Anunoby trade signals Raptors’ intent to retool, not rebuild
TORONTO – Masai Ujiri and the Raptors have long been reluctant to move on from O.G. Anunoby, their home grown two-way star.
He was just coming off a promising rookie season in the summer of 2018 when the San Antonio Spurs insisted he be included in the famed deal that sent Kawhi Leonard to Toronto and ultimately delivered a championship, but Ujiri refused.
Teams that called leading up to last year’s trade deadline or over the summer – and there were a lot of them, as Anunoby became one of the league’s most sought after players – were rebuffed. Despite countless rumours that suggested otherwise, the Raptors never seriously considered parting with the all-NBA defender, not until recently, anyway.
But something had to give. With the club off to a disappointing 12-19 start to the season and trending in the wrong direction under new head coach Darko Rajakovic – having lost 11 of 15 games – change seemed inevitable, in some form or another.
The Feb. 8 trade deadline is fast approaching and we’re just six months out from the start of free agency, where Anunoby is poised to join his now former teammate Pascal Siakam as two of the biggest names on the open market. Eventually, tough decisions had to be made, and finally, one of them finally was.
On Saturday, the Raptors sent Anunoby to the New York Knicks along with Precious Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn in exchange for Canadian swingman RJ Barrett, emerging guard Immanuel Quickley and a 2024 second-round pick.
Framework of the deal began to take shape in the middle of the month, per a source, with talks between the two teams intensifying following last week’s annual G League showcase in Orlando. The Knicks had coveted Anunoby for years, believing his elite two-way skill set would be an ideal fit next to Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle.
Past offers from New York, as well as other interested teams, dating back to last season centred on draft compensation – multiple first-round picks and salary filler. Those types of deals didn’t pique the interest of Ujiri and Toronto general manager Bobby Webster, who have been steadfast in their desire to remain competitive and build around ascending franchise cornerstone Scottie Barnes.
That they wound up opting for a package light on draft compensation – just a single second-round pick, via the Detroit Pistons – but featuring two experienced players who address a need and fit Barnes’ timeline only reaffirms their intent to retool, rather than rebuild.
They’ve had eyes for Barrett since well before the Knicks made him the third-overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft. Born in Toronto and raised in nearby Mississauga, his homecoming will be met with plenty of fanfare, especially after he helped lead the national team to a World Cup bronze medal over the summer, and its first Olympic berth since the year he was born and his father Rowan – now the program’s general manager – played for the club. He’ll be the eighth Canadian to play for the Raptors and he’ll have the chance to become their first ever Canadian star.
The on-court fit is a bit murkier at the moment. His efficiency has come into question (he’s a 34 per cent career three-point shooter), as has his contribution to winning (the Knicks have had a better net rating with him off the court in four of his five seasons, including this year). He’s used to having the ball in hands (his usage rate is higher than any Raptors player this season), which may not jive with Barnes and Siakam. However, there’s no denying that he can score the ball, averaging 18.2 points in 26 games with New York this season, and that’s something his new team could use. He’s not a finished product, but at 23, he doesn’t have to be.
But, for the Raptors, the sticking point was Quickley – a 24-year-old combo guard, who has shown flashes of stardom in a limited role, primarily off the bench, over his first four seasons in the NBA. In 30 games this year, all of them as a reserve, he’s averaging a career-best 15.0 points in just 24.0 minutes while shooting a hair under 40 per cent from three-point range. Take his career numbers and expand them over a per 36-minute basis and you get 19.3 points (22.5 this season), 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists. He’s the type of dynamic guard they’ve been looking to pair with Barnes, and with an expanded role, they believe he’s on the cusp of taking a leap.
“Immanuel is a young, talented playmaker who we believe will provide a spark on both ends of the court,” Ujiri said in a team-issued press release Saturday afternoon. “RJ is a versatile wing who is, of course, well-known in his hometown, and seeing him in a Raptors uniform will be a special moment for our fans and for all Canadians.”
