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Raptors face a tough road back to contention

Toronto Raptors RJ Barrett - The Canadian Press

The Toronto Raptors managed to stave off a steep decline after winning the NBA title in 2019. Even as star players left, they were still competitive.

That's getting harder and harder to maintain now.

The Raptors traded Pascal Siakam to high-scoring Indiana last week, and if their first three games without him are any indication, it's going to be a tough road ahead. Toronto lost by 16 to Chicago, by 26 to New York and then by eight to Memphis on Monday night.

“We’ll need some time to work and install and understand where guys need to be on the court and how to play off of each other," coach Darko Rajakovic said. "We need to watch film, we need to get better, we need to put the work in. This is just the start of the process.”

Rajakovic may have used the word “process” — but the way Toronto has run its franchise is in some ways the antithesis of what the Philadelphia 76ers did a little while back. When the Raptors won the NBA title in 2019, it wasn't because they'd taken advantage of a series of high draft picks. Toronto has only picked No. 1 once, when it took Andrea Bargnani in 2006.

The Raptors built their championship team with trades for Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. They kept Lowry and Ibaka from leaving via free agency, and they drafted Siakam late in the first round.

After beating Golden State for the title, Toronto immediately lost Leonard to free agency but still went 53-19 the following season. As recently as 2021-22, the Raptors were 48-34 despite losing Lowry to Miami before the season. They fell to .500 last season and ended up in the play-in round, and then Fred VanVleet left for Houston.

Toronto has avoided a full tear-down for a while, but with Siakam gone and the team currently in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, it's easy to acknowledge that the Raptors are to some degree rebuilding. They received three first-round picks for Siakam, and they also recently dealt OG Anunoby to New York and brought back Immanuel Quickley and Toronto native RJ Barrett in return.

The surging Los Angeles Clippers are up next for Toronto on Friday.

“We’re going to have three days without games and the opportunity to really practice and try to install the offense and defense as much as possible and try to get guys on the same page as much as possible in a short, short amount of time,” Rajakovic said. "I believe in the talent of this group. I believe in our players. We just need to be more intentional behind everything.”

The Raptors got some lottery luck in 2021 when they moved up to No. 4 and took Scottie Barnes. He went on to win Rookie of the Year honors. For an idea of how high Toronto is on Barnes, look to Rajakovic's recent tirade about the officiating after a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, when he declared that Barnes would be “the face of this league” at some point.

Now that Siakam has been dealt, the question is what other trades might shake up the East. A couple other teams — both currently in play-in position — have standouts who may be available. Chicago's Zach LaVine could have some suitors, although his contract (a max deal he received before last season) and health (a foot issue kept him out all of December) may stand in the way of a trade.

The Bulls are ninth in the East, one spot ahead of Atlanta. The Hawks will have some decisions to make about Dejounte Murray. His four-year extension doesn't even start until next season, but Atlanta isn't exactly flying high despite the scoring production of Murray and Trae Young.

The play-in round means 10th place in the conference is good enough to play on past game 82, but the teams fighting for those final spots might not be in great shape after the trade deadline.