The Toronto Raptors took centre stage at this year’s trade deadline. They were the talk of the town. The Belle of the Ball. Every week, there was some kind of new rumour that involved one of the Raptors’ core players. After all, they seemed like the ideal team to sell at the deadline, with a couple of impending free agents, a few unhappy players, and a team that had struggled to dispel the notions of redundancy on the roster throughout the season. Instead of being sellers, however, the Raptors instead decided to buy, re-acquiring former Raptors big-man Jakob Poeltl from the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Khem Birch, a top-6 protected 2024 1st round pick, and unprotected second-round picks in 2023 and 2025.
Many assumed that after that deal, the other inevitable shoe to drop would be moving one of, or a combination of Gary Trent Jr, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby in order to recoup on the picks they just spent and not be left empty-handed in the summer when Trent or VanVleet can just walk in free agency.
Instead, the Raptors are rolling the dice on this core, pushing back their decisions until the summer and hoping they can re-assess where this team is, at that point.
The Raptors’ deadline decisions (or lack thereof depending on your perspective) could have major ripple effects on the future of the franchise, some good, some bad, and some potentially ugly. Let’s try to digest it all.
The Raptors finally have their centre of the future and present in Poeltl. The former Raptors big man is back in Toronto with the team that drafted him, there’s a relationship there with Masai Ujiri and the rest of the front office and despite being an unrestricted free agent this summer, in all likelihood, both sides will want to get a long-term extension done. It’s been reported that Poeltl can rake in anywhere between $18-22M annually, which should be a good value deal for a starting centre of his caliber.
Poeltl will be exactly what the doctor ordered for the Raptors, who have been desperate for a big, bruising body in the middle that can serve as a rim protector, guard the bigger centres in the league and anchor their chaotic defensive style. He’s had a down season but let’s chalk that up to playing for a lackluster Spurs team that probably told him to take it easy on most nights. But at this point, anything Poeltl does to impact the Raptors’ interior defense will be welcomed.
Offensively, while questions remain about Poeltl’s shooting (specifically from the free-throw line), he should fit in well with a group of guys that he’s used to playing with. Pascal Siakam and he already have established chemistry together, as do Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby who were both a part of the Raptors bench mob group with Poeltl from 2016-2018. Poeltl is an underrated connective passer for his position, rolls hard to the rim, can make plays out of the short-roll and can be a zone-breaker for a Raptors team that sees a lot of zone coverage. It will be interesting who shifts to the bench with Poeltl assuming the starting spot but now the Raptors have 7 legitimate starters when you include Trent Jr and Precious Achiuwa into the equation. He gives Nick Nurse and the rest of the coaching staff more options and that, in itself, will be a welcomed sight.
With this move, the Raptors fill a massive hole on the roster, give this current core a fair shake to see how they look with an established centre, and this way, they can kick the can down the road to this summer when they most certainly will have to make some decisions regarding this core.
Plus, Poeltl and Siakam are good friends so that should bode well for a free agency pitch in 2024 when Siakam hits the market.
The fit is good, he likely will be with the team long-term and for all intents and purposes seems like a good locker-room player for this group as well.
The good is that the Raptors got their guy.
The other good? You can argue that the Raptors used this deadline as a research tool to assess the value of their players and gauge what’s out there. The bad thing is, they don’t have control over all of their players heading into the summer, which leads me to…
There are still a lot of questions that still need to be answered. VanVleet is a free agent this summer and is expected to garner a deal that nets him about $30-35M a year. Trent Jr can, and most likely will, opt out of his deal this summer and is estimated to rake in something close to $20M a year. I already mentioned Poeltl’s free agency situation this summer. Three of the Raptors’ 7 core players can just walk away from the franchise if Toronto decides to hardball them. Why would the Raptors do that? Well, between Poeltl, VanVleet, and Trent Jr, they’d be committing over $70M a year to the trio, making it harder to fit in extensions for Siakam or Anunoby (if they choose to) in 2024 when their deals are up and also, makes it even more difficult to extend Achiuwa or ROTY Scottie Barnes. Money will get tight this summer and adding Poeltl doesn’t necessarily make things easier for them.
There is a real scenario where one of VanVleet or Trent walks for nothing. Unless they’re willing to do the team favors and help facilitate a sign-and-trade, which won’t net the Raptors the same value back that they would have, had they moved either one of them prior to the deadline.
You might be wondering why they wouldn’t just dive into the luxury tax to keep this core together, but that’s rarely been the case for Toronto’s ownership group. If the Raptors were championship contenders? Sure. But paying tax money for a team that is fighting its way into a play-in spot? That’s harder to sell to MLSE.
There is one way the Raptors can keep all three of them, by moving Anunoby this summer. Anunoby’s reported dissatisfaction with his role in Toronto has been well documented and he’s going to be up for a lofty extension in 2024, which, in all likelihood, probably won’t be in Toronto. If the Raptors don’t want Anunoby to walk in 2024, they’ll have to trade him at the latest, at next year’s deadline, but it might serve them better to do so this summer so that they can keep their other 3 players. The Raptors can probably get a good return for Anunoby, even in the summer, but will that help them stay competitive immediately or will that set them back?
That leads me to the next section of this… the ugly.
The Raptors aren’t in a position, talent-wise, to be coughing up 1st round picks. Especially when those picks are very lightly protected. Especially, when those lightly protected picks don’t immediately turn into second-round picks if they don’t convert initially. The Raptors now are without their 2024 1st round pick because of the Poeltl deal, which will be top-6 protected. That means the Raptors are banking on being a playoff team next season.
But with questions about VanVleet, Trent Jr, Poeltl, and Anunoby this summer — it’s tough to envision this team being materially better than they are right now, barring a massive change in circumstances or a significant leap from one of their young players in Barnes or Achiuwa. It’s not out of the question, and given the success this team had last season, there is an argument to be had that they can replicate that same magic next year.
But it’ll be without one or more of their top 7 players, which leaves them exposed to losing that 2024 pick and for it to end up being a lottery-level talent.
I have to re-iterate this: the Raptors don’t have a plethora of depth. They aren’t a top-notch free agency destination. Their only tangible way of replenishing their talent pool and adding depth to the roster is through the draft. And by giving up 1st round picks that limit their flexibility in 3 separate drafts (if the pick doesn’t convert in 2024, it relays to 2025 or 2026) — they ultimately expose themselves to a world of problems they didn’t have prior to the deadline. It makes it harder to prepare for a future around Barnes. It makes it harder to build around Siakam and Barnes if they chose to. And it also makes it more difficult to trade picks in the near future, if they eventually do want to make more win-now moves.
Ultimately, the Raptors have put an immense amount of pressure on themselves this summer, where they’ll have to address any and all lingering questions about the future of this core and which direction they’re headed, and next season, where they’ll have to immediately turn into a playoff team or risk losing a highly valuable pick.
Granted, it is easy to look at this from an outside perspective and look at what the Raptors didn’t do at the deadline. It probably would have been easier to move off one of VanVleet, Trent, or Anunoby, recoup picks and young players back and try to retool around the rest of the core. But they didn’t do that. They exercised patience and belief in this core by giving them, at the very least, one more chance at proving their mettle this season.
Will that gamble be worth it? Is being competitive this season worth it if that means you don’t get a lottery pick in a loaded 2023 draft? Are they confident in re-signing their players? Are they confident in the league-wide value of their players? How much more patient can the front office and ownership group be in assessing what the ceiling of this team is?
These are questions that will be answered throughout the course of the next 6 months and could have implications that stretch 6+ years for the franchise.