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Toronto Temperature: Searching for bright spots on the Raptors

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The Raptors have lost another three games in a row and it may indeed be time to admit this is a lost season. That said, let’s find some good stuff to note over the past week.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

What’s happened since the trade deadline at which the Raptors decided to keep franchise player Kyle Lowry and acquire both Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood — while shipping off the bad vibes of Terence Davis? To quote Sean Connery in The Last Crusade: our situation has not improved.

It was exactly one week ago today when the Raptors won their one game in the month of March (with one left to go tonight), a blowout against the Denver Nuggets. If that win came as something of a surprise, that goes to show you just how disastrous this month has been for Toronto. They’ve lost games every which way they could — shorthanded, fully staffed, in the first quarter, in the final minute, and so on. It makes you wonder how we’re supposed to find anything positive to reflect on for our weekly Toronto Temperature check.

But we’ll try to do so anyway. Let’s get to it.

Who’s Hot

Keeping Lowry, And Saying No

Maybe this doesn’t mean anything now, given that the Raptors have lost three games since deciding to retain Kyle Lowry, but it will never not be cool (if only to me), that the Raptors basically held the league hostage at the trade deadline and then declined to make a move. You could argue that it was perhaps time to trade Lowry and get back what players and picks were on the table. But I also think the Raptors’ position is stronger than most would think. They want Lowry, Lowry is happy to be in Toronto, and what will happen in the summer will happen — no need to jump into a bad deal just because.

I like to bring a historic perspective to this: obviously the Raptors have made tons of bad trades in the past. The entire Bryan Colangelo era of the team was built on constantly signing and trading players in an attempt to look like he was doing something, almost no matter the cost. Before that, poor Rob Babcock got pushed into an awful Vince Carter trade because of the weakness of Toronto’s position — can you imagine if that had happened now? The Raptors maintaining their dignity through a trade deadline, despite a losing season, and despite calls for them to have a fire sale, is not nothing. And in the long arc of this franchise, it represents, yes, another step forward.

Gary and OG, the New Bromance

The Norman Powell for Gary Trent Jr. swap is one of those rare deals where everyone just wants the best for the players involved. Portland fans are sad to see young Gary go, but wish him the best. And obviously Raptors fans love Norm. The NBA is a business — as everyone intones after a trade — but we don’t have to act or feel that way about it on an individual level.

Speaking of which, now that Trent is in Toronto and trying to get to know his new teammates, it sounds like he’s found his first friend on the Raptors:

The idea of Trent cracking into the interior life of OG Anunoby on a long plane ride together is just... well, let’s say the Raptors season isn’t totally lost.

Rodney Hood... is Good?

If you’ll recall, there was a moment in the recent past, in the first few years of his career, when it seemed like Rodney Hood was going to be another late-first round steal-type of player. He went 23rd in the 2014 NBA Draft, just a few picks after Bruno Caboclo, so obvious Raptors fans were asking: hey, why didn’t Toronto take that guy?

Over the next few years, Hood most sort of sank down the depth chart of whatever team he was on. He didn’t look great in Cleveland and had to re-discover himself in Portland, which seemed to be going fairly well until an Achilles tear — e.g. one of the worst injuries — took him out for the balance of the 2019-20 season. To be clear: Hood isn’t suddenly going to become an amazing player for the Raptors. But there has been something sort of soothing in seeing him out there in a Toronto uniform. In just three games, he’s made a stronger impact off the bench than some of the other hopefuls there. Sure, Hood came in the trade to make the salaries match, but that doesn’t mean he can’t find a spot in Toronto.

Who’s Not

The Raptors Front Office Strikes Out

Hindsight being 20/20 and all that, but it’s clear the Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster made a massive miscalculation in their off-season decisions for the Raptors. To be clear: investing in the core of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet remains a good idea. Those three are entering their prime years and it’s not every team that can draft two cornerstone players in the 20s of the NBA Draft — to say nothing of finding an undrafted player of Fred’s calibre. That’s smart and sound team-building done without bottoming out entirely.

But this season was predicated on the idea that Toronto could weather the departure of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, and that Aron Baynes and the various bits and pieces on the team’s bench would rise to the occasion. Obviously that has not happened. And it’s also clear — despite keeping Lowry at the trade deadline — that the Raptors are now quietly re-orienting themselves from a “Win Now!” mode to a “Hmm, the summer starts soon” situation. As a fan, it’s hard not to feel a bit bamboozled by everything that’s happened.

Poor Ol’ Aron

In all of this, we come back to poor Aron Baynes. You know, in years past, I won’t lie, I enjoyed dunking on Baynes. He was a muscle-bound nuisance, a bruiser without much style to his game, someone it felt good to root against. Also, he seemed to be in a minor international feud with Toronto’s beloved Jonas Valanciunas, which of course drew the ire of Raptors fans.

However, when the Raptors signed Baynes in the off-season, after his strong year with the Suns, it felt like they’d actually gotten a steal. I wanted to believe it, in any case. I won’t name names here, but at least one basketball writer I know was amazed to see Toronto snag Baynes, and thought we’d really fall in love with him here. Obviously that has not happened. In fact, if games were being played in Toronto right now, it’s possible Baynes would be getting hit with boos on a nightly basis. Watching him play these days, one can tell Baynes really is trying his best. But it’s also obvious that he is aware of how poorly he’s playing — which doesn’t help matters.

This will be his final season with the Raptors. And it’s fair to wonder now if or where Baynes will find a place in the NBA for 2021-22. Say what you will about him as a player, but that’s a bit of a bummer.