Raptors

Lottery Luck Puts Raptors in Power Position

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Before the 2021 NBA Draft Lottery, the Toronto Raptors were divided into three camps: core young veterans, semi-interesting stuff and Kyle Lowry.

In the first group you have Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam— guys who are crucial to the team’s identity and viewed as keys to the next competitive window. They’re locked up and in the middle of (or just before) their respective primes. If Lowry is going to be moved, it’ll be in a deal for good but not premier picks, or young non-stars with upside.

The middle group is the stuff trades are made of. Useful veteran players like Chris Boucher, Yuta Watanabe, and Rodney Hood; young guards with upside like Gary Trent Jr. and Malachi Flynn. Those players, along with Toronto having their own picks, can form interesting trade packages for teams.

That isn’t going to be enough to catapult you into the juicier trades. It can’t be the centerpiece of a move for all-star talent except in very specific circumstances, such as the Mike Conley trade or the reported price on Lowry this deadline.

The luck of the lottery landing on Toronto has changed that. Heading into this off-season, there were only a few routes available, most of which included some hard choices. Now armed with the No. 4 pick, the team has a multitude of choices with few wrong answers.

The Run-It-Back Route

This road involves bringing back Lowry and using the pick. This road, which previously could have felt stagnant and over-burdened Lowry, is now a balance of using the competitive window and building for the future.

The Raptors are very unlikely to land Cade Cunningham: the choice is probably going to be whoever falls between Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs and Evan Mobley. All three are high-upside players who would get the chance to earn minutes in a fantastic developmental environment. A rotation of Lowry-VanVleet-OG-Siakam-Birch, with a regular bench mix of Flynn, Trent Jr., Watanabe and Boucher looks much deeper and more threatening with the talent injection of a top pick.

There’s a world where that team is a high seed, and looks like a dark-horse contender in the playoffs. The impact of talented young players like LaMelo Ball or Tyrese Haliburton on last year’s squad would have been felt consistently. It could flash in sparks, like Tyrese Maxey provided for the Sixers in some key moments.

This also leaves the door open for a Lowry trade. If things aren’t necessarily clicking, or there’s an upper-echelon contender bidding high for his services, then the trade deadline is still accessible. Maybe there’s a young player who’s a step below building block — think Precious Achiuwa or Patrick Williams — with the upside to become a key part of the rotation.

Last year’s Mikal Bridges, basically.

There’s no downside to keeping Lowry, for the season or half of it: no young player is going to be good enough to take his minutes, and Lowry is beloved by the current roster. He’s also a high-IQ mentor who’s helped the development of several young players. If Pascal, OG and VanVleet aren’t enough evidence, look at the benefits to the Suns in bringing in Chris Paul. There’s never a downside to learning from a high-IQ, elite starting point guard, unless your name is Reggie Jackson and your starter tries to kill you on the court.

The Trade Options

The Disgruntled Star

Unless you’re giving up OG, there was no way to get into star talks, and you don’t give up 6’9 wings who can guard everyone from Kyrie Irving to Nikola Jokic and shoot 40% from three.

Ujiri wouldn’t move him in the Kawhi deal; he’s not moving him now. What would the point be? Moving him leaves you without an elite defensive option at the three, and the Raptors were not going back to the days of DeMarre Carroll and James Johnson.

Now they have real ammunition to make deals happen. They have one of the most important pieces in modern star trades: non-burdensome, mid-level contracts. Rodney Hood has a non-guaranteed contract, meaning he can be traded up to three days before the draft (or kept as an expiring), so he can be waived and his salary wiped off. Add Aron Baynes and his $8M team option, and you’re already at $18.85 million. You need to get to anywhere from $22-26 million in matching salary for a star, so it’ll cost anything from a rotation player to a prospect: Deandre Bembry and Malachi Flynn get you to around 23, while Boucher on his own gets you to 26.

The No. 4 pick added to one of those packages is pretty intriguing to a rebuilding team. Teams like stacking picks, the draft is a crapshoot, and you want as many cracks at it as possible.

