Well, that was anti-climactic.
After making a splash with the Jakob Poeltl trade in the early hours of the morning, the Toronto Raptors front office kicked the can for fourteen hours, only to confuse and disappoint the fanbase by doing nothing.
Nothing. The worst part? It’s confusing, as the team was neither a buyer nor a seller. We fell for another classic hedge by this front office instead of going in a clear direction.
Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., O.G. Anunoby, heck, even Malachi Flynn are still Raptors, for now.
The Raptors never turned out to be sellers, adding Spurs center Jakob Poeltl on deadline day. They'll have to make some harder decisions in the offseason, but Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster tested and learned more about the value of several players.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 9, 2023
There’s no Shaedon Sharpe, Jonathan Kuminga, Jalen Suggs, Ziaire Williams, etc., coming to the Raptors any time soon. Instead, the front office stayed on brand, zagging, when everybody else expected them to “zig.”
Rather, we have a revamped core that, if the season starts now, should be good enough to be in the middle of the pack in the playoffs but not good enough to make it past the second round. The problem is that we’re at the tail end of the season and would need breaks to go their way to get in the thick of the play-in spot.
The Raptors were at the centre of several rumour mills as the entire NBA community waited to see what this front office would do. The New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies, New York Knicks, and Portland Trail Blazers were known O.G. Anunoby suitors. The Raptors were linked to several players, such as Jonathan Kuminga and Terrance Mann. One thing we know for sure is that several Raptors were on the table, and this front office was in active discussions regarding them.
Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri opened his post-draft deadline presser with “It didn’t happen... the opportunity was not there for us for a blockbuster trade”
That blockbuster trade looks like an Anunoby trade. However, the front office found out two things: For one, this front office and the opposing teams are far apart regarding the value of certain Raptor players. Perhaps teams are looking to buy low, as there aren’t that many of them with the war chest that can satisfy the Raptors, which led this front office to conclude, “hey, we can get the same offer this summer.”
Instead, Ujiri preached patience and insisted on giving this group another look, at least until the end of the season, saying, “To be fair on this team, I think I hadn’t done my part, maybe, for this team to, maybe play a little bit better. I think we needed a big like Jak to protect the rim.... we needed to at least give them some chance with a big rim protector there, and see what this team does.”
Masai Ujiri’s view on the trade deadline:— Libaan Osman (@libaanstar1) February 9, 2023
“It’s really not a great place to make long term decisions.”
“And that’s how one of the ways we looked at it, in terms of some of the things we were getting.” pic.twitter.com/zB7S877pKu
Toronto’s Front Office’s patience screams of lack of a sense of urgency, and maybe they are right not to make any drastic moves. They won’t get to this point if they didn’t have a game plan. Maybe we should thank them for not making any extremely short-sighted or panic-induced moves that other GMs do that are under the gun to save their job.
Perhaps they are too comfortable. Or they may be too attached to this core, with most of them representing this front office’s best success story outside the Kawhi Leonard trade. That is why giving this core a bit more rope is understandable to prove the doubters wrong. That rope is Jakob Poeltl, and this core has at least 26 games left to figure things out.
Living in the Moment
The end result of the Raptors’ trade deadline activity gives this current group a chance to undo a season mired in inconsistency, mediocrity, and overall bad vibes. Poeltl brings back good vibes and fills one of the several holes, but the roster construct remains flawed. However, they are sitting 10th in the East right now, with a realistic chance to move up to the 9th or 8th spot, barring injuries, given the softer schedule for the remainder of the season.
Poeltl’s addition is an investment to protect his assets (Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes) while giving them high-level reps in big-time moments. Suppose coach Nick Nurse can utilize these remaining games and manage to get Siakam, Barnes, Trent Jr. and even Precious Achiuwa to another level. In that case, that’s just a good, if not a better, investment as picking up another rotation player via trade, free agency, or draft. There’s plenty of value in getting Barnes, Achiuwa, and Trent Jr. playoff reps, especially with how their series against the Philadelphia 76ers got derailed by health last year.
With the cloud of trade deadline no longer hanging over their heads, perhaps the Raptors’ core can band together and finish the season strong. This development should give Nurse the reps and the time to figure out how the vision would look with a competent big man in the middle, something Ujiri felt he owed Nurse, given how the season ended.
The Raptors will enter this summer taking a big risk, with VanVleet, Trent Jr., and Jakob Poeltl entering unrestricted free agency. A big part of the “trade X” argument is to get something valuable for someone who might not return. However, Ujiri said, “Everything we could have done today, maybe we can do in the summer.” Does that mean there’s a handshake agreement between the front office and the player, similar to Kyle Lowry’s free agency?
If anything, Anunoby’s value might have taken a hit now that prospective teams won’t be able to use his services for the upcoming bloodbath in the playoffs. Maybe that’s a flawed argument, as Ujiri did say “In the summer, there’s 29 losers and 1 winner. There’s 29 teams looking to do more.” during the presser. If anything, there weren’t that many quality first-round picks that got traded over the last two days. Maybe this summer, some of those picks will become more available with disappointed teams looking to make a splash, and with the Stepien Rule coming off for some of those teams.
The upcoming draft is the most underrated aspect of how the front office handled this trade deadline. With two generational talents, Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson, expected to go 1-2 this summer; it’s painful to see that the Raptors are poised to miss out on those prospects. However, there’s minimal separation between the prospects projected around picks 3-15. Perhaps this front office doesn’t see this team getting bad enough to push for the Wemby/Scoot sweepstakes and is confident enough that they can get a good player late in the lottery or even in the middle of the first round.
The price to acquire Jakob Poeltl and unload the final year of Khem Birch’s contract, according to @MikeAScotto: 2024 1st-round pick protected 1-6 and unprotected 2nd-round picks in 2023 and 2025. Steep but hard to truly evaluate until we see what comes next.— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) February 9, 2023
However, the following season may get interesting, as the Raptors used their ‘24 1st-round pick to obtain Poeltl for the rest of the season and his bird rights. What will happen over these last 26 games will impact this front office’s decision about this core this summer, and with top-6 protection on the pick going to the Spurs, the Raptors seem poised to go all-in and rebuild or be competitive.
Play-in For What?
Masai Ujiri had the infamous “Play-in for what?!” quote after the Tampa Bay season. The Raptors pivoted from trying to get back in the playoff picture and embraced the tank (also known as Flynnsanity) instead. However, Ujiri seemed to have a different tone this time when he was asked during the presser:
“For that time, that was the situation we were in. I didn’t see why we should strive for that with that tough situation in Tampa at all.”
The Raptors made several accounting moves amid the trade deadline, renouncing several former players’ rights, including Nando De Colo and Jeremy Lin. That shows that the front office’s priority is toward the owner’s bottom line. Having the extra game or two of the play-in and earning at least one post-season series will do wonders for the ownership’s pocket. So yeah, play-in for what?
Oh, well. In Masai We Trust, right?