Toronto commits to winning, but is it the right call?
(Sean Carroll illustration)
The Toronto Raptors’ NBA trade deadline was disappointing, but predictable.
For the first time in a long time, it looked like the Raptors were going to make some serious moves. There were several names on the trade block and skirting across the Twitter timeline but as the hours, minutes and seconds tick tocked to 3:00pm ET on Thursday, this team remained largely whole.
The lone NBA franchise in Canada made one move—not so much a Kevin Durant to the Suns type of move—but a move nonetheless. The dinos nabbed former Raptor Jakob Poeltl from the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Khem Birch (play the Canadian national anthem), a top-six protected 2024 first-round draft pick and two future second-round picks.
Seemed like the thought process heading into the deadline was Toronto would-be sellers, but as Adrian Wojnarowski put it:
“The Raptors never turned out to be sellers, adding Spurs centre Jakob Poeltl on deadline day. They'll have to make some harder decisions in the offseason, but Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster tested and learned more about the value of several players.”
The Raps instead chummed the water for funsies to see what would emerge from the deep, murky depths…ominous hey?
As Wojnarowski hinted, Toronto is up against a luxury tax challenge now, maybe, possibly, as Poeltl, Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. all expect to become unrestricted free agents this summer. Not an easy task for Ujiri and Webster to manage while also trying to juggle the thought of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam hitting the open market the following year.
If the Raptors re-sign the trio of Poeltl, VanVleet and Trent Jr., who are expected to receive some big bucks — in the $70 million range all together — it would put them deep into the luxury tax.
VanVleet said it well after the Raptors beat the Spurs 112-98 on Wednesday night.
“We got a lot of good players on a team that’s not winning. We haven’t played up to our standard this year, we put ourselves in this position and you’ve got to deal with it.”
Just a note. Quite a coinkidink that these teams faced up on the court, then on the front office level, like, I assume the trade talks were somewhat in person? Like how often does this scenario happen? I don’t know, whatever, just a thought.
Back to VanVleet.
He was a wanted man as the L.A. Clippers were reportedly interested in him, but the Raptors requested Terance Mann, who recently got promoted to the starting point guard gig, in any deal. An ask too high, especially if VanVleet walked in the offseason. Instead, the Clippers sent some of their guards packing: Reggie Jackson to the Charlotte Hornets, Luke Kennard to the Memphis Grizzlies, and John Wall, hilariously, back to the Houston Rockets.
Back to Anunoby.
He has been having another strong season averaging 16.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, two assists and 2.1 steals. With the defensive stalwart presumably available at the deadline, and Toronto having a logjam of forwards at its disposal, a move looked inevitable. Especially with Durant heading out West, the Memphis Grizzles, New Orleans Pelicans and even the Denver Nuggets, looked like clubs that would want a defensive body like Anunoby to throw at the newly-minted Suns’ player in a playoff situation.
I guess the price was too high again with reports pointing to Toronto wanting multiple first-round picks.
Back to Poeltl.
The trade with the Spurs frees up nearly $7 million in cap space, which was owed to Birch next year, which could be a factor in the team's future decisions.
The trade seems to have come at a significant cost pick-wise though. Birch was underwhelming during his Raptors’ tenure. Additionally, Toronto parted with two unprotected second-round picks in 2023 and 2025.
The team will now be without a second-round pick until 2025, as they had already traded their 2024 second-round pick for Marc Gasol during the 2018-19 championship season. The 2023 second-round pick could potentially turn into a pick in the 30s, given that the Raptors hold around the ninth-worst record in the NBA. Until the 2024 first-round pick conveys, the Raptors will be unable to trade either of their 2025 or 2026 first-round picks.
But I guess it’s not all bad as the Spurs were reportedly seeking two first-round picks for Poeltl.
Looking at the teenage mutant ninja Poeltl, he was originally drafted by the Raptors in 2016 and was part of the trade that sent Kawhi Leonard to Toronto in 2018.
The 27-year-old is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and will likely command a (somewhat) high salary. Looking at the present though, his size, skill and post-presence on offence are expected to add a more traditional look to the Raptors' roster.
Poeltl, a 7-foot-1 centre, is known for his rim protection … disregard him being on the receiving end of those nasty posters by the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant. He's a below-average free throw shooter (wow, I’m really making this optimistic), but his value lies in his size, which balances out a roster dominated by similar-sized and skilled wings who also play centre.
He is averaging 12.1 points and 9.1 rebounds in 45 games this season, not too shabby. Coach Nick Nurse has praised Poeltl previously, calling him a smart, tough and hard-working player who is a good screener and rebounder.
I’m in my feels right now, Poeltl was drafted alongside Pascal Siakam, and VanVleet (if you count undrafted players). The three have come a long way from their time at Summer League.
The chemistry should be noticeable on the court right away whether it be on-ball screen action with VanVleet and Poeltl, or even Siakam, or transition movement up the court after a defensive rebound by Poeltl.
Yak and Skills are reunited, nostalgia is warm and nice.
It appears the Raptors are signalling a playoff push with how Ujiri and Webster operated at the deadline, and the team sits only a couple of games behind the eighth spot.
Though, during a media conference, Ujiri seemed to hint at this being a last-chance type situation: “We’ve had a really rough stretch but I believe in these guys. We believe in them. And we think growth sometimes takes a while… We needed at least to give them a chance with a big rim protector and see what this team does.”
As mentioned earlier, Toronto holds a group of unrestricted free agents, Poeltl included, and it could be a juicy offseason of changeups. Ujiri is aware the roster is teetering back and forth on a peak between re-tooling and rebuilding.
“We have good, young, talented players, but does it all fit together? We're hoping. Does it amount to wins? We're hoping, but if it doesn't, I think we're in a great position to re-energise this team, whether it's a re-tool, a rebuild or any way you look at it,” Ujiri says.
Again, maybe it was meant to be that these two teams played a night before the deadline and have a history of being trade partners. It seems plausible their meeting on Wednesday night might have even sealed the trade. How much more should I infer?
I was wanting the Raptors to be sellers at the deadline, a shake-up is nice to refresh a roster. But maybe trading for Poeltl is the refresher Toronto needed. Not new players, but a familiar face for a position they had to address to try and make a late-season push to the playoffs.