’s in the range of salary (2-years/$18 million), so the Raptors could send C.J. Miles out in return.

Another positive: Dellavedova has size to play both guard positions. The Raptors would not be not him to play 25 minutes a night, but as a player to provide 12-15 minutes of bench play, with an ability to make the types of veteran moves that make opposing fans pull their hair out? He’s that type of player.

Oh, and Delly also shoots the three-ball at a rate of .390 for his career. He may be a bit pricey, but what he could potentially bring to the second unit is more than what Miles currently does.

Jeremy Lin

Lin is tough to pin down. On one hand, he’s a great player stuck in an undesirable position: the perfect opportunity to trade for him. On the other hand, he makes $12.5 million, with a ten percent trade kicker (God bless his agent). That means Toronto would have to match roughly $13.8 million and outside of Miles, the Raptors don’t have many digestible contracts other than their young core pieces.

If Toronto was to put those pieces on the table for salary purposes, the list includes: Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles, Delon Wright, and OG Anunoby. The Raptors also have Poeltl’s trade exception worth roughly $2.9 million, and Bruno Caboclo’s trade exception worth roughly $2.4 million.

Toronto isn’t trading Powell (that would defeat the purpose of adding a ball-handler), VanVleet, Wright or Anunoby. If the Raps add the exceptions to Miles’ salary ($8.3 million) — we’re right there at $13.6, effectively matching salaries. The question now is: does Atlanta make a move like this?

As a rebuilding team, let’s assume they want assets. Miles could potentially opt out of his player option, making him a free agent after this season (which does not seem likely now). Or the Hawks could simply buy him out (however they do enjoy having a few veterans on the team as mentors).

Toronto owes a 2019 1st round pick to San Antonio, and with the uncertainty of Leonard’s future with the team, I’d assume Ujiri wouldn’t want to deal either the team’s 2020 or 2021 first round picks.

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Do any of these moves make sense for the Raptors heading into the post-season this year? What do you think? And who would be your (reasonable) trade target for Toronto to take a look at?