TORONTO – For the Toronto Raptors, this very important week may end up being about the future, but it’s hard to look forward without looking back and getting a little nostalgic.
Over the past eight years, they have enjoyed the kind of lasting success that most organizations can only dream of. What makes it so fascinating, even to this day, is that few – if any – saw it coming.
This race, easily and by far the most successful in two and a half decades in franchise history, was a happy accident. He was born out of a couple of trades – one that fell apart and the other that, by chance, didn’t work.
The chord that turned Rudy Gay and its bloated spare parts contract in 2013 aimed to put them on the path to rebuilding. The next deal that almost sent Kyle Lowry at the Knicks was supposed to be the next step in that process. Both helped lead them to where they are today.
After seven consecutive post-season appearances, nine playoff wins and an NBA championship, the Raptors and their fans come to terms with an unhappy reality – nothing lasts forever.
Hopes of saving their tumultuous 2020-21 campaign are quickly fading, and with Thursday’s 3 p.m. NBA trade deadline, management has some very important – and potentially very difficult – decisions to make.
Is it time to turn the page on this era, and its most iconic player, and chart a course for what is to come?
It’s a dilemma that is magnified by where they find themselves within days of the deadline – 11th in the Eastern Conference with a 17-26 record and a nine-game losing streak – but not one that risks losing. ‘being too influenced by it.
The truth is, Team Chairman Masai Ujiri and General Manager Bobby Webster have never stopped planning for the future. For the time being Kawhi Leonard left them for the Clippers in the summer of 2019, less than a month after leading them to a title, they’ve been trying to navigate their way while trying to make the most of the present. It’s a fine line to cross – a balancing act they managed to pull off last season, when they finished with the second best record in the league.
This year, however, threw them in just about every curve imaginable. Some of it was out of their control, of course. The temporary move to Tampa has done them a disservice, and the mid-season COVID-19 outbreak has derailed the progress they were making in getting out of an early hole. Always, not pursuing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol more aggressively last fall and replacing them with journeymen on short-term deals will remain a rare misstep for this front office, especially after their alleged goal in the 2021 free agent draw, reigning twice. as MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, signed an extension to stay in Milwaukee.
They still believe in the core. If the deadline were a month earlier, before COVID hit and brought the team to their knees, the likely plan would have been to add around it – improve center position and perhaps bring some depth of veteran to help them make a tight race Eastern Conference playoff effort.
Their vision for this club and what it is capable of at full power hasn’t changed, but the situation has changed. They are only 2.5 games away from the 10th seed, which would give them a chance to squeeze into the postseason via the play-in tournament. However, with less than 30 games to go and the team showing no signs of a reversal, they have to wonder if the opportunity cost is worth trying to save this season.
Last week, the Raptors still told teams surveyed that they had no plans to move Lowry forward before the deadline, but plans can change quickly in the NBA – Ujiri and Lowry know this better than most.
Lowry et Norman Powell – who will certainly turn down his player option for next season – are heading to unrestricted free agency this summer, and if they’re not part of the Raptors’ long-term plan, they owe it to themselves to test the market and see what they could come back to for these guys now.
Ujiri was working under Bryan Colangelo at the Toronto front office when Chris Bosh left for Miami in 2010. At that point, he vowed that – given the opportunity to helm the show – he would never let a franchise player walk without getting something in return for him. Less than a year later, his first signing move as chief NBA officer was to trade a disgruntled star and soon a free agent. Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks and providing impressive transportation to Denver.
Of course, it’s not always that simple, especially in Lowry’s case. There is tangible value in owning your bird rights – either to re-sign it or for eventual signature and exchange. There are also obvious sentimental reasons for keeping him around and allowing his tenure to unfold organically, especially if that’s Lowry’s preference. He’s not just a franchise player, he’s the franchise’s greatest player of all time. A different philosophy applies, you think.
As of Tuesday night, that’s where the Raptors stood in regards to a deal with Lowry. In order for Lowry to be pushed back before Thursday’s deadline, first, he would have to give the green light to a trade and approve the destination, and second, a team would have to make an offer strong enough to lure Toronto.
It is not an impulsive front office. If they hadn’t pulled the trigger of a deal before their ninth straight loss on Monday – an embarrassing loss at the hands of a Houston Rockets team that had given up 20 straight games – then they won’t be doing it now.
According to multiple sources, the two teams that signaled an interest in Lowry, as well as the means to match his pay and put together an intriguing package – Miami and Philadelphia – were reluctant to make their best offer. For the Heat, who are short on first-round picks to trade, that offer should likely include second-year goaltender Tyler Herro. For the Sixers, rookie Tyrese Maxey and the Picks just start the conversation.
A lot can happen by 3 p.m. Thursday. At some point in the not-so-distant future, changes are coming for the Raptors, that’s clear. The question is to what extent this will play out this week.