After an early season scare, it appears the Toronto Raptors are back on track for the franchise’s eighth straight playoff appearance. However, the centre position remains mostly a wasteland of production and the losses of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol continue to be talking points. While Chris Boucher’s game has taken a nice step forward, there’s still some work to do before the Raptors feel comfortable with him as a regular in the starting lineup. Aron Baynes and Alex Len were brought in to shore up the centre position; both failed to live up to expectations. Baynes still sees regular minutes by default for being the veteran big man on the team but Len was waived after only 13 games. If Toronto has any hope of winning a playoff round (or two) this spring, they would need a significant upgrade at centre.
There’s a few channels the Raps could use to acquire talent in the NBA. One way that would be the best for long-term consideration is through the NBA draft. You can bet that the Raptors will look long and hard at drafting a centre in the first round, as it’s by far the biggest team need. The downside? The draft is still months away and the player taken won’t be a significant piece for the team for at least a couple of years. Next is free agency. However, in the middle of the season, it is not easy to find pieces that can significantly improve you’re team right away in this mold. The only players you usually get mid-season are depth players that are usually cast-offs from other teams. DeMarcus Cousins is out there, but given his recent injury history, is he capable of being the all-star he once was? Probably not. But this leaves an option that has the potential to be the most impactful right away: a trade. There’s a few questions one must ask themselves regarding Toronto making this move in the near future; first is who exactly can they offer? Second is what can they receive in return? And most importantly, what will the impact be on the on-court product?
The name that popped up early in trade rumors this season was Norman Powell. The swingman started the yea as the team’s sixth man, but given the Raptors problems at centre, he’s moved into the starting lineup as the team decided to start their five best players instead of focusing on matchups. But don’t think that’s the only reason why he’s moved into a starter’s spot. “Stormin'” Norman forced his coaches’ hands as a dependable scoring threat night-in, night-out while still being the defender and athletic talent that had the faithful noticing him in the first place. In his six seasons, we’ve seen him go from starting small forward by default to a legitimate NBA starter. Most impressive has been his ability to go from a mediocre three-point shooter to a real threat from deep. It’s been a genuine treat to watch his game grow and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone with even decent basketball knowledge in Canada that doesn’t appreciate what Powell brings to the table. As you may have figured out, I have already talked myself out of trading him away.
First off, trading Norm would leave the Raptors with a lack of useful swingman options. A few short years ago, Toronto had a wealth of options in this department with Powell sitting behind DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. The latter was traded away with a first round pick to bring in the crucial force that was Serge Ibaka, using a strength to address a weakness; it made sense then and still makes sense now. Then DeRozan was traded along with Jakob Pöltl and a first round pick; in return the Raptors got Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Again, it’s hard to criticize as they traded their best resource to get a top-three player in the NBA while also landing a heralded swingman to help fill that hole and, of course, they won the championship. That left Powell as the only valuable swingman remaining on the roster. Trading him away for a centre would be like trading your leg because you needed an arm. The Raptors do have DeAndre’ Bembry and Stanley Johnson as depth swingmen, but you can’t ask them to carry a heavy load regularly and expect decent results. Regardless of depth, trading someone who’s putting up 18.4 points, 3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game and perfectly fits your team is going to be a tough sell.
The other potential trade chip for the Raptors is Kyle Lowry. Ever since the Raptors were able to turn their fortunes around in the 2013-14 season, Lowry has been the heart, soul and leader of the team. The feisty North Philadelphia native plays well above his generously listed six-foot frame and has even led the league in charges drawn twice (!) since joining Toronto. The man can do it all, not only being the playmaking court general that comes with being a starting NBA point guard, but he’s also a great defender, shooter and inside scorer. He’s my pick for the best Toronto Raptor of all-time and his number 7 should be the first the team hangs in the rafters of Scotiabank Arena. After the team’s breakout season in 2013-2014, Lowry was an unrestricted free agent and the Miami Heat were after his services. However, Lowry surprised us by staying in Toronto. The Raptors were used to stars using their first opportunity to get out the door, but Lowry showed us a loyalty that fans weren’t used to. It marked a huge milestone for the franchise and was a major stepping stone to the eventual 2019 NBA Championship.
Recently, there’s been talk surrounding Lowry having the opportunity to finish his career in Toronto, a unique scenario for stars with the team (Hakeem Olajuwon was a shadow of his former self for his one season in Toronto, so that doesn’t count). The problem with Lowry is that he’ll be 35 soon and we can see his production start to diminish. Another consideration that could be in play would be Lowry’s potential desire to win another NBA Championship (therefore improving his Hall of Fame chances). If he wants to move on, you have to give that opportunity to him no matter how hard it would be. A legitimate question for the Raptors front office is: what can they receive back for an aging star in the last year of his contract? Unless a team is in love with Lowry, this could be a dead end if you want an immediate impact player in return.
I should also throw Pascal Siakam into the conversation. While his play has been disappointing for a lot of the time going back to the Orlando bubble last summer, I can’t see a trade involving him that would make sense. For one, trading him for a centre would just expose a hole at the power forward position. Another reason is that it’s just bad economics to trade an asset when his value is low. Something has just been off about Siakam and he hasn’t fully adjusted to the NBA without a roaring crowd. I believe there is something for the Raptors to salvage here, and I hope the team doesn’t give up on him too soon.
When it comes to potential trade targets for Toronto, one name that repeatedly comes up is Andre Drummond. The former all-star has become somewhat polarizing since his last all-star game appearance in 2018 given some of his weaknesses. He’s a very good but not necessarily “great” scorer who still struggles from the free-throw line. On defense, he’s prone to taking far too many fouls and is often guilty of trying too hard to get the big block which gets him in trouble. Raptors reporter Doug Smith also passed this tweet along regarding the prospect of the Raps trading for Drummond:
I will go back to what an NBA advance scout who I greatly respect told me of Andre Drummond
“He can get you 30-20 and have no impact on the game”
— Doug Smith: Raptors (@SmithRaps) February 15, 2021
Yikes! There’s also the issue of the Cleveland Cavaliers not playing him and trying to force a trade to get him out. If that’s not a major red flag, then I don’t know what is. While Drummond would look like a strong addiction to the team on paper, his weaknesses muddies the water when trying to analyze how impactful he would be on the team’s win-loss record. Sure, he fills a big hole and would solve some matchup issues, but his defensive issues and free throw shooting make it seem that he would only give the team a few more wins in the best case scenario. One could argue that his weaknesses down the stretch could even cost the Raptors a few close games – in the worst case scenario.
Another option would be from the rebuilding Houston Rockets, potentially leaving the door open for a second reunion with P.J. Tucker (who else is getting Wendel Clark for Yanic Perreault vibes?). Given that Tucker’s stature is smaller than your average NBA centre, this is not an ideal solution, though Tucker played well at the 5 when Houston went full small-ball mode. While the team would still have some major matchup issues even with Tucker, he’s a nice 3-and-D player, and you can never have enough of those players in the modern NBA. We can assume his addition would add a nice little bump in the team’s production. Hassan Whiteside could be available from Sacramento, but with the Lakers (and likely other teams) interested, this could lead to a bidding war and given the Raptors are highly unlikely to go all-in, they would surely be muscled out of this option. Out of all the player possibilities explored here, he would be the most impactful and could play a nice support role given his athleticism, wingspan and hustle, but I’m not getting my hopes up. After that, there aren’t any obvious trade targets that could make an immediate impact at centre. It’s been suggested that the Raptors could make a trade for a big man with potential like Mo Bamba, but the immediate impact wouldn’t be substantial and could even cost the Raptors games if he depended on too heavily.
There’s one more option the Raptors could go with, and it’s likely the most realistic one: hold onto major assets and just make one or two depth additions at the trade deadline. At the 2014 trade deadline the Raptors took a similar approach acquiring Nando De Colo from San Antonio for Austin Daye, cash and a traded player exception. An option like this likely wouldn’t have an effect on the on-court product, but you can never have too much depth going into the playoffs. Given that Toronto’s best case scenario would be for them to steal a first round series and an appearance in the conference finals would be a stretch, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to take a big swing right now. Despite the drop in Milwaukee’s play this season, the East is tough at the top with the emergence of an MVP-caliber Joel Embiid in Philadelphia, a new big three in Brooklyn and a Miami team that is not far removed from an NBA Finals appearance. It’s not always easy to come to terms with the fact that the odds are against you to go deep, but in situations like that..it’s best to preach patience.
The Toronto Raptors have been focused on building a generation of homegrown talent to play their unselfish, athletic, defense-first approach led by Fred Van Vleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Norman Powell. A trade for immediate help at centre would likely tear some of this nucleus apart and just doesn’t make sense given their extremely slim chances at glory this spring. Toronto has turned themselves into one of the league’s leaders in drafting and developing players; it’s not a stretch to suggest that if they keep doing things the right way, the desired results will come and another championship window could open up. But for now, that window remains closed for at least the time being and swinging for the fences will surely lead to a strikeout.