“It’s never easy to say goodbye, especially when players like OG and Malachi have spent their careers with our team. We wish Precious, Malachi and OG all the best.”
Achiuwa and Flynn, both first-round picks in 2020, never quite found their footing with the Raptors and may benefit from a change in scenery.
Achiuwa, 24, has battled injury and inconsistency since he was acquired from Miami in the Kyle Lowry sign and trade during the summer of 2021, while Flynn, 25, spent his first three seasons trying to play his way out of former head coach Nick Nurse’s doghouse. After getting an opportunity to play regularly under Rajakovic this season, and failing to take advantage, they both fell out of the rotation following the team’s recent lineup change. Assuming the Knicks extend them qualifying offers, they’ll be restricted free agents after the season and, clearly, they weren’t part of Toronto’s long-term plans.
Barrett is the only player in the deal who is under guaranteed contract past this season – he’s owed more than $80 million through 2026-27. Another member of that 2020 draft class – he was selected 25th, between Achiuwa (20th) and Flynn (29th) – Quickley is also headed to restricted free agency. He won’t come cheap – he was reportedly looking for an extension worth north of $25 million a year before talks with New York fell through before the season – but early indication is the Raptors are committed to retaining him.
Technically, the draft selection coming back to Toronto isn’t a first-rounder, but it won’t be far off. Being that it belongs to the league-worst Pistons, it will almost certainly be slotted at the top of the second round. The Raptors owe their 2024 first-round pick to San Antonio (top-six protected) via last year’s Jakob Poeltl trade and they don’t own their second-rounder, so this gets them into the draft.
None of that would have made it easier for Ujiri to part with Anunoby, a player that fell to him with the 23rd pick in the 2017 draft and somebody he watched develop into an elite defender and one of best two-way players in the NBA. Ultimately, it came down to whether the Raptors thought they could re-sign him, and just as importantly, whether they felt he was worth what it would cost to do so – which could be in the neighbourhood of $40 million annually. Anunoby is famously hard to read, but if they felt the answer to either of those questions was no, then like it or not, moving him was the right call, lest they risk losing him for nothing.
The timing of the deal is interesting, being that there’s nearly six weeks to go before the trade deadline. The fact that they opted against waiting to see if a better offer would materialize closer to Feb. 8 could indicate a number of things. Firstly, it tells us that this was the deal, and that Quickley in particular was the player, they were targeting. Once New York was willing to include him they moved… swiftly – the pun felt too easy.
It could also mean they’re not done. Most pundits and several folks around the league are assuming that Siakam will be next. It stands to reason, given that the all-star forward was believed to be Toronto’s most likely trade candidate in the first place. After moving the 26-year-old Anunoby to get even younger around Barnes, 22, what does that mean for Siakam, who turns 30 before the end of the season?
Toronto is expected to continue listening to offers for its leading scorer, but according to multiple sources with knowledge of the organization’s inner workings, nothing is imminent and the team remains open minded. In other words, don’t eulogize Siakam’s remarkable Raptors tenure just yet.
Remember when everybody was positive that Lowry would follow Rudy Gay out the door 10 years ago? Well, he nearly did, but after a proposed deal with, coincidently, the Knicks fell through and that 2013-14 team began to gel, Ujiri called an audible and decided to keep them together. This front office has shown that it’s willing to let things breath, see how the new players mesh with the old players, and act accordingly. The early-December trade gives them the time to do the same here, if they choose.
As the Raptors decide whether to move forward with Siakam – he’s extension eligible until the end of June – or move on from him, there are still high-ranking people in the organization who believe in his long-term fit with Barnes. That they’ve played well off of each other recently has only strengthened that belief. The problem? Evaluating the viability of that duo has been difficult, considering the complementary pieces don’t actually complement them. How those two look alongside the incoming players, Barrett and Quickley, over the coming weeks will go a long way in determining what happens next.
We can be sure of one thing, if we weren’t already. Ujiri and the Raptors are not interested in taking a strategic step back. They’re looking to move forward. The question, as it’s always been, is how they go about doing that.