TORONTO – With the March 25th NBA trade deadline one week away and talks heating up around the association, the Toronto Raptors remain one of the teams to watch, but not for the reason that you might think.
Kyle Lowry continues to be among the buzziest names emanating from the daily rumour mill, and it’s not hard to see why. If the veteran point guard were made available he would immediately become the most intriguing player on the market – the type of acquisition that could completely shift the balance of power in the league.
And from the outside looking in, you can understand why some might think he’d be for sale. He’ll turn 35 on deadline day and he’s playing out the final season of his contract on an underachieving team.
However, according to sources, teams inquiring into Lowry’s availability have been told that the Raptors do not intend to move him. You can never say never in the NBA, but as of now it seems likely that the six-time all-star – and arguably the greatest player in the franchise’s history – will finish the season with Toronto.
Even still, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have some big decisions to make.
After dropping six games in a row, the Raptors sit 11th in the tightly packed Eastern Conference. Context is important, in this case. Five of those defeats came with three key starters – Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby – in the health and safety protocols and out of the lineup. In the sixth, Wednesday’s loss to the last-place Pistons, Siakam and VanVleet were expectedly rusty after the long layoff, while Anunoby remained sidelined, hoping to return on Friday.
It’s unlikely that this recent skid has changed the front office’s view of the team, what they’re capable of at full strength, or where its weaknesses lay. If they believed in this group a month ago – when they clawed back to .500 with wins over Milwaukee and Philadelphia – then they still should now. But with 32 games left to play, the question is whether they feel like there’s enough time to make a run and get back into the race.
On one hand, they’re just three games out of sixth place, with the suddenly streaking Miami Heat – currently in fourth – serving as an example of how quickly a team can shoot their way up the standings, and the play-in tournament offering some hope to lower-seeded clubs this season. On the other, even when they’re whole again it’s going to take some time for the returning players to get their conditioning back.
They’re either going for it or they’re not, but in either scenario standing pat doesn’t seem like a prudent option.
“I think that our people that make those decisions have to do what’s best for the health of the team, organizational health, whatever that means,” Nick Nurse said following Wednesday’s game. “It’s always unsettling when there are [mid-season] trades, and trade talk is unsettling as well, but it’s going to be interesting to see if we do anything for short term or long term.”
“I think that’s the position they’re always in – what are you looking at now so we can make a push here with this team, because they deserve a chance to make a push because they’ve proven they can play well against the best teams in the league, and then what do you do about the future?”
That’s where the red-hot Norman Powell could come into play.
Powell’s value has never been higher, literally – he scored a career-high 43 points on 18 shots in Wednesday’s loss. The 27-year-old guard-forward has blossomed into one of the league’s best and most efficient scorers at his position, averaging a personal-best 19.7 points on 50 per cent shooting in his sixth NBA campaign.
The market for him should reflect that. His $10.9 million salary makes him easier to move than, say, Lowry, who is owed $30 million this season. And unlike Lowry, who you would only consider moving to a contender, there are more conceivable destinations for Powell, if he’s made available. A rebuilding team might see him as the kind of established, culture fit that helps fortify a young core. A winning team might see him as its missing piece.
First, the Raptors need to ask themselves whether they’re willing to pay him this summer. Powell has an $11.6 million player option for next season, one he’s almost certainly going to decline. Given the number of teams that will have cap space to burn this summer, and a free agent class that appears less exciting than most anticipated, Powell may be able to double that figure on the open market. At minimum, he should be able to land a new contract that pays him north of $18 million annually.
Knowing what he’ll cost, are the Raptors prepared to re-sign him at that price, especially with the long-term money they already have invested in Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby? If the answer is yes, then it’s easy – you keep him and his Bird Rights, which allow you to exceed the cap or go into the luxury tax to pay him up to his max.
If the answer is no, you see what’s out there, and if somebody is offering something that moves the needle in the short term (an upgrade at the centre position), or in the long term (picks and prospects), or some combination of the two, you have to seriously consider it.
At the same time, Powell’s skill set cannot be easily replaced – they’ve desperately needed his ability to generate offence – and he’s become an important part of the organization’s identity, both on and off the court. He’s their second-longest tenured player behind Lowry and one of seven remaining members of the 2019 championship team. There’s tangible and sentimental value in keeping him around past the deadline, on top of the flexibility that having his Bird Rights would give them this summer.
It’s a tough decision to make one way or the other, especially in the middle of the season and especially in the middle of a season as unusual as this one.
“I don't concern myself with [trade rumours],” Powell said Wednesday night. “I'm just focused on trying to get these wins, trying to help the team win. I used to concern myself with that earlier in my [career], and now it's just whatever happens, happens. You go forward with that mentality, but I'm just focused on what I can control. And hopefully, we can get back [healthy] and continue to fight for these playoff positions.”
In all likelihood, Lowry isn’t going anywhere. It’s also hard to see Toronto parting with future first-round picks or taking on substantial long-term salary for anything other than a cornerstone piece – and those types of players aren’t expected to become available over the next seven days. So, regardless of whether they opt to buy or sell, Powell is the Raptors’ most realistic – and most interesting – trade chip.