With the Raptors mired in another losing streak and sitting 11 games under .500, now a nearly insurmountable 6.5 games out a playoff spot, much of the talk among fans and observers is about what the Raptors have to do to improve, specifically in the short term.
Much of the talk is about what moves have to be made. But if you ask me, the real concern for a team at a delicate stage of a rebuilding process should be more about what moves have to be avoided.
Three moves that should be made are as follows – 1. Try to find a deal for Andrea Bargnani that doesn’t financially hamper the team in the future. 1b. If there are no such deals to be made and Bargnani cannot be molded into a reliable sixth man/bench scorer, seriously consider using the amnesty clause on the former No. 1 overall pick (Personally, I seriously doubt that MLSE would okay eating the remainder of Bargnani’s contract while he plays elsewhere). 2. Find some value for Jose Calderon’s expiring contract (this should be the easiest task). 3. If not used on Bargnani, use the amnesty clause on Linas Kleiza this summer, assuming the Lithuanian forward picks up his $4.6 million player option for next season (If Kleiza elects to become a free agent, then the only amnesty-able contracts remaining will be Bargnani’s and Amir Johnson’s).
Moving Bargnani and Kleiza (while using the amnesty clause on one of them) and acquiring an asset from Calderon’s expiring deal are the moves to make, but beyond that, again, the concern should be with regard to what moves not to make.
In the rare event that a James Harden-type of young emerging star/franchise building block becomes available through trade like Houston encountered, then the Raptors should move all in and consider trading some of their current stock of young assets. But in reality, those opportunities are very few and very far between, and the much more likely trade scenarios out there involve rebuilding teams like the Raptors, for example, trading young assets for borderline All Stars like Rudy Gay.
If your team is already a legitimate playoff team trying to get over the hump or maybe even a 50-win team and playoff threat looking for that push into true championship contention, trading intriguing young players for “win-now” pieces like Gay or other players in his class is reasonable, understandable and defensible. But as you’re probably painfully aware, the Raptors aren’t even withing sniffing distance of that level.
The good news is that as currently constructed, the Raptors have organically built through the draft for the first time since the franchise’s expansion years. If we assume that Toronto’s 2013 pick will go to Oklahoma City to complete the Kyle Lowry trade (Reminder: Toronto’s 2013 pick moves in the Lowry deal if it falls between 4-14), then we can look at the situation with Lowry posing as what was made out of the Raptors’ 2013 first round draft selection. And looking at things that way, then you can assert that the Raptors’ starting lineup of the future was built completely through the draft/use of draft picks over five consecutive seasons.
Lowry at point guard (acquired with 2013 lottery pick), Terrence Ross (2012 No. 8 pick) and DeMar DeRozan (2009 No. 9 pick) at the wings, with Ed Davis (2010 No. 13 pick) and Jonas Valanciunas (2011 No. 5 pick) manning the Raptors’ frontcourt of the future. That’s a decent young core of players at various positions, all aged between 20-26 years old.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of these naive “homers” that assumes a young group of players automatically grows into a contending group just because they’re left to grow together, but that group of five players has a chance to evolve into a very formidable NBA team in the future, and it’s not out of this world to suggest they could become a playoff regular in the Eastern Conference. Sure, they’ll need luck and health to reach their potential the same way even elite teams require those bounces (I’m aware luck/health are not things this franchise has been blessed with in recent years), and the eventuality of becoming a regular playoff team without reaching true contender’s status is a legitimate possibility, but for all this fear of the Raptors becoming a “treadmill” team, what do you think would happen if they traded one or two of these young players with untapped potential for a player currently in his prime to deliver a couple of 40-45 win seasons at best?
Now that would spell the beginnings of a treadmill team in its purest, most disappointing form.
Outsiders see the potential in the group the Raptors are bringing together, whether it’s Zach Lowe of Grantland writing that this core “could hold great promise” in his in-depth Calderon/Lowry writeup earlier this week or even CBS’ Matt Moore, known to twitter as @HPbasketball, taking a break from his recent trolling of Raptors fans to tweet this:
True superstars are the most precious commodity in the NBA and the most foundational building blocks to championship contention, and if one of those said players was available in trade talks, the Raptors shouldn’t hesitate before breaking up this young core. Furthermore, despite my cautious optimism regarding the young pieces currently in place, I won’t pretend for a second that they’re good enough to guarantee future success the way we all could with an astonishing collection of talent in Oklahoma City a few years ago. But I am certain that this current group of young players the Raptors have assembled have a better chance to become a consistently successful team in the future than a team consisting of say only two of them plus a borderline All-Star in 2013 would, and I hope the Raptors’ management team thinks along the same lines as I do as we begin to close in on February’s trade deadline.
As disappointing and utterly frustrating as some of this season’s losses and the season as a hole have been, the present would be a lot more gut-wrenching and a hell of a lot more depressing to take in if there wasn’t even the hope of a brighter tomorrow in the future.
If this passionate and loyal fan base is ever going to be rewarded in the future, we’ll likely look back at this stage of the rebuilding process and at moves that perhaps weren’t made as much as we will at moves that actually were made.
(For what it’s worth, if the Raptors can find a way to rid themselves of Bargnani’s contract, amnesty Kleiza and elect not to pick up the team option on Lucas, then the nine-man group of Lowry, Ross, DeRozan, Davis, Valanciunas, Johnson, Fields, Acy and Gray (assuming Gray picks up his player option) would be on the books next season for only $41,298,687, per ShamSports.com. That’s about $17 million below this season’s salary cap of $58,044,000.)