A Crossroads in Toronto

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Updated: November 10, 2021
Jazz Raptors Basketball

Former most improved and All-NBA power forward Pascal Siakam has returned to the lineup for the Raptors. He had missed all of training camp, preseason, and the first 10 games of the regular season due to his shoulder surgery. In his absence, 20-year-old rookie Scottie Barnes has flourished, averaging nearly 18 and 9. Forward OG Anunoby has also been averaging 20 and 5 leading the team in scoring with a respectable 6 and 4 record. This isn’t news or anything out of left field as the rumors of Pascal Siakam possibly being traded swirled around the league even before the surgery after Toronto failed to make the playoffs last year. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the question marks around his health, he may have already been moved in the offseason.

After emerging as an ideal Robin to Kawhi Leonard’s Batman in the 2019 Finals, expectations were set quite high for his upcoming season. Unfortunately, last year despite averaging 21 points per game, Toronto struggled and became an irrelevant franchise relocated out to the humid weather of Tampa Bay due to the Covid regulations of international travel. After getting a max at 33 million, Sakiam has started to get a bit of the Andrew Wiggins treatment, where 20 points and a collection of L’s come with the whispers on the air and shade from those who used to cast their praises and approval.

Siakam is only 27 years old, but his jumper and late-game execution has left much to be desired only shooting 29% from distance last year. With Coach Nick Nurse, there is always the possibility of the Raptors overachieving, as he is in the discussion for the best coach in the NBA. However, no one, presumably also including the front office in Toronto, considers this roster with or without a healthy Siakam as a true contender. With the recent success of rookie Scotty Barnes in combination with OG’s play on a good contract moving forward (16 million), the question on the table is if selling on Siakam is in the best interest of their franchise.

Toronto also has a luxury that many franchises don’t have, they don’t need to completely bottom out and tank themselves into top selections. They can instead do a soft rebuild keeping their young players on the roster and acquire additional young players with high ceilings in exchange for their above-average starters sent out to contenders. Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Goran Dragic, and Chris Boucher, have a substantial value around the league, especially if packaged together. If they can get good young prospects and late 1st round picks, Toronto has been notorious for their excellent developmental program and could turn a handful of rough stones into gems.

If they were able to trade off these 4 players, they still would be left with Gary Trent Jr. (22 years old on 16 million), OG (24 on 16 million), Scottie Barnes (20 on 7 million), and Precious Achiuwa (22 on 3 million). It already is a nice young core, and if they were to trade with the Warriors and acquire some of their rookies, or trade for Ben Simmons and Maxey from Philly they would have an excellent stack of promising stars in the making moving forward. Arguably, they could only sell Siakam and keep the rest of the pieces and continue to make playoff pushes moving forward with VanVleet, but there may be unique opportunities this trade deadline with Simmons or the young players in Golden State with two franchises thirsty to make moves to heighten their threat for the title in this postseason.

Instead of making a single move, if they are able to sell off their 4 vets, the young core should be heading into their primes 2-3 years down the road. At that time the Nets should already be out of the picture and with Embiid’s health certainty it does not lend itself to longevity. Also, them picking up another lottery pick, even if only a top 11th or 12th pick in the draft may prove to be more beneficial long-term than a first-round knockout in the playoffs this postseason.

Devil’s Advocate

 Although ideologically, logic term, the argument above appears to be sound, as we know, all assets that may be collected are question marks—calculated gambles. Seeing Pascal Siakam back in the rotation and Nick Nurse basically choosing to play no traditional bigs and instead load his lineups with power forwards, the Raptors do look interesting in a very shaking East. At the beginning of this season, it looked as if the top two teams were so above the rest but nothing we have seen in this small sample size from Milwaukee or Brooklyn implies stability and sureness. Now, the Nets handled Toronto quite easily in the 2nd half in Siakam’s return game, and I am no one is insinuating that they are a title team with him back in their rotation. However, a reason the Raptors have been so efficient in developing talent is their youth having the opportunity to show out in big moments. Scottie Barnes is for real, and if given the opportunity to battle with Durant and Harden in a meaningful 7 game series would surely boost his development in a way he would not be able to if not given such a chance to experience playoff basketball.

They already have what rebuilding teams dream of with all these young stars on similar timelines. Now if someone is willing to overpay for Siakam or VanVleet it probably is an exchange Toronto must take long term. However, there is a very interesting argument for being the best version of themselves heading into the playoffs, allowing Barnes, OG, Siakam, and Achiuwa to rise to the occasion. They would also be playing with house money since they have little to no expectation for a deep run, giving Barnes an ideal situation for his first postseason play.

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