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Pacers making Siakam feel wanted after unfortunate end to Raptors tenure


TORONTO – The grass isn’t always greener, but every so often it is.
It’s something that has crossed Pascal Siakam’s mind on more than a few occasions recently, as he’s made the adjustment to a new city, new team and new organization for the first time in his eight-year NBA career.
The former Toronto Raptors forward didn’t ask to be traded from the place he grew up in the league, blossomed into a star and won a championship. He never imagined himself wearing another jersey until it became an inevitability. But, once it happened, it didn’t take long for him to turn the page.
Making his first return to Toronto, less than a month after he was dealt to Indiana, there was something different about him, in addition to the Pacers logo across his chest. Siakam was happy. Not the ‘going through the motions while trying to find joy in the game that he loves’ type of happiness that he had become accustomed to, but genuine excitement. It had been a while.
“It feels amazing,” Siakam said ahead of Wednesday’s game, his first as an opponent at Scotiabank Arena and a 127-125 win over his former team. “[From the moment I got to Indiana] it’s just been so much love, so much appreciation and just like overly supportive in everything. It feels good to be in a place like that.”
“I’m just looking forward to continuing to be there and just have an opportunity to do something special with that team.”
Long before the Pacers rolled out the red carpet and welcomed Siakam with open arms, they made sure he knew how much he was wanted – it’s one of the reasons why he and his representatives expressed a willingness to re-sign with them this coming summer, essentially a prerequisite in pushing the trade forward.  
The early returns have been mixed – the team is just 7-8 with Siakam in the lineup – but it’s not hard to see what excited them about pairing the two-time All-Star with one of the league’s most dynamic young players in Tyrese Haliburton.
After losing more than half of his games with Toronto over the past two seasons, Siakam finds himself back in a playoff race, playing for a team that currently sits sixth in the East and is well positioned to compete atop the conference for years to come. That they didn’t have to part with any of their blue chip prospects to get him doesn’t hurt their long-term outlook, either.
They’re not a bad benchmark for a Raptors club that officially kick-started their rebuild with the Siakam trade. The Pacers are just a couple years removed from a 25-win season, but with some clever asset management – trading from an area of strength (by sending forward Domantas Sabonis to the Sacramento Kings) to address an area of weakness (Haliburton) – and strong drafting, they were in a position to add a star and expedite the growing process.
If the Raptors can hit on their picks and continue to develop their young players, particularly first-year All-Star Scottie Barnes, the hope is they’re only a year or two away from being in a similar spot. The path to get there isn’t a linear one, though, and it’s not always pretty, as we’ve seen. Toronto has lost 11 of 14 games since the trade, six of them by 20 or more points.

Despite making significant progress in his third year, Barnes is experiencing some of the growing pains you would expect from a 22-year-old that’s been thrust into the lead role for the first time in his young career.
“As a young man coming in, it’s going to be a lot of ups and downs,” said Siakam, who reached out to Barnes since the trade to offer some advice on what it means to be the face of the franchise. “I think that he’s just got to be able to take those waves and as he continues to learn from it, he’s going to grow. He’s going to get better at it, and as long as his head is in the right place, I think he’s going to be fine.”
Siakam would know, having gone through many of the challenges that Barnes now faces as a young leader who, at times, might be in over his head. It’s not a one-for-one comparison, though. Siakam came in as a late first-round pick, not the fourth-overall selection. His rise was unlikely and unexpected. He wasn’t predestined for greatness; he had to chase it.
His journey from unheralded 27th-overall pick out of Cameroon to Bench Mob energizer bunny to Most Improved Player and second-leading scorer on a title-winning team to All-Star and maximum salary earner remains an all-time ascension. It’s a testament to his relentless work ethic and sheer will to get the most out of his unique skill set.
It’s also what made the circumstances surrounding the end of his Raptors tenure feel unfortunate, and in a way, largely unnecessary. In short, it centred on a disagreement over perceived value. Siakam, a pending free agent, was seeking the largest contract available to him, in salary and in term. The team was reluctant to pay it in full. Both were justified in their thinking, which complicated matters further.
As a multi-time All-Star and All-NBA player who logs a ton of minutes, rarely misses games and doesn’t make waves, Siakam’s view of it was that he’s proven his worth. The Raptors saw a player that, for all of his success, hadn’t shown that he could be the No. 1 option on a contending team and one that would be entering his mid-30s by the end of his next contract.
As a result, Siakam became the focal point of trade speculation. Toronto started listening to offers for their best player ahead of last year’s trade deadline. By the summer, they were actively making calls. What was once a strong and harmonious relationship between player and team began to splinter.
With the team coming off a disappointing 2022-23 season, team president Masai Ujiri cut off almost all contact with Siakam this past summer – something that he acknowledged in his post-trade press conference and said he has since apologized for. Siakam found out he was on the block, not from Ujiri or the Raptors, but from teams who were trying to acquire him and had reached out to his agency to gauge his interest in playing for them.

