Raptors’ deadline day deals should help propel rebuild forward
TORONTO – With the NBA trade deadline now in the rear-view mirror, the Toronto Raptors have something that they didn’t have a couple months ago.
OK, they’ve got a few things they didn’t have. In four separate deals over the span of six weeks leading up to Thursday’s deadline, Toronto sent out nearly half of its 15-man opening night roster, including its two longest-tenured players and four of its six oldest players. Once the dust settled, the return looked like this: six players – four of them under the age of 26 – and three draft picks.
But in addition to the significant roster turnover, the Raptors also come out of trade season with a clear direction, something they’ve lacked while attempting to balance the present with the future in the aftermath of their 2019 championship.
In trading forward OG Anunoby to the New York Knicks, they added a couple of players in the same age group as their prized newly-minted all-star, the 22-year-old Scottie Barnes: Immanuel Quickley (24) and RJ Barrett (23).
In trading their best player and last remaining core piece of the title team, Pascal Siakam, to the Indiana Pacers for a package centred on draft capital, they signalled their intention to reset and build around Barnes.
The pair of moves they made on Thursday were far more subtle and certainly won’t alter the franchise’s trajectory in the same way, but should help propel the process forward.
“We did our heavy lifting about a month ago,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said. “So I feel like this trade deadline we cleaned up a lot of things and we addressed some of the things we talked about after the OG and Pascal trades.”
Their first of two deadline day deals, a four-player trade with the Utah Jazz, was about acquiring talent that fits the plan in both the short and long term. The other, a point guard swap with the Brooklyn Nets, was a salary dump designed to create more flexibility moving forward.
Agbaji is just a couple years removed from leading Kansas to a national championship as a senior and being a lottery pick – he was selected 14th-overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2022 and was sent to Utah in the Donovan Mitchell deal. After an impressive rookie season in which he started 22 games for the Jazz, Agbaji has taken a bit of a step back as a sophomore, averaging 5.4 points (down from 7.9) in 20 minutes per contest. Still, the Wisconsin native continues to show flashes on both sides of the floor.
He’s an active, high-motor defender, who does a decent job of getting to and finishing at the rim, and shoots well from the corners. By all accounts, he’s a high-character guy; Raptors president Masai Ujiri has known his family for more than a decade, so there’s a level of familiarity with him, on and off the court. And, at 23-year-old, he fits the development window and has another two years of team control on his rookie contract.
Olynyk’s future with the club is less certain. The 11-year vet turns 33 before the end of the season and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, though the Raptors own his Bird Rights and seem open to bringing him back on a short-term deal, depending on how the next few months go. Not only are they looking forward to what he can bring from a leadership standpoint, Olynyk – a big who can handle, pass and shoot the ball – should also be a good fit in coach Darko Rajakovic’s system. It sounds like the plan is for him to back up Jakob Poeltl and captain the second unit, but his ability to space the floor should allow Rajakovic to utilize him in a variety of hybrid units, even those that include Poeltl.
That he was born in Toronto and has been a fixture for the Canadian national team – helping the program win bronze and qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics this past summer – doesn’t hurt.
The cost to acquire two rotation players was minimal. Kira Lewis Jr. came to Toronto in the three-team Siakam trade, via the New Orleans Pelicans, and only logged a couple of minutes for the NBA club, spending most of his brief Raptors tenure in the G League. Often injured vet Otto Porter Jr. hasn’t played meaningful minutes since December and would have likely been waived if not for his inclusion in a trade.
The pick heading to Utah in the transaction is the worst of two 2024 first-rounders that Toronto got for Siakam, which will likely come from either the Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Clippers. The Raptors were in a position to have up to four picks in what’s widely believed to be a weak draft this summer, including three that could fall between 18th and 31st. Giving up what should end up being the 28th or 29th-overall selection seems like a small price to pay for a prospect that already has 110 games under his belt and has proven to be, at worst, a good two-way rotation player in this league.
In a subsequent move, the Raptors sent a pair of veterans, Dennis Schroder and Thaddeus Young, to Brooklyn for the expiring contract of Spencer Dinwiddie, who was immediately waived. The deal clears Schroder’s $13 million salary off the books for next season and gives the team some more room to operate over the summer, when there are more decisions to be made.