But there is still a high value on premium draft picks. The Kevin Love trade involved the No. 1 pick, the Jimmy Butler trade involved the No. 7 pick and a good prospect, and the DeMarcus Cousins trade involved that year’s sixth pick in Buddy Hield. Should a star become available — Kawhi Leonard leaves and Paul George becomes available, Beal wants out, Towns decides he’s sick of the Timberwolves, the Jazz move Gobert and focus on the next competitive window in 2-3 years, the Pelicans decide Ingram doesn’t work with Zion — the fourth pick, or the player taken, is a very good centerpiece asset for those trade.

The Win-Now Trade

This is a cousin of the star trade, but more focused on maximizing Lowry’s window. If a star isn’t available, or they get outbid, this is a trade option that brings back good players now, one of which is likely young enough with  a little bit of extra upside to be part of the core. This trade usually gets you a player with a lower ceiling, or one who isn’t as good now. There’s a couple different variations of this trade available, this is just the one I think works best:

If you’re Houston, you get to pair two top-five picks together. You’ll likely have your pick of Mobley & one of the Jalen’s. That means no positional overlap, the same competitive window and building chemistry. They also can play with Kevin Porter Jr., your most promising young player.

If you’re Toronto, you sacrifice some of your ceiling, but you maximize Lowry’s window. You fill your holes, adding secondary shot creation & wing defense while increasing spacing.

You get an injection of all-star talent. A starting five of Lowry-VanVleet-OG-Siakam-Wood is already deadly. Add in a bench with Flynn-Trent-Gordon-House-Watanabe and you can adjust to any lineup. If Birch is willing to take 25 minutes a game and a slightly lesser role for the better development situation, even better. Few teams would match the collective talent of their two-way starting lineup. None would be able to match their deep bench.

The Off-Season Lowry Sign & Trade

Based on the relationship between Lowry and team, and the cap space of his suitors, he’s probably not going to walk. If there is a split, it’s almost certainly going to be amicable. An off-season trade helps both parties set up for the season.

From Lowry’s side, he goes to a team who didn’t have money for him. He gets a full training camp. He has control of his destination while still getting paid what he deserves.

For the Raptors, you get a chance to optimize your rotation. Any sign & trade will have to be after the draft. While you’re going to focus on the best asset available, trades need salary matching.

Let’s say they re-sign Birch and Mobley falls to four. If they exercise Baynes’s team option, that’s four bigs with Boucher under contract. The Clippers were a popular destination for Lowry. You’re deep in trade talks, and you need one more piece. Contracts don’t match yet, you’ve agreed on the draft compensation, you just need one young-ish player making decent money. The Clippers have Ivica Zubac and Luke Kennard, both 24. You take Kennard there! You get to plan that.

Sometimes mid-season trades don’t let you plan that out. The Raptors are realistically engaging with five teams at most. Lowry wants (and deserves) to go to a contender. While he could help make a team one — hello again to the “lottery to WCF after getting CP3” Suns — that probably isn’t enough appeal to make him want to jump ship.

When your trade window is only 3-5 teams, you’re much more open to fluctuations in play. Value in trades is as much about competitors as it is player value. Giving SGA and a billion picks for Paul George is an overpay, until Kawhi is willing to sign with someone else.

You might only be talking Lowry with the Lakers, Heat and Sixers. The Sixers might have a premium pick you want. It could be on the table, and you’re waiting to see if they’ll give it up. Goran Dragic goes on a tear, averages 25 & 6 the month before the deadline. The Heat are the No. 2 seed and pull out of talks, happy with their team. That Sixers pick instantly disappears. While you’re more susceptible to a desperate overpay, like Kevin Durant goes down in January and the Sixers smell a title, you’re also open to selling low.

Which route will they go? I have no clue, and I’m not crazy enough to recommend what Masai Ujiri (assuming he stays) should do. He’s clearly a wizard better suited to this than most are. But looking at all these options, it’s hard to find a bad direction for the Raptors to go.

Now that the basketball gods have apologized for Tampa with the No. 4 pick, there’s a world of opportunity in front of them. I can’t see their choice going wrong.

About Treye Seabrook-Fields

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