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Clock is ticking on Raptors’ evaluation period

Pascal Siakam Toronto Raptors Pascal Siakam - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – At this time 10 years ago, Masai Ujiri had already seen enough.

He was taking a wait-and-see approach early in his first season at the helm of the Raptors when an early December breaking point forced his hand. After hovering around the .500 mark to open that iconic 2013-14 campaign, a five-game losing streak dropped their record to 6-12.

They weren’t good enough to be good or bad enough to be meaningfully bad, an unenviable space to occupy in the NBA. The core group of Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry wasn’t lacking for talent; it just didn’t fit.

So, on Dec. 8, 2013, Ujiri made a franchise-altering trade that sent Gay to Sacramento in exchange for four complementary players. As we approach the 10th anniversary of the deal that inadvertently sparked the greatest era in team history, it’s not hard to identify the parallels between those Raptors and these Raptors.

Once again, Ujiri is at a crossroads with a club that seems firmly entrenched in the murky middle of the Eastern Conference. Heading into the year, the plan was to evaluate how this roster – led by Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby – would look in a new system and with a new head coach, but as the sample size grows that picture is becoming clearer.

The Raptors reached the quarter point of the season midway through Wednesday’s game, a 112-103 loss to Miami, and after dropping four of their last five contests, they’re looking like a team that has earned their mediocre 9-12 record. The vibes are better than they were a year ago and the ball is moving more under Darko Rajakovic, but that hasn’t equated to better offence or more wins, at least not yet.

Predictably, they haven’t shot the ball well, hitting just 33 per cent of their three-point attempts – the fourth-worst mark in the league. Their defence, which was supposed to be a strength, has fallen off considerably – they’re tied for 17th over the past 11 games after ranking inside the top-10 over the first 10 contests. After going 41-41 last year and losing their starting point guard over the summer, their pre-season win total was set at 36.5. Currently, they’re on pace for 35. In other words, they are who we thought they were.

“It doesn’t feel like anything is bad, it just feels like nothing is amazing,” was Siakam’s on-the-nose assessment of the first 20-plus games earlier this week.

“I don't think anybody has the immediate answer, this one big solution that's going to help solve all our problems,” Jakob Poeltl said on Thursday. “It's on us and it's on the coaches to figure out a way to get better because it feels like we're right there. We're just not winning enough games. It feels like we have the potential to win these games, but we're not, for some reason.”

The biggest reason – as Ujiri’s ongoing examination of this roster should reveal, if it hasn’t already – is fit, or a lack thereof. Toronto’s starting lineup of Siakam, Barnes, Anunoby, Poeltl and Dennis Schroder has been outscored in four of the past five games, all losses. Over the past nine games, it’s scored 101.8 points per 100 possessions – 3.4 points fewer than Portland’s league-worst offensive rating.

Replacing Poeltl with Gary Trent Jr. would give that unit some much-needed floor spacing but come at the expense of rebounding and rim protection. Subbing Trent in for Schroder would force them to operate without their primary ball handler, while thrusting Barnes into a role he’s not well suited for at this stage of his career. Solving one problem creates another, a function of a faulty roster construction.

At the centre of it all are the team’s two stars, Siakam and Barnes, who play the same position, occupy similar spots on the floor and share similar strengths and weaknesses. It’s not that they can’t co-exist, but when the complementary players don’t exactly complement the best players, it’s going to result in a clunky fit. Sound familiar?

What if the solution is the same one that changed the trajectory of the franchise a decade ago? Could a Siakam trade have the same effect as the Gay deal – balancing out the roster and allowing for Barnes and Anunoby to blossom, as DeRozan and Lowry once did?

It’s not inconceivable. DeRozan, now the vet on a struggling Bulls team that’s caught at a similar crossroads, has shared stories of that 2013-14 Raptors season with his young teammates in Chicago. His message is that, sometimes, the turning point isn’t as far away as it seems. It doesn’t always require a long and painful rebuild. In some cases, all it takes is a tweak or two to make everything else fall into place. And DeRozan would know. He lived it, and so did Ujiri.

But this is different. There was no emotional attachment to Gay, not for Ujiri or the franchise. He was acquired by a different general manager less than a year earlier. Ujiri inherited him and his bloated contract when he took over. That had to make it easier to move on, while also accepting a loss in the trade, which essentially amounted to a salary dump.

Ujiri drafted Siakam. He helped develop him into a star and had a front row seat for his remarkable ascension. They won a championship together. Moving Siakam and accepting the reality that they’re unlikely to get fair value back, given his status as a pending free agent, would be far tougher than the decision he made 10 years ago. What if it doesn’t produce the same result and you’ve traded one of the best and most important players in franchise history for pennies on the dollar? As an executive, something like that is hard to recover from, but is it any worse than potentially losing that player for nothing in free agency a few months later?

One way or another, something has to give. The Raptors still haven’t opened extension talks with Siakam, according to league sources, but the belief is that they also haven’t engaged other teams in trade talks involving the all-star forward since the summertime. That could certainly change over the next few weeks – mid-December is generally considered to be the unofficial start transaction season, as most players who signed contracts over the summer become trade eligible – or as we get closer to the Feb. 8 deadline.

Ujiri is an optimist by nature. He has generally given his players, coaches and teams the runway to determine their own fate, to sink or swim, and he’s always looking for a reason to believe they will figure it out, as opposed to finding reasons why they won’t. When that Lowry and DeRozan-led team began to thrive in the aftermath of the Gay trade, he called off the rebuild and kept that group together until it became clear they had hit a ceiling. When this current group showed some promise after Poeltl was acquired at last year’s deadline, he opted against any major roster shakeups during the off-season.

It’s why this evaluation process remains ongoing. Whenever you’re tempted to write off this Raptors club, they have a way of pulling you back in. Notably, some of their best wins of the season – the latest being a decisive victory over the Phoenix Suns last week – have come directly after their worst losses. Even within the span of one game, like Wednesday’s loss to Miami for instance, they often look like two different teams. That inconsistency and all those wild swings can make it tough to get a read on them. If you’re looking hard enough for reasons to believe, they’ll tease you with them.

But the clock is ticking on this iteration of the Raptors, and any leverage they have continues to shrink as their players get closer to unrestricted free agency. The ever-patient Ujiri doesn’t like to think in those terms, but that’s just the way it is. Time stops for nobody, and this team is running out of it.

“I think the next 20 games are going to show who we really are,” Schroder said earlier this week. “[We’re 21] games in and the next 20 games are going to be really important for the team, the organization.”

“It can’t keep going the way it’s going right now,” Poeltl said. “It’s not horrible, but it’s not up to our standards or what we expect from ourselves. I don’t think it’s necessarily wearing down on our mood, but it’s definitely a serious issue we’re addressing right now.”