The Raptors were one of the NBA’s most active teams leading up to what turned out to be an underwhelming deadline. The Knicks fortified their depth with Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks, the Philadelphia 76ers picked up sharpshooter Buddy Hield, and Oklahoma City added some veteran insurance in Gordon Hayward. But none of the players or assets that changed teams on Thursday were of Siakam or Anunoby’s calibre. Still, there’s a sense that Toronto could have been even busier.
When it was all said and done, they opted not to move Bruce Brown, Gary Trent Jr. or Chris Boucher. Brown was among the more surprising players to stay put on deadline day; there was no shortage of interest from contending teams looking to add a versatile vet fresh off a championship run. From the moment they acquired him in the Siakam trade last month all the way up until the 3:00 p.m. buzzer on Thursday, the Raptors had multiple offers on the table for Brown, including a few that would have netted them a first-round pick, according to league sources.
However, they made it clear to interested teams – New York, Milwaukee and the Lakers, among several others – that they weren’t interested in adding to their collection of 2024 draft capitol or taking on long-term salary. According to a source, the Knicks – a long-time Brown suitor – eventually pulled their offer and pivoted to the Pistons deal, which saw them acquire two impact wing players for less than what Toronto was seeking. Unless somebody was willing to meet their asking price for Brown – a prospect, expiring contracts and a future first – the Raptors insisted they were comfortable holding onto him and his uniquely structured contract, which could still be a valuable tool.
Brown has a team option for $23 million next season. It’s hard to see the Raptors being active in free agency, given their uninspiring history of attracting stars in the open market and the lacklustre list of players available this summer, but if they decided to go down that route they could decline his option and open up additional cap space. Alternatively, and far more likely, they could exercise it and have a coveted player on an expiring contract to shop over the offseason or ahead of next year’s deadline.
They’ll also have to make a call on Gary Trent Jr., a pending free agent, who’s market has been difficult to get a read on. While the Raptors were open to moving the sixth-year guard, those talks didn’t get very far, sources say. He’s shot the ball well of late, hitting 48 per cent of his three-point attempts over the past 26 games. But with his fluctuating role this season, uneven play on both sides of floor, and contractual status, it’s been speculated that the most teams were willing to offer for Trent Jr. was a second-round pick or two. If that’s the case, it makes sense to let him play out the season with this group and see what it might cost to bring him back over the summer. He’s not a perfect fit in Rajakovic’s system, but he does bring an essential skill (shooting) and, at 25, he’s young enough to grow with the team’s new core.
Now that the deadline is behind them and they know what this roster is going to look like over the final 31 games of the season, the marching orders are clear. Even if Rajakovic wanted to play vets and try to squeak out wins down the stretch, there aren’t many of them left. That was part of the thought process behind trading Schroder, a Rajakovic favourite, and subsequently waiving Dinwiddie.
For better or for worse, the Raptors are forced to see what they’ve got in guys like Agbaji, rookie Gradey Dick and Jordan Nwora. Quickley will continue to see all the reps he can handle, as will Barrett, and without a backup point guard on the roster Barnes should get plenty of opportunity to run the show.
As it stands, they’re not planning on aggressively pursuing lottery balls, even though their first-round pick will go to the San Antonio Spurs unless it falls inside the top six – they’re currently tied with the Memphis Grizzlies for the sixth-worst record in the league, which would give them a 45.8 per cent chance of keeping the pick. But even with the best of intentions, this is not a roster that’s going to yield many wins. They’re 18-33 and have lost 12 of their last 15 games.
“We’re going to prioritize seeing this group play,” said Webster. “If it ends up that we’re in the top six, sure. But especially with the way the new NBA rules are, to try to game that doesn’t make a ton of sense. At the end of the day, it’s going to [come down to] the lottery balls. I think the big priority for us is playing that young group together, getting Gradey in there with that group, seeing how they fit together because that will give us a lot more information about how to build this team and what moves to make this summer.”
The organization has a lot of work to do, first in developing the players they have and then in surrounding them with the right pieces. It’s not always going to be pretty, such is life for teams in the early stages of a rebuild. But, for the first time in a while, the Raptors know where they’re heading and are starting to take steps in that direction.
“This is probably a multi-year process,” Webster said. “And so I think from the point of view of building around Scottie you want young players in his age group that [fit] culturally, socially, energy-wise. You want to put [the right] skill sets around him, so it’ll be interesting to see Kelly’s skill set; I don’t know if he’s had a player like Kelly to play with. And then you want guys that want to be here, want to run. I think Ochai’s energy will invigorate Scottie. So, you’re trying to hit on all those points – age, culture, social, skill set – and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”