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Poeltl and Raptors aligned on path forward, but for how long?

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TORONTO – When Jakob Poeltl makes his return to the Raptors’ lineup, which should come at some point on their upcoming six-game road trip, he’ll have a very different-looking team around him.

The veteran centre sprained his ankle in a win over Golden State earlier this month after landing awkwardly on the foot of his now former teammate Pascal Siakam.

At the time, the Raptors seemed like a young, retooling team on the rise, having won three of four games following the arrival of Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett. In nearly three weeks since, Poeltl has watched them lose seven of eight contests and trade away his close friend.

“It was tough because I think he was the guy that I was closest to on this team,” said Poeltl, who came into the league with Siakam in 2016, vacationed with him during multiple all-star breaks, and became tight with him and his family over two separate stints together in Toronto.

“I guess I was mentally prepared for it a little bit already just because there were so many rumours, so I knew it was a possibility. It didn’t hit me out of nowhere, I guess, so that made the process a little bit easier, but it’s still really sad for me to basically lose my best friend on the team.”

After being reacquired from San Antonio ahead of last year’s trade deadline – a deal that was polarizing at the time and hasn’t aged well – Poeltl opted to re-sign with the Raptors over the summer. The 2022-23 team had fallen short of expectations but showed enough over a 15-11 post-deadline run to convince president Masai Ujiri that the core deserved a longer look, and so the plan was to run it back.

Instead, Fred VanVleet left in free agency, and now, midway through the campaign, OG Anunoby and Siakam have been traded, with the latter netting Toronto draft capital and future flexibility.

If there’s any doubt what the organization is prioritizing over the second half of the season, and beyond, consider the final moments of Monday’s loss to Memphis. The Raptors had cut a 19-point deficit to single digits with a few minutes left when head coach Darko Rajakovic subbed 20-year-old rookie Gradey Dick in for Gary Trent Jr., a pending free agent, whose future in Toronto seems tenuous at best. Dick, who’s seen an increase in playing time following the Siakam trade, closed the game with 22-year-old Scottie Barnes, 23-year-old Barrett and 24-year-old Quickley, a pretty clear and concerted effort to get him some higher leverage reps alongside the franchise’s other foundational pieces.

Does the sudden shift in team direction change the way Poeltl feels about the decision he made last summer or his future in Toronto?

“The only thing that was important to me is that I was on a team that could play competitive basketball,” the 28-year-old centre said. “As long as it’s not a team that was really actively trying to tank, I guess, was the thing for me. Like, I want to play on a team that’s trying to win every night. So, for me, even though we had some changes and we lost some really good players I think we’re still on a course where we’re trying to build around this team right now and we’re not hunting for a No. 1 draft pick, you know what I mean? So as long as that’s the case I think I’m going to be happy here and I’m hoping to contribute to this new Raptors team, this new project that we’re starting.”

Call it what you want, but this new project, or rebuild as it’s commonly known, could take several different shapes as it unfolds. This isn’t a tank, not in the traditional sense of the word, not yet anyway. At least for now, the goal is to nurture the young guys in a competitive environment and with veteran players around to help expedite their development.

However, competing at a high level while also prioritizing internal growth is tough to balance, even at the best of times but especially with a young team that just traded away two of its best and most experienced players. If and when they’re forced to veer one way or the other, there’s little question where they’ll lean.

“The main vision is developing a young core, how this organization is going to look in the future and establishing a foundation for the future of this team,” Rajakovic said on Thursday. “Now, every single day we’re preparing to go out there and compete and do our best against any opponent that’s on the other side, and I think that kind of mentality is a healthy one… [But] getting young players and our core players opportunities to succeed and fail, that’s the only way we can continue to grow.”

This is a team in transition, and even after a couple of big franchise-altering moves, Ujiri has made it clear that they’re not done dealing ahead of the Feb. 8 trade deadline. Multiple league sources have confirmed the obvious, the Raptors appear to be open for business, and outside of Barnes and the two former Knicks, everything and everyone is on the table. If they can turn any of their vets – Trent, Dennis Schroder, Chris Boucher, the newly acquired Bruce Brown or perhaps even Poeltl – into picks or prospects that would help push the rebuild forward, it’s hard to see them passing that up.

To their own admission, the Raptors took their foot off the gas – or tanked – at the end of that ill-fated 2020-21 season in Tampa, when they rested their veteran players to improve their lottery odds, eventually landing them a franchise cornerstone in Barnes.

If things continue to go south late in the season, it’s not inconceivable to see them make a similar decision with any of the vets that remain on the roster past the deadline. The notable difference this time around is that Toronto owes its first-round pick to San Antonio, protected one through six, via the Poeltl deal.

In a vacuum, trading a lightly protected first-rounder for a good starting centre isn’t bad business. Had Ujiri made the same deal 12 months earlier – when the team was in the midst of a 48-win season, needed a big, and gave up a first for Thaddeus Young at the deadline – it may have been considered one of his best moves ever. Instead, it’ll go down as one of his worst. It made little sense at the time, with the club’s disappointing record, clunky fit and upcoming financial commitments (Poeltl included). It makes even less sense now that they’ve pivoted directions and could use that pick, even in what’s being deemed as a weak 2024 draft.

“I’m not going to sit here and cry over spilt milk or give you guys any excuses,” Ujiri said, when asked if he had any regrets over the Poeltl deal last week. “If it was a mistake, it was a mistake. But going forward, for me, that’s good value for us, whether it’s now or sustainable in the future.”

Theoretically, a top-six protection on the pick could make a late-season tank more appealing; with each defeat the odds of keeping it go up. Monday’s loss to Memphis – the team just below them in the standings – dropped the Raptors to 16-28 on the season, the sixth-worst record in the NBA, which would keep them a 45.8 per cent chance of keeping the pick.

While the league’s bottom-four teams – Detroit (5-39), Washington (7-36), San Antonio (8-36) and Charlotte (10-32) – would be tough to catch, their chances of keeping the pick go up to 63.9 per cent if they fall below Portland, who have a three-game cushion for the fifth-worst record. They would only have a 32 per cent shot at keeping their pick if they finished with the seventh-worst record, and there are currently four teams – Toronto, Memphis, Brooklyn and Atlanta – within two games of that spot.

Then, in addition to all of the usual ethical and logistical concerns associated with tanking, there’s the question of whether retaining a pick in this year’s draft is even worth it. If it doesn’t convey in 2024 it defers to 2025 with the same protections, and then to 2026 before becoming two second-rounders. Given that they’re likely to be in the lottery for the foreseeable future, losing their first-rounder in a bad 2024 draft might be a preferable outcome to losing one down the line, even if it ends up being, say, the seventh or eighth-overall selection. Maybe they’re better off looking at it as a sunk cost and letting the chips fall where they may.

Problem is that even with the best of intentions, wins could be hard to come by. Poeltl’s return will help – they’re 1-7 without their starting centre – but he still hasn’t been cleared for contact and will need to get his conditioning back after missing three weeks. Now, Quickley is also expected to miss some time with a thigh contusion that will sideline him for Friday’s game against the Clippers.

After hosting the Clippers, one of the hottest teams in the NBA, they’ll head out on another six-game road trip leading up to next month’s trade deadline, when an already young rotation could get even younger.

Poeltl wants to be part of a developing team as long as they’re still competitive and the Raptors want to be competitive as long as they’re still developing. For now, their paths align. For now, but perhaps not for long.