Trade Deadline Review: Raptors commit to the evaluation process

The only constant for the Toronto Raptors is that nothing is constant in this highly unusual season.

On Thursday, the trade deadline came and went. For many around the league, it did not go as expected for the Toronto Raptors. Sitting at 18-26 and just out of a play-in spot, many around the league expected the Raptors to be sellers at the deadline, with headliners Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell widely expected to be on the move.

The Raptors did end up making three moves at the trade deadline, including trading Powell to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood. In addition, they moved Matt Thomas to the Utah Jazz and Terence Davis II to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for a pair of 2021 second-round draft picks that project to be in the mid-40’s range.

Much to everyone’s surprise, however, the Raptors hung onto Lowry. Reports indicated that Toronto was underwhelmed with the offers on the table and opted to keep their franchise icon — for now. Lowry is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the season’s end, and whether he will remain with the team is uncertain at this time.

This year has been one of transition for the team as it phases out of its championship roster and plan for life after. This deadline was no different in that regard, as the team continued to line up its chips to make moves in the off-season to address needs. The Raptors have essentially extended their window of evaluation, allowing them to get a deeper look at the roster now that they’ve figured out their rotations and are finally healthy.

A wise man once said, “trust the process.”

Let’s look at how the trade deadline and the moves made impact the Raptors today, and in the future:

Raptors all-in on young core, but same challenges remain

Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood: Analyzing what the Raptors received in  Norman Powell trade – The Athletic
Jordan Johnson, Getty Images (2021)

As outlined in our trade deadline preview, one of the many directions the Raptors could have taken at the deadline was a marginal move that builds for the future. As it turns out, that is exactly what the Raptors did, swapping Powell for an asset that may not move the needle now, but has the potential to pay dividends down the line.

But one of the biggest things that stood out from this trade deadline is that the Raptors walked out with the same issues it went in with.

The trade with Portland was decent in a vacuum; the Raptors get a younger and less expensive wing with upside, and Hood’s contract provides some flexibility in the off-season to make moves. While it is unlikely that Hood remains with the team beyond this season, the Raptors view Trent as a piece that can be added to their young core of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby.

More glaring, however, is that the Raptors did not address their need for a quality center, and eroded their depth a little further. Beyond Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher, the Raptors have had a lack of depth in the frontcourt that has hampered their team all season, while inconsistent wing play off the bench has left the Raptors thin. Although Davis and Thomas’ roles fluctuated throughout the year, they were both capable of playing situational minutes. Hood solves some of those issues when healthy, but he cannot make up all the difference by himself.

At least for this season it appears the Raptors will keep with the small ball starting lineup that bred success when they were healthy; likely rolling with Lowry, VanVleet, Trent, Anunoby, and Siakam. The ages of the latter four players at the start of next season will be 27, 22, 24, and 27, respectively. This is a firm commitment to that group, and the Raptors will need to find ways to make it work around them.

Maintaining future flexibility

NBA Free Agency 2019: Where does Kawhi Leonard's decision leave the Toronto  Raptors? | NBA.com India | The official site of the NBA
NBA (2019)

The Raptors will have an opportunity to add to this core for beyond next season and have managed to create even more flexibility.

Hood’s contract for 10.8 million dollars is non-guaranteed for next season. Add this to Aron Baynes’ 7.3 million dollar contract, which is also non-guaranteed, package it with some other assets, and the Raptors could find themselves in a position to make a move. Bobby Webster has been creative in maneuvering Toronto’s salary situation this way, which could theoretically allow them to still add to the team in the off-season.

Trent will also cost the team less than Norman Powell on his next contract, which continues to give them options as they try to find the right style of basketball to play with their core. His cap hold this off-season is only 2.1 million dollars, which means the Raptors can use their existing cap space to address other needs before going over the cap to re-sign him, and possibly Lowry as well.

By moving Davis and Thomas for second-round picks that belong to Memphis and Golden State, respectively, the Raptors will have the opportunity to find some hidden talent in the late rounds. If there is a guy they like near that area, they can also pair the two picks and try to move up in the draft, perhaps getting to the late first round in the right deal. Add the Raptors’ own first round draft pick into the mix, and this could translate to some solid depth in a couple of years.

In a sense, the Raptors very much stuck to the status quo this deadline by essentially keeping their options open. While they weren’t splashy moves by any means, it more or less extends the period they have to evaluate the core. Given the fact that they’ve barely gotten on the floor at the same time together in the right lineups all year long, Webster essentially delayed the period on which the team needs to make tough decisions.

Will Kyle Lowry Remain Beyond Next Year?

Kyle Lowry flashes deuces as he walks off the court - Video - TSN
TSN (2021)

One of the big challenges with the decisions the Raptors made at the deadline is, of course, Kyle Lowry’s looming free agency.

Lowry has been the face of the franchise for many years, and on Wednesday night, it appeared as though Raptors fans were embracing for his imminent departure. Lowry played his heart out in what many presumed would be his final game for the team, posting a game-high plus-42, and sparked the team to snap their nine-game losing streak.

The Raptors wound up passing on offers from the Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, and Los Angeles Lakers. This caught the entire league by surprise, as Lowry was one of the hottest names on the trade market. Ultimately, fans will be happy to see their beloved point guard continue to stay at the helm, at least for the next few months.

Where the risk comes in is with the opportunity cost of assets that could have been picked up, and the potential flexibility issue that comes with Kyle Lowry’s 43.8 million dollar cap hold. When a player becomes a free agent with Bird rights, they are assigned a cap hold figure, and the team cannot use free cap space unless they renounce their cap holds. If they do so, they cannot exceed the salary cap or use exceptions to sign said player.

With this in mind, if the Raptors are keeping Lowry, they will have to re-sign him quickly, or renounce his cap hold if they know he is leaving. This either sinks their cap space right at the start of free agency, or it means they risk losing Lowry for nothing as opposed to recouping assets at the deadline. The lone avenue left to improve the team at that point would be to use mid-level exceptions and teeter the line of luxury tax, but this would also make the team hard-capped and further restrict possible moves to be made going forward.

This represents something of a conundrum for the Raptors, where they will have to decide quickly whether to move forward with Lowry and make him retire a Toronto Raptor, or if he will go sign with a team to compete for a championship. The Raptors will likely have the first right of refusal, as they can offer the most money, but it has to be a fine balance between rewarding Lowry for his tenure here and allowing the team to continue its trajectory upward.

Overall, the Raptors are continuing to stay the course, and are giving this core the next few months to dictate their direction with their play. Regardless of wins or losses, Webster is looking most for progress and growth. This is an opportunity to truly evaluate this core’s potential, and whether or not a player like Trent can add to it. Regardless of the result, it will be a very interesting few months ahead for this team.

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