Reconciling loss is a tough thing to do. Both in life and in sports. It’s something we, as sports appreciators and fans, will experience in some way or another. After a heartbreaking loss, or maybe even after losing a player via trade or free agency, you’re left trying to pick up the pieces of what remains and find a way to move forward. Nothing lasts forever. Players retire. Superteams break-up. Title runs eventually end. Even rebuilds become obsolete. And yet still? Things don’t stop moving. The games continue. A new era begins. New teams rise. Others fall. Some players leave. Others stay and carve out their own path.
Sports teach you this lesson. Despite your best efforts, no matter how trivial or legitimate, you will inevitably lose at some point.
And the Toronto Raptors learned that brutal lesson yesterday.
Before the last couple of seasons, the Raptors’ track record decision-making-wise had been nearly spotless. They would win in even the most unfathomable ways. The Kawhi Leonard trade, the Greivis Vasquez trade, Terrence Ross trade, just to name a few. Even from a free agency perspective, they swatted away attempts at luring away both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry during their respective tenures with the franchise. The Raptors rarely, if ever, lost.
One of the most notable moves in Masai Ujiri’s tenure with the organization was signing an undrafted college stud by the name of Fred VanVleet. What seemed like a rather marginal move back in 2016 turned out to become one of the greatest Raptors careers of all time. A player who won a G-League championship before playing an all-too-crucial role in helping the franchise win its first NBA title, becoming an All-Star in the process and holding the franchise record for points and assists in a single game.
But now, the Raptors are left picking up the pieces after VanVleet’s departure to Houston. From VanVleet’s perspective, this move to the Rockets truly embodies his life mantra “Bet On Yourself” — inking a 3-year, max deal that would make him one of the most paid guards in the league. Not bad for an undrafted, undersized guard.
The Raptors had a chance to keep their guy. According to a source, Toronto offered VanVleet a 4-year deal north of $120 million but the Rockets inevitably upped the ante by offering the sharpshooter a 3rd year of max money. It was too much for the Raptors to compete against. And ultimately, their decision to not move VanVleet at the deadline comes back to haunt them at that moment.
Luckily, Jakob Poeltl’s negotiations went much smoother. According to that same source, Toronto met with Poeltl’s representation first in free agency while VanVleet was in his meeting with Houston and came to an agreement rather quickly on a 4-year/$80 million deal with a player option in the 4th year.
Once VanVleet was off the table, the Raptors acted quickly to try and find a replacement and landed on the feisty guard, Dennis Schroder on a fully guaranteed 2-year deal.
Throughout this process, the entire complexion of the Toronto Raptors’ future, both in the short-term and in the long run, changed. They gained some things and ultimately lost out on many other things.
What They Lost
It’s obvious that VanVleet’s loss is going to be felt in Toronto for a very long time. Despite all the vile vitriol that has been sent his way this season from fans, even the most skeptical fan will recognize, almost immediately, once the Raptors play their first game in the 2023-2024 season, how much this team will miss VanVleet’s unique blend of shooting, ball-handling, and defense at the point of attack.
A team that finished last season 28th in 3-point percentage just lost its best shooter. A team that ranked in the bottom half in assists and assist percentage just lost its main table-setter and pick-n-roll playmaker. The Raptors, who ranked 25th in half-court efficiency in the 22-23 season, just lost VanVleet who made them +7.3 points per 100 possessions better in the half-court on offense, according to Cleaning The Glass.
In that sense, it’s clear that there’s just no tangible way this Raptors team is any better without VanVleet next season. And anyone convincing themselves that Scottie Barnes is ready to step in as the main facilitator for this team is thinking wishfully. While Barnes is a prolific passer and playmaker, he’s also not adept at making reads in the pick-n-roll yet or creating through drives in abundance. Barnes is best served as a connector and playmaking hub in the same ways that Bam Adebayo and Domantas Sabonis are for their respective teams. Forcing Barnes to pick up the mantle of point guard is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole and ultimately, could hinder his development in the long-term.
From that perspective too, the Raptors lost. VanVleet was ultimately a leader in the locker room, the loudest voice amongst the players, and in many instances, the messenger between Head Coach Nick Nurse and the rest of the team. A source close to the team mentioned that among those who were most shocked about VanVleet’s departure was Barnes, who had developed his own big brother-little brother relationship with VanVleet throughout his time there.
VanVleet’s absence in the locker room will be apparent. And something the Raptors will, in all likelihood, be looking to replace for quite some time. In many ways, VanVleet made up the fabric of what the post-Kawhi/DeMar/Kyle Raptors were planning to be. And now that’s been cut short, seemingly because of the Raptors’ own miscalculations on VanVleet’s market in free agency.
A tough loss and a bitter end to an all-time Raptors career and one that will leave the Raptors searching for another voice to lead them into the next generation.
What They Gained
Welcome to Toronto, Dennis Schroder.
Schroder, at his best, is a great point-of-attack defender who is quick-footed, can navigate around screens, and can stay with the fastest guards in the league. Offensively, he can use that same speed to carve up defenses and create advantages for himself and others (mostly himself). He was an integral part of the Los Angeles Lakers game plan in the Western Conference Playoffs against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
But again, that’s at his best.
The other side of the coin is that Schroder is an inconsistent offensive player who is more of a combo guard in a point-guards body. He’s not the most willing passer or playmaker and is nowhere near the shooter VanVleet was. In fact, he’s only had one single season where he’s shot better than 35% from behind the arc, while VanVleet has only had one season where he’s shot worse than that clip — last season.
Still, Schroder should serve as a decent stop-gap. Whether Rookie Head Coach Darko Rajakovic opts to use him off the bench or in the starting lineup is still up for debate but Schroder does give them some extra ballhandling, which the Raptors could absolutely use with the departure of VanVleet.
Welcome back, Jakob Poeltl. After the Raptors traded a top-6 protected 2024 pick to reunite with the Austrian big man, it was a no-brainer that they’d prioritize retaining him in free agency. The 27-year-old center will now be on the books for Toronto until he’s at least 30 and will seemingly be an integral part of their plans moving forward. Defensively, the rim deterring big-man will be pivotal to what the Raptors can do on that end. And even offensively, despite the lack of shooting, his playmaking prowess should help a Raptors team, who again, lost its primary playmaker in VanVleet.
Besides Poeltl and Schroder, the Raptors have now opened up more opportunities for development on the roster. VanVleet led all Raptors in touches per game last season and with over 83 touches per game now available, Barnes, O.G. Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa, Gary Trent Jr, and the Raptors’ 13th overall pick Gradey Dick will surely see an uptick in their touches.
Whether that’s actually a good thing remains to be seen. More opportunity should help a player like Anunoby who has expressed in the past his want for more. The same applies to Achiuwa and Trent Jr who will want to work out the kinks of their game in real time.
But more doesn’t always equate to better. VanVleet created structure and balanced out the roster in a way that could help foster a more natural developmental path for these youngsters and throwing added responsibilities at them doesn’t necessarily mean they’re up for the task.
But nonetheless, opportunity abounds on this roster now.
From a financial perspective, the Raptors have gained some flexibility by not committing to VanVleet long-term, as well. Without VanVleet’s potentially $30 million salary filling up the books for the next 4 seasons, the Raptors now have room for extensions for Pascal Siakam and Anunoby, two of their premiere free agents in 2024. They will still be hovering near luxury tax territory by that time, however, with Barnes, Achiuwa, and Flynn up for extensions. Not to mention the yet undetermined number on Trent Jr’s reported extension.
Money problems are still looming for a Raptors team that is seemingly unwilling to dip into the luxury tax for anything short of a sure-fire title contender. From an on-court perspective, their lack of shooting and playmaking will make for a weary and likely lackluster team next season, where the Raptors don’t have their first-round pick handy, should they decide to restart.
VanVleet’s departure and the (related) miscalculations by the Raptors through the last couple of trade deadlines have put them in a precarious position as a franchise.
They don’t have roster balance. They don’t have pick flexibility. And they are running on a tight budget.
This leads many to presume that a shake-up is around the corner. ‘Somethings Gotta Give’ as they say. And the only real way to do that is through some trades.
Trades To Find Balance
Most of these are unlikely but let’s have fun. Raptors fans could use some fun right now.
Trade #1: The Hawks Deal
Toronto Receives: De’Andre Hunter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kobe Bufkin, Rudy Gay, 2024 1st (Via Sacramento) and 2 second-round picks.
Atlanta Receives: Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher
Rudy Gay would be waived, don’t worry. The Raptors get two pretty good shooters in Hunter and Bogdanovic on the wings + a prospect they reportedly loved in the draft in Bufkin who can be an extra ballhandler and shooter. They also recoup a pick in the 2024 draft so the Jakob Poeltl deal stings a little less, and recoup some much-needed second-round picks. This trade probably lets the Raptors stay decently competitive next season, maybe even a frisky play-in team in the East. Hunter is on a pretty good deal ($20M cap hit for next 4 years) and Bogdanovic can be a trade asset on an expiring salary by this time next year. For Atlanta, they get Siakam to pair with their star-studded backcourt and Boucher as an extra big man for their troubles. The Raptors, in all likelihood, will want to get AJ Griffin involved in the deal and the Hawks might push for Trent Jr. Regardless, this seems like a plausible trade that both sides should hate. Which makes it fair.
Trade #2: The Magic Deal
Toronto Receives: Cole Anthony
Orlando Receives: Chris Boucher
The Magic have a plethora of guards, right now. One of them is bound to get squeezed out of the rotation with Anthony Black coming into the fold and that’s, in all likelihood, going to be Cole Anthony. Anthony would just balance the Raptors roster a little bit, meanwhile, Boucher would work well in the Magic’s system, and at this point is probably a better option than both Jonathan Isaac and Bol Bol. It’s a simple deal. One that keeps the Raptors competitive and doesn’t force them to do anything drastic.
Trade #3: The Dame Deal
Toronto Receives: Damian Lillard
Portland Receives: Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr, Chris Boucher, Thad Young, and 2 first-round picks
Speaking of needing pull-up shooting and playmaking, why not get an all-time-level version? Again, this is very unlikely to happen because Damian Lillard has made it clear where he wants to go. But if, for some reason, Portland, after 10 years of his services decides against abiding by Lillard’s wishes — then it’s the best package possible that will land one of the greatest guards of this generation. Besides, Lillard reportedly was interested in playing with Siakam and Anunoby in Portland, why not in Toronto? Raptors fans reading this are probably wondering why trading Barnes is a route to go and well, it’s because that still chooses a direction. With this trade, the Raptors double down on this current core (minus VanVleet) and hope that they can squeeze as much juice out of whatever’s left of Dame’s prime as possible. The Blazers get a young star in Barnes that can work in tandem with Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe and Trent Jr and two 1sts for their troubles. Not many other teams in the league can beat that package. Again, very unlikely. But we’re here to have fun, remember?
Trade #4: The Pacers Deal
Toronto Receives: T.J McConnell, 2024 second-round pick (Via Milwaukee)
Indiana Receives: Thad Young
Thad Young is an expiring contract. McConnell has an extra year tact on to his deal and the Raptors get a second-round pick for taking on the extra year of salary. Thad goes back to Indiana, where he was a fan favourite. He can be a vet in the locker room or be waived and signed elsewhere. McConnell could instantly be a back-up point guard for the Raptors and while he isn’t the best offensive player, he is a stout defender at the point of attack who is a good playmaker for what he costs. Another simple deal. Nice and clean.
Trade #5: The Mavs Deal
Toronto Receives: Maxi Kleber, Tim Hardaway Jr, Josh Green, Jaden Hardy, 2027 1st round pick (unprotected)
Dallas Receives: Pascal Siakam
Not necessarily in love with this deal, but Kleber and Hardaway do address the current needs of shooting and are on relatively short-term deals. Green and Hardy are two young wings/guards that can grow with the current group of Raptors and the 2027 1st could be interesting if things go wrong in Dallas. For the Mavericks, Siakam would be a perfect third fiddle next to Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. They’d be title contenders and that would make Doncic a happy camper.