All the while, Siakam opted against joining the club in Las Vegas, where most of his teammates were training, which didn’t sit well with the organization.
A few years prior, Ujiri had taken heat for the way in which he traded DeMar DeRozan, another long-time Raptor who had hoped to remain in Toronto. DeRozan believed he was made to feel like it was business as usual and was blindsided by the deal that sent him to San Antonio during the summer of 2018. Perhaps this was an over-correction on Ujiri’s part.

Certainly, Siakam knew it wasn’t business as usual. He wasn’t caught off guard when the rumours that had been swirling for almost 12 months finally turned into something more substantial leading up to this year’s trade deadline. But he did come out of it feeling a bit mistreated and deprioritized. If you noticed that nobody from the Raptors front office was mentioned or thanked in Siakam’s farewell to Toronto in The Players’ Tribune and was wondering if it was a coincidence, it wasn’t.
For what it’s worth, the Raptors did offer him an extension when he first became eligible prior to the 2022-23 season, but given that he was coming off an All-NBA campaign, turning it down was entirely reasonable, if not expected at the time. One source indicated that they reached out to gauge his interest on a three-year extension at his max just before the start of this season, though it’s unclear how serious they were; it was an informal offer, at best.

In any case, Siakam’s camp was pushing for a fourth year, and there was no real discussion between the two parties after that.
“I don’t look back, to be honest,” Siakam said. “I’ve expressed it a thousand times, this was home for me. I’ve always wanted to be here and be a part of this, but at the end of the day I also understand what it is. I grew up here as a kid. I came in as a young guy. I was just so excited, everything was great and amazing. And obviously Masai’s always been a mentor, someone that I look to. But at a certain point it’s like, I’m growing, I’m a man at the end of the day… I understand the business. I’ve been around so I’ve seen things happen. Just moving on from it. I’m in a situation where it feels amazing and at this point I’ve kinda moved on from it.”
To say that Siakam was unwanted in Toronto would be a misinterpretation of what happened, but in the end, he was taken for granted.
There was another path that the team explored over the summer. According to a source with knowledge of the negotiation, the Raptors believed they were close to acquiring Damian Lillard from Portland. The framework was in place, a package centred on significant draft capitol that would have allowed the Raptors to add the star point guard to a core that still would’ve included Siakam, Barnes and OG Anunoby.
The sticking point, confirmed by multiple league sources, was that Lillard didn’t want to play in Toronto and that was a deal breaker for the Trail Blazers. They weren’t going to send him to his preferred destination, Miami, but they were still insistent on doing right by one of the franchise’s greatest players. He ultimately approved of the deal that paired him with Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, and the Raptors came out of it with an even greater emphasis on moving forward with players who wanted to be in Toronto.
That was a motivating factor in their recent acquisitions of Canadians RJ Barrett and Kelly Olynyk, as well as Ochai Agbaji, who’s father is an old friend of Ujiri's. It makes sense, especially for the NBA’s only franchise based out of the United States, one that has had its difficulty recruiting and keeping star players over its nearly three-decade history.
It just so happened that they already had a guy that wanted to be in Toronto – an All-Star in his prime who embraced the market more than anybody before him, outside of maybe DeRozan. And as tough as it was for Ujiri to move DeRozan, you could justify it as the cost of acquiring a superstar in Kawhi Leonard and chasing a championship. It’s harder to get excited about the underwhelming return for Siakam: Bruce Brown, Jordan Nwora, Kira Lewis Jr. and three middling first-round picks, one of which was flipped for Olynyk and Agbaji at the deadline.
“From the first day that I got here, it was like, I’m going to give everything,” Siakam said. “I wanted to make sure that Canada was that place where we get that recognition. I was part of it. I felt like it was my duty as a player here, as someone that’s from here to make sure that when we come on TV we’re respected. That’s something that I’ve always played for.”
It didn’t have to end this way. It didn’t have to end at all.
There was a sense that Siakam and Barnes wouldn’t work as a long-term pairing, either because of fit or a seven-year age gap. It’s true, their primes wouldn’t have overlapped, but that doesn’t seem to be bothering anybody about his fit with Haliburton, who’s only a year older than Barnes.

