Commentary: The Raptors are still competitors

The Toronto Raptors are still competitors despite trading Norman Powell. (Submitted: Toronto Raptors)

With the National Basketball Association trade deadline passing on March 25, there were several rumours swirling about the Toronto Raptors. The 11th seeded team, who were champions just two years ago and six points away from a consecutive conference finals appearance last year, have had an incredibly disappointing season thus far.

The Aaron Baynes experiment hasn’t quite worked and every game being an away game, their current “home” being in Tampa Bay, Florida because they were unable to consistently go in and out of Canada, has surely had its effect.

Going into the trade deadline, Norman Powell and 35-year-old Kyle Lowry, the heart and soul of the organization, were those on the trade block. Powell was ultimately dealt to the Portland Trail Blazers for Rodney Hood and a promising, young player in Gary Trent Jr. – surely saving them future money problems with Powell’s stock climbing drastically this season.

The Raptors continued to make moves. Sharpshooter Matt Thomas was shipped to Utah for a second-round pick while Terrence Davis, after putting up a promising rookie season, was sent to Sacramento for another second-rounder. With an extra roster spot available, it seemed like some leeway for Raptors team president Masai Ujiri to negotiate his last deal of the season – trading Lowry.

But it didn’t happen. Ujiri refused to be a victim of the craft he’s mastered – lowballing.

So the question is, what’s the endgame for the Raptors?

The rest of the 2020-21 season

Say what you will about this year’s Raptors squad but they’re still in the playoff hunt. With the league’s newly adopted playoff format, the top 10 teams in each conference have a shot of making the playoffs, with the seven to 10 seeded teams competing in a play-in tournament. Toronto trails the 10 seed Chicago Bulls by just a game and a half and the eight seeded Boston Celtics by three with 28 games left. Should Toronto snag the 10 or nine seed, they would have to win two consecutive games in the play-in to make the postseason.

That’s feasible.

With the decision to keep Lowry, an aging point guard whose time left in this league is unclear yet is still performing at the top as a guard in the game – averaging 17.4 points per game, 7.5 assists and 5.6 boards on an average of 35 minutes – it seemed like the perfect time to move him. It looks as if the Raptors still have playoff hopes and Lowry is familiar with high-pressure situations. He’s been on both sides of the stick when it comes down to it and knows how to push through it.

The additions of Trent and Hood give the Raptors much-needed depth. Depth has never been an issue for the Raptors in the past but after some of the bad luck they’ve had with injuries and COVID-19, some reinforcements should give them some comfort. 

Sure, Powell was one of their top performing players, putting up a smooth 19.6 points per game on 50 per cent from the field. But the team’s current core is fully capable of filling in that hole. Look at what happened when Kawhi Leonard left. Toronto finished with a winning percentage of 0.736 per cent, the best in franchise history. With an extra roster spot, expect some heavier minutes from the likes of Chris Boucher, Paul Waston and rookie Malachi Flynn.

Whether this team makes the postseason, another title run isn’t realistic. Should they make the playoffs, they’ll have to get past some of the top dogs in the eastern conference’s quarterfinal in Philadelphia, Brooklyn or Milwaukee.

But it leaves many options for the offseason.

The off-season

This off-season is set to be one of the most exciting yet unclear in Raptors’ history.

It looks as if Ujiri has his established core in Fred VanVleet, 27, Pascal Siakam, 26 and OG Annunoby, 23, who are all locked up through at least 2024. All three were part of the 2019 championship team, all playing vital roles throughout that season. Boucher has improved a lot this season, averaging 13.7 points and 6.4 rebounds with only 23.7 minutes.

But can this core compete for a title in 2022? And is Lowry part of the possibility?

No and no – unless Lowry wants to stay in Toronto bad enough to sign a cheap, generous deal.

Siakam has proven he’s an all-star calibre player but hasn’t proven to be an established number one option. This team is like the DeMar DeRozan era Raptors – they need one more piece to put them at a championship level.

If Lowry is moved in the offseason, Toronto will have the space for a max contract, giving them the potential to sign that missing piece. Or, some above-average role players. Like they had in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol during the past few years.

This season has given Raptor fans flashbacks of the late 2000s and early 2010s, with their poor performance. But there is nothing to worry about. Toronto won’t be back near the bottom of the standings anytime soon. The Raptors will be just fine.