The Toronto Raptors might have won yesterday, and might have shown some decent flashes of better play over the past week, but that certainly isn’t enough to quiet the trade rumors surrounding the team. Standings-wise, the Raptors are still stuck in that miserable middle — well out of the play-in tournament but not in the bottom four (where the highest lottery odds reside).
And unlike most other teams that occupy the same territory, the Raptors have very good players (and are a competently run franchise!) so with the NBA Trade Deadline one month away, it’s no surprise that A) there’s a lot of interest in Toronto’s players and draft assets, and B) other teams are waiting to see what the Raptors do before they start making moves of their own.
Last week, Sportsnet’s Michael Grange spoke to a team executive who called the Raptors the first domino to fall. Reporting today from ESPN’s Tim Bontemps and NBA veteran reporter Marc Stein seem to back this up.
Bontemps says that “Toronto has been put in a position where the rest of the NBA is waiting to see which direction the franchise will take with its underperforming roster,” before detailing all of the problems that have led the team to their 17-23 record (regression from Scottie Barnes and Fred VanVleet, poor shooting, bad transition defense... it’s actually kind of depressing!).
Bontemps also details how the play-in tournament has messed up the traditional playoffs-or-tank model. With now 10 teams instead of eight with a chance at the postseason, franchises in 9-10 range might take that bet that they can win the play-in and get to the postseason.
With 10 teams from each conference now guaranteed, at minimum, the chance to win two games and make the playoffs, it’s both given more teams the opportunity to wait for standings to shake out and has decreased the pool of selling teams.
So while scouts and executives pointed at teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards joining Toronto as potential active teams ahead of next month’s trade deadline, there’s less urgency for middling teams to make moves.
“It makes team less inclined to throw in the towel,” another East executive told ESPN.
I wouldn’t personally take that bet with the Raptors — while I think their defense gives them a chance in a 7-game series, given their shooting woes and general lack of offensive creativity, I think winning one, do-or-die game (let alone two!) is actually the tougher task.
In any event, Bontemps says the Raptors will wait until the end of the month before making any decisions.
As for Stein, he reports that Gary Trent Jr. — who can opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this summer — is the lone player Toronto has made “available” — but, he says, “I wouldn’t expect a broad fire sale,” and that “it would take lots — LOTS — to pry either O.G. Anunoby or Pascal Siakam away from the Raptors, who have been firm in their desire to keep both players.”
That aligns with my thinking — they’re too good to give up on — but that brings us around to Fred VanVleet. Like Trent, VanVleet can opt out of his contract this summer and become a free agent. Both Bontemps and Stein mention that VanVleet didn’t sign the maximum $114 million contract extension that he could have last summer; VanVleet himself says the contract was never officially offered, but is seems clear the Raptors were willing to give him the max — and he is, once again, betting on himself that he’s worth more.
Fred VanVleet on his contractual situation: pic.twitter.com/9faNkEhlu4— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) January 9, 2023
Oh and by the way, he’ll win that bet.
So it seems VanVleet, then, is the biggest domino. As I wrote the other day, if the Raptors think he’ll re-sign here, they’ll likely keep him past the deadline and make that move in the summer — and if they don’t think he wants to stay, they’ll trade him before February 9. And all we can do is hope that VanVleet and his management team are having those discussions with the Raptors so that both teams are on the same side as we head towards the deadline.