It’s also true that Siakam and Barnes play the same position, occupy similar spots on the floor, and share similar strengths and weaknesses as players. But, through stretches, they showed that they could play off of each other. It’s not that they couldn’t coexist, or that they wouldn’t. In two and a half years together, they never had the right pieces around them - the type of players Siakam gets to team up with now in Indiana.
Would it have worked if they had gotten the opportunity to play with a floor-spacing centre like Myles Turner, who was available for at least a couple years before the Pacers moved Sabonis instead? What if they were surrounded by the shooting or depth that Indiana has on its roster? We’ll never know, but we will get to see what Siakam can do with those complementary pieces.
So far, it’s suited him quite well. Coming into Wednesday, Siakam was averaging 21.3 points in 14 games with his new team. He’s doing it in just 33 minutes per contest (his lowest mark since the 2018-19 championship season), a function of playing on a deep club. He’s also shooting a career-best 58 per cent from the field and 42 per cent from three-point range, a function of playing in a system with optimal floor spacing and an elite point guard.
Siakam was feeling the love in his Valentine’s Day return to Toronto. The building was full in time for the anthems, a rarity these days, as the crowd cheered each time he was shown on the big screen. The ovation he received following a video montage during lineup introductions was rivalled only by DeRozan and Kyle Lowry’s first games back in Toronto. It was a special and well-deserved moment for Siakam, who tapped his heart as he thanked the fans in attendance, many of whom were wearing his jersey – a callback to his Players’ Tribune piece.
The emotions of the day may have gotten to him early on. But after being held to eight points in the first half, he scored 15 over the final 24 minutes, including seven points in about 70 seconds early in the third quarter and the dagger, a mid-range banker with 25 seconds left to put the game away. Raptors fans have seen it before.
“I tried to stay focused on the game as much as I could, but it [was] just hard, just coming in here and seeing so many familiar faces and reflecting on everything,” Siakam said afterwards. “Coming back here after eight years, just to see the reception and people being so genuinely happy for me, I think for me that was the most important thing… I couldn’t really ever dream of that. It means a lot, so I appreciate everyone for everything. I’m humbled.”
Having acquired his Bird Rights in the deal, the expectation is that the Pacers will give him his max contract over the summer. It might take some time for Indiana to start feeling like home. He’s spent his first month living out of a hotel and doesn’t have his family with him yet – his brother and closest confidant Christian will finish out the season with the Raptors’ G League affiliate, with whom he’s an assistant coach.

Good thing he’s relatively low maintenance for an NBA player of his calibre. As one of his former teammates recently put it, “whether it’s Toronto, Indiana, L.A., New York, whatever, he’s not leaving his house much.”
It’s the fresh start that he didn’t know he needed, but now that it’s here, Siakam is embracing it.
“I’m excited to have the opportunity, to be honest,” he said. “I’m a guy that likes to be comfortable but I think change is good, too.”