The Toronto Raptors, who were expected to be sellers at the NBA trade deadline, weren’t. And much to the dismay of fans, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster not only didn’t tear it down but traded a first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for centre Jakob Poeltl.
Year after year, Toronto's quiet prudence bewilders the NBA world. Calls routinely come out pushing the Raptors to tear it down and blow it up, and year after year they don’t.
As renowned philosopher Kelly Kapoor from The Office once said, "Who says exactly what they're thinking? What kind of a game is that?"
The answer is Masai Ujiri. Despite the mystery that surrounds his decision-making process, he always manages to surprise us by doing exactly what he said he would do. And what he's always said he would do is be patient.
While patience may not be the most exciting strategy, it is a stable one. And stability is crucial in a league that is constantly in flux (see the Brooklyn Nets).
Patience doesn't mean twiddling your thumbs and doing nothing. In fact, Ujiri has orchestrated some sizeable trades. True patience means avoiding knee-jerk reactions to in-season slumps, giving your core players the necessary time and space to develop, and making core decisions during the offseason rather than under the pressure of the ticking clock at the trade deadline.
However, patience isn't always easy or the best approach. The Raptors have forgone making moves because they were patiently awaiting some big names who never came. And, this season, the team has patiently awaited internal growth that has yet to materialize.
But what is the alternative to being patient? Panic selling. And why panic sell? This is a question worth asking, and one that the front office has likely been repeating to itself since 2016. Calls for the Raptors to blow it up are not new, yet they have remained steadfast in their approach of patience, development, and continuity.
Ujiri and the Raptors have a clear philosