By the time yesterday’s 3:00 pm trade deadline took effect, most Raptors fans had already accepted the reality that would soon be confirmed by an Adrian Wojnarowski tweet: Toronto was not trading any of its core players. For some, this was confounding, even infuriating. For others, the news spawned a sigh of relief. For now it’s tough to really assess the Toronto’s trade deadline, but one thing is for sure: the Raptors play the Utah Jazz tonight, a team whose roster currently includes Russell Westbrook. It’s a strange time of year.
The Raptors’ lone move at the deadline – trading a top-six protected 2024 first-round pick, two second-round picks, and Khem Birch for Jakob Poeltl – signalled that the front office believes the current roster, with the (re-)addition of a starting-caliber center, is good enough to be competitive in the playoff hunt. A good start to that goal would be beating the Utah Jazz, who defeated the Raptors 131-128 just over a week ago (and traded a third of their rotation since then).
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One, 7:30pm EST
Toronto – Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl
Utah – Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson, Lauri Markkanen, Kelly Olynyk, Walker Kessler
Toronto – Jakob Poeltl (not injury related - questionable), O.G. Anunoby (wrist - OUT), Otto Porter (foot - out for season)
Utah – Russell Westbrook (not injury related - OUT), Juan Toscano-Anderson (not injury related - OUT), Damian Jones (not injury related - OUT)
So Long, Khem
While many of us were expecting a longer list of outgoing players, this year’s deadline departure list features one player: Khem Birch. He came to the Raptors at a time of great need, when the team was stuck in Tampa and the center situation was at its most dire. Birch delivered down the stretch of the 20-21 season, averaging 12 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks across 19 games. The team was no good, but Birch provided a breath of fresh air with his fluidity for his size, his two-man game with VanVleet, and his magical push shot.
Injuries derailed his next season and he ultimately fell out of the rotation this year. But Birch reserved a niche place in the heart of Raptors fans who managed to watch the Tampa season. He also seems like a cool guy and is from Montreal, so I expect he’ll get a nice response whenever he returns to Scotiabank Arena.
The Size Battle!
The last time these two teams played (all the way back on February 1), Jazz rookie Walker Kessler killed the Raptors with his size and defensive feel. He put up 17 points on 8/10 shooting, 14 rebounds, and blocked seven shots, in addition to deterring and contesting lots more. That performance by Kessler – who the Raptors could’ve drafted had they not dealt their pick at last year’s deadline – was a pretty painful watch. In fact, watching any good center since the days of Gasol and Ibaka has been enough to make Raptors fans jealous (shoutout to Tampa Birch, though).
For the first time since 2020, the Raptors have a true starting-calibre big. Poeltl does all the big man connector stuff – he sets screens, protects the rim, and sets up his teammates. He doesn’t just do those things, but he wants to do them, and his on-court presence could make the defense sturdier while he fits into a clear hierarchical role on offense. He also is just a major vibes guy? The vibes have been off all year so Poeltl, who’s already familiar with much of the roster and staff, could help in that department. Will he actually make his grand Raptors re-opening tonight? It’s unclear right now. He’s been listed as questionable, although he’s already been in Toronto since Wednesday. If he does get the green light tonight, it’ll be worth monitoring how the Raptors handle Kessler versus last game.