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Siakam trade became inevitable and necessary, but it’s far from satisfying


TORONTO – It’s officially the end of an era.

Less than five years after knocking down the final bucket in the Raptors’ title-clinching Game 6 win, Pascal Siakam – the last remaining piece of that 2019 championship core – is finally outbound.

With the NBA trade deadline less than two weeks away, the all-star forward was sent to Indiana as part of a three-team deal on Wednesday, with veteran swingman Bruce Brown, forward Jordan Nwora, Pelicans guard Kira Lewis Jr. and three first-round picks headed back to Toronto in exchange.

It felt inevitable after a year’s worth of speculation intensified in recent days. It was necessary if the Raptors weren’t willing to give Siakam the max contract he was seeking – they couldn’t risk losing him for nothing. But it’s far from a satisfying conclusion to his iconic eight-year tenure.

At first glance, the return is a passable one under the circumstances. A proven rotation player and three first-round picks is more than several league insiders expected them to net for a pending free agent who, in the end, had more leverage in determining how this played out than they did.

Take a closer look, though. Brown was a key reserve for the NBA champion Nuggets last season and has turned into a valuable role player but, at 27, he doesn’t exactly project as a foundational piece. Nwora and Lewis were included in the deal to make the money work. They couldn’t crack the rotation with their previous teams and aren’t likely to in Toronto either.

As for the draft capital, not all picks are created equal. Two of the three should come in the back half of the first round in a weak 2024 draft, one belonging to Indiana (currently in the 17-19 range) and the other, likely via Oklahoma City, is currently slotted 27th overall. The third, the Pacers’ 2026 selection, is top-4 protected and will only be interesting if things don’t go as planned in Indiana.

Hardly fair value for a two-time all-star in the prime of his career, but that’s what happens when you wait too long to act. Your leverage shrinks and you’re forced to accept a harsh reality: the best trade available may not be the one you wanted to make.

This is the type of package – multiple picks and salary filler – that had been out there for Siakam or OG Anunoby dating back to last year’s deadline, offers the Raptors repeatedly turned down prioritizing young players with star upside on Scottie Barnes’ timeline over draft compensation. If there was any doubt about their intended direction, they answered it with last month’s Anunoby trade. The return: two experienced but growing players in their early 20s and only one second-round pick.

That the Raptors settled for three middling picks, without getting back any of Indiana’s prized prospects – rookie Jerace Walker or Canadian sophomores Bennedict Mathurin or Andrew Nembhard – and that they did it two weeks before the deadline feels like a concession. Like it or not, this was probably the best offer they were going to get.

In the end, it appears as though Siakam was on board with a future in Indiana, which was a prerequisite to get the deal over the line. Unless Siakam and his camp were willing to give those assurances to multiple teams, there wasn’t going to be a bidding war or a richer offer, from Indiana or anybody else.

Additionally, after The Athletic reported the framework of their advanced discussions with Indy on Tuesday, it’s conceivable that president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster felt some pressure to get a deal done sooner rather than later, lest this become an even bigger distraction.

“Pascal’s one of the ultimate professional athletes there is,” Heat guard Kyle Lowry said ahead of Miami’s game in Toronto on Wednesday, roughly three hours before his former Raptors teammate was traded. “I think he’s going to continue to do his job at a high level no matter what. I don’t have advice for him [about tuning out the trade rumours] but I know he’s going to go out there and play his game and control what he can control.”

To his credit, Siakam did just that right up until his last game in a Raptors uniform, which turned out to be Monday’s loss to Boston. Through all the trade rumours, a role change under new head coach Darko Rajakovic this season, and the uncertainty surrounding his future on an expiring contract, the 29-year-old remained a consummate professional on and off the court.

His part in bringing a championship to Toronto is enough to leave a legacy in this city for a very long time. In addition to his charitable work in the community, which is expected to continue beyond his tenure, his unlikely success story is one of the most remarkable we’ve ever seen, not just in the NBA but across professional sports.

