For the first time in Raptors history, the team was actually in the driver’s seat as a potential seller at the NBA trade deadline. Yes, Toronto, as helmed by Masai Ujiri, has pulled off deadline deals before — remember Serge Ibaka, PJ Tucker, and Marc Gasol, for example — but they haven’t quite been in control like the were this past Thursday. The closest we can even come is back in 1998 when the Raptors made the disastrous sell-now Damon Stoudamire trade a week before the deadline. That day was not a good one for Toronto.
This made for a highly emotional afternoon. Instead of waiting to see if the Raptors would make a deal to acquire some missing piece to help get them to a championship, we were waiting to see if some other contending team would pay the price to acquire Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell. That Toronto moved Norm was perhaps not entirely a surprise — that they held onto Lowry, meanwhile, ended up disrupting a few narratives involving some of the league’s best teams. In true Lowry fashion, his staying with Toronto also upended the story of his presumptive last game on Wednesday night, a fun win that ended the team’s crushing nine-game losing streak (and had Lowry posting a career-best +42). What a turn.
But before really unpacking the implications of the non-Lowry trade, let’s review the moves the Raptors did make and assign some grades to the deals. Of the three trades Toronto did pull-off, none of them are of the Earth-shattering, all-in variety (like 2019’s Gasol trade), but they do position the Raptors once again to be right where they like to be: in control.
Norman Powell Traded to the Portland Trail Blazers: B+
Return: Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood
I can’t give this one an A-grade only because of my emotional connection to Powell. He was the second-longest tenured Raptor (behind Lowry), and perhaps the first real development success story of the Ujiri era. Other Raptors have had bigger roles and made a bigger impact in their time in Toronto, but Powell was essentially a flyer of a player — the 46th pick in an NBA Draft doesn’t often hold much value — and worked his way into becoming a near-20-point scorer for one of the better franchises in the league.
This is before we get into all the times Powell essentially saved the Raptors’ dang season via some wild playoff heroics. We’ll never forget the Game 5 steal on Indiana’s Paul George in the 2016 post-season; we can’t underrate Powell’s insertion into the starting lineup as the turning point against the Bucks in 2017; and, sure, when Norm finally woke up in the 2020 Bubble playoffs for a late three-point play on Marcus Smart in that all-timer Game 6 against Boston, it was easy to remember why we all loved having Powell around. He could be all over the place at times, but when he came through, Powell was electric for Toronto.
So did the Raptors “win” this trade? As always with the best trades, yes and no. Right now, the Blazers win because they definitely got the best player in the deal. The almost-28-year-old Norm will slot right into place as Portland’s weak-side attacker and shooter and is, right now, better than both Trent Jr. and Hood at both of those elements of the game. (It’s very safe to say Powell will stay better than Hood too.) The Blazers need help to get over the hump in the playoffs, and Powell can help them do that.
At the same time, the Raptors win by looping back to essentially a younger version of Powell, the 22-year-old Trent Jr. — in his third year as a 37th pick in the 2018 Draft — who operates as roughly the same calibre of shooter, possesses some solid defensive utility, and, as per Ujiri, is a player with “really, really good upside.” On top of that, the Raptors can now conceivably get in on the Trent Jr. restricted free agent market this summer, which looks to be far-reduced from the Powell unrestricted free agent market, which may go as high as $20 million per season. That’s awesome for Norm, as he’s definitely earned it, but it’s also maybe something to which the Raptors did not want to commit.
Meanwhile, after injuring his Achilles back in December 2020, Hood has not been the player he was — which was, essentially, another Powell-type, a two-guard who can shoot threes and get up and down the court. The Raptors now have him under contract for the rest of this season and a non-guaranteed second year in 2021-22 at around $10 million per. There’s a theme emerging here: the Raptors got two shooting guards for one, and can now recalibrate their options from a place of strength. It’s a shame we won’t get to watch Powell anymore as a Raptor — and it sucks we didn’t get to see him go all-out in Toronto this season — but sometimes that really is the business.
Matt Thomas Traded to the Utah Jazz: A-
Return: 2021 second-round pick (from the Warriors)
Despite the hype (thanks almost entirely to our friend Alex “Steven Lebron” Wong), the Matt Thomas experiment never quite took off in Toronto. There were a few games there when it looked like Thomas was about to break-out as the super-shooter and modest play-maker the Raptors needed off the bench — and we’ll always have this highlight — but then he’d get deked out of his shoes and we’d remember why Thomas was on the bench in the first place. Maybe it was just coach Nick Nurse’s aggressive defensive schemes, but it became clearer as this season progressed that Thomas couldn’t quite keep up with the Raptors’ program. Maybe he’ll get a shot in Utah, or maybe he’ll just be another deep-bench piece for them too.
Either way, the Raptors were clearly not going to re-sign Thomas for 2021-22, so getting any sort of draft pick compensation for him is better than nothing. In this case, per Blake Murphy’s sources, the pick is apparently coming from the Warriors, which means it could be in the mid-40s of the 2021 NBA Draft. That’s not a bad return for a player the Raptors signed out of Spain back in the post-championship summer of 2019.
Terence Davis Traded to the Sacramento Kings: A+
Return: 2021 second-round pick (from the Grizzlies)
Thus ends the disappointing dance we’ve been doing around Davis on the Raptors this entire season. After his stunning Summer League appearance in 2020 and his explosive moments last season (capped by his earning a spot on the All-Rookie Second Team), our collective excitement around Davis has soured for more than one reason.
Since I’ve burned through any further desire to comment on him, I’ll just add: Davis was not going to be re-signed by the Raptors — and just getting him off the team is a good enough reason to celebrate.
Kyle Lowry Not Traded to the Sixers/Heat/Lakers: A+
Look, I understand the NBA is a business. And I understand that it’s perhaps strange for me to applaud the Raptors on their trade of Norm for business reasons while cheering for as little as 28 more games of Lowry. But also, everyone needs to understand something else: the Raptors absolutely held the entire league hostage at this trade deadline. They basically said, if your deal pleases us, we’ll make it; if it doesn’t, we can hold onto Lowry for now — and what’s more, we like our chances to maybe bring him back in 2021-22. Will the Raptors actually re-sign and retain Lowry for next season? Who knows. Yet now that option exists.
Trading Lowry was always only ever going to net the Raptors some potential — not a star player who could remake their fortunes overnight. Maybe someone like Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, or Talen Horton-Tucker is going to become an All-Star-level player, but the odds of that are not necessarily in favour of the Raptors. Or to put it another way, the odds are just as good the Raptors could acquire someone else (like Trent Jr., or some other future draft pick) who could be as good as any of those aforementioned players. Trading the greatest Raptor of all time, even if he was hellbent on leaving this summer, for that kind of return just never quite made sense — even with the Raptors at 1-9 over their last ten games.
Yes, the Raptors have historically been seen as “losers” when it comes to star players and their eventual departures. We’ve lived through the tenures of Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Chris Bosh after all. And I get why the idea of Lowry walking for “nothing” this summer makes it feel like the Raptors are now setting themselves up to fail. Please know I get that.
But consider it this way: nothing can happen with Lowry now that would set the Raptors back — not on the court, not on the salary cap sheet, and not in the hearts and minds of fans. Lowry can leave, and the team is still set up for the future. He could re-sign, and they can still compete. He could even participate in a sign-and-trade and the Raptors could then acquire the Maxeys and Thybulles of the world this summer. Despite the variables beyond their control, the Raptors are still in the driver’s seat as they head into their future.
And at this point, if Lowry is happy playing with the Raptors — even for just 28 more games — we should be happy to have him for as long as it lasts.