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Quiet trade deadline feels like missed opportunity for Raptors

TORONTO – Relative to expectations, the Toronto Raptors were probably destined to underwhelm at this year’s trade deadline.
How could they not? For weeks, in the lead-up to one of the most anticipated days on the basketball calendar, all we heard was that they could be the ones to shift the balance of power in the league.
They had the means. They could’ve had the motive. Just about every NBA insider identified them as the team to watch. All eyes were on Toronto. In a market filled with aggressive buyers, they were the most interesting potential seller.
Don’t blame them for all the hype. They were happy to take the calls and listen to offers, but they always maintained that if they didn’t like what was out there or didn’t feel ready to pull the trigger on something big, they would hold off until the offseason.
Turns out they weren’t bluffing.
Most years and under different circumstances, what they did end up doing might have been considered a resounding success. Re-acquiring centre Jakob Poeltl from San Antonio in exchange for the sparingly used Khem Birch, a protected first-round pick and two second-round picks in the wee hours of Thursday morning meant addressing an obvious and long-time need without subtracting from the current rotation. If they make that trade a year ago, it’s a win.
However, as the 3:00 p.m. ET cut-off went by without the Raptors making any subsequent deals, there was a sense of confusion, disappointment and in some cases frustration from segments of the fan base.
President Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster tested the waters and weighed the pros and cons of moving on from the likes of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. – all popular names in the rumour mill this past month. But when push came to shove, they decided to keep that group together once more and save their big, franchise-altering decisions for another day.
Unlike last year at this time, or during the summer when they opted to stand pat. This didn’t feel like a vote of confidence in a core group that has fallen short of expectations this season. It was a half measure.
“The opportunity was not there for us [to make] a blockbuster trade,” Ujiri said, an hour or so after Thursday’s deadline.
“Just naturally, patience is our thing. I know people don’t like it as much sometimes. As a basketball person, you’re going to be frustrated with what happens on the court every day, that’s natural when you’re not winning and we’re not playing very well. But overall, patience is what we need a lot of times with this kind of young team and young players.”
Stuck at a crossroads in the middle of a substandard campaign, deadline day was supposed to be their chance to pick a lane and commit to it. They did choose a direction, even if it wasn’t the one that some people were hoping for. Instead of selling off pieces for picks or prospects, maximizing their odds in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes and rebuilding around sophomore Scottie Barnes, they made their intentions very clear. You don’t trade for a player like Poeltl or part with a lightly protected first-rounder in 2024 if you’re not planning to remain competitive.
The goal, it would seem, is to win. But if they’re not willing to take a strategic step back and they’re not satisfied occupying space in the murky middle – where they currently reside – how do they get back to get to where they want to be: contending for titles? The path there isn’t any clearer today than it was yesterday.
Poeltl should help. He’s a player they’re familiar with, having drafted him ninth overall in 2016. They never wanted to trade the seven-footer, reluctantly including him in the deal that landed them Kawhi Leonard, and they’ve tried to get him back on multiple occasions over the past couple of years. This reunion is a long time coming.
The 27-year-old Austrian plugs a hole at the centre position and gives head coach Nick Nurse and his club their first experienced and dependable rim protector and low-post presence since losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. He should make an immediate impact defensively, but the offensive fit with this roster is a bit more dubious as a non-shooter joining a team that already struggles to space the floor.
He’ll make them better, but for a club that has so thoroughly underperformed, coming out of the deadline with a record of 26-30 and in 10th place, is the marginal improvement worth giving up valuable draft capital?
In the short term, it’s going to be a challenge to salvage what’s left of this season. The schedule eases up a bit, Anunoby should be returning from his wrist injury, and they’re just 4.5 games back of the Miami Heat for sixth place. So, it can be done, especially if Poeltl can give them a lift. Still, their issues go beyond a lack of size in the middle. On Thursday, Ujiri made multiple references to, in his view, stretches of “selfish” play. This is a flawed roster, to be sure.
Long-term, the addition of Poeltl complicates things further. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and like VanVleet and Trent, who are expected to opt out of their contracts after this season, he’ll be in line for a big raise. Keeping all three while ducking the luxury tax would require them to unload salary elsewhere.
Admittedly, Ujiri prefers to make significant roster changes during the offseason when he’s not on the clock and there are more dancing partners. He’s confident the deals that were available to him at the deadline will still be there before the draft in June or after free agency opens in July, and they might be.
The downside of a more active market is giving up the leverage they would’ve had this week. Without knowing what was out there or how much the Raptors turned down, it’s impossible to quantify the opportunity cost of their quiet deadline, but there is a sense that they may have missed out on a unique chance to take advantage of a seller’s market.
“I believe in these guys,” Ujiri said. “We believe in them. We think growth sometimes takes a while. There’s a level of impatience now with how we think about things and do things. Hopefully, we can have a little bit of patience. Everything we could have done today maybe we could do in the summer.”
The Raptors’ front office is nothing if not patient, but patience isn’t always a virtue. Maintaining flexibility and biding their time has worked for them in the past, but failing to act comes with its inherent risks.
So, they buy themselves a little more time to evaluate this group. Maybe getting a chance to see how it looks playing alongside a true centre helps inform their decision. Now we’ll have to wait a few more months, but one way or another, those tough decisions are coming.
“I think we’ll be very, very ready to attack anything that comes in front of us,” said Ujiri. “We have good young talented players. Does it all fit together? We’re hoping. Does it amount to wins? We’re hoping. But if it doesn’t, I think we’re in a great position to re-energize this team, whether it’s a retool or rebuild or any way you look at it.”