Siakam came to Toronto as a relatively unknown 27th-overall pick out of Cameroon in 2016. He was raw and still figuring himself out as a player, having just picked up organized basketball six years prior. What he lacked in refined skill he made up for with an unrelenting motor. Eight years later, he leaves as a multi-time All-NBA player, a multi-time all-star and a top-five player in franchise history – a function of sheer will and hard work on his part.

“Pascal is just a pure basketball junkie,” Rajakovic said ahead of Wednesday night’s game. “He’s the first one to show up at the gym and the last one to leave. He was always coachable and professional since Day 1… I can only be thankful and grateful for all of his contributions to our team this season, but also I have to acknowledge that he spent [eight] years with this organization. He came here as an almost teenager and left quite a legacy behind him.”

It’s a shame that his Raptors career had to end this way, with the player feeling like he was being disrespected or treated unfairly on his way out, but that’s the nature of the business. Siakam will turn 30 before the end of the season and hasn’t shown that he can be the best player on a contending team, making it tough for the team to justify paying him north of $50 million annually over the next four years.

In Indiana he’ll join forces with emerging superstar Tyrese Haliburton to lead an exciting young Pacers team that’s at the top of the league in offence and should be an Eastern Conference contender for years to come. It was the fresh start he didn’t ask for but the one he probably needed.

For the Raptors, the path forward is less obvious.

What should they have done differently? It’s hard to answer that question without the benefit of hindsight. We don’t know what the offers looked like for Siakam when they opted not to move him over the summer, or at least year’s deadline, but it’s reasonable to assume they would have been at least marginally – if not considerably – better than what they got back less than six months before his free agency. Each time they made a decision not to make a decision, there was an opportunity cost. Maybe they could have squeezed a Mathurin or Nembhard-level prospect from the Pacers or somebody else over the off-season. Or, what if they had offered Siakam a contract extension over the summer, when he may have been more amenable to signing it? Could they have salvaged their relationship, hugged it out and moved forward together?

That’s all conjecture at this point. What matters now is that this is indisputably and undeniably Barnes’ team. One by one relics of the Raptors’ championship glory began to disappear. Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Norman Powell, Lowry, Nick Nurse, Fred VanVleet and most recently Anunoby and Siakam – between them, they each left in free agency, were fired or got traded, most of them for no or minimal return. All that remains from that 2019 team is Chris Boucher, who had his two-way contract converted just before the playoff run and didn’t appear in a Finals game. He’s now their longest-tenured player.

On an emotional Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena, the Barnes era got off to an encouraging start, with the shorthanded Raptors shocking Miami in a dominant wire-to-wire 121-97 win. It’s not unusual for a team to experience a post-trade bump; we saw it a few weeks ago when Immanual Quickley and RJ Barrett first arrived from New York.

It’s hard to imagine it sustaining, though. This wasn’t a good team with Siakam – they hit the halfway mark of the season on Wednesday with an underwhelming 16-25 record – and there’s little reason to believe they’ll be any better without him. They could be worse, much worse.

The silver lining is it should give them a better chance at keeping their own first-round pick in this upcoming draft, which they owe to San Antonio via last year’s highly questionable Jakob Poeltl trade. The pick is top-six protected and they currently own the seventh-worst record in the NBA. Giving up the seventh-overall pick would surely sting, but it’s not like waving the white flag halfway through the season and perhaps keeping the pick would feel a whole lot better. Firstly, they would still owe the Spurs a pick; if it’s not in the 2024 draft it defers to the following draft with the same protections, and so on.

But mostly, this is not a draft that the Raptors – or anybody around the league – were especially excited about, which is why they traded the pick to begin with. All of a sudden, they’re highly invested in it with up to three picks in the first round as well as Detroit’s second rounder, which should be the 31st overall selection.

It’s an unenviable situation but it’s one of their own making. Getting out of it will require the strong drafting and player development that helped turn Siakam into a star, that they used to be renowned for as an organization and that has fallen off recently.

Ujiri and the Raptors wanted to retool, not rebuild. But more and more, this is looking like the rebuild that they were hoping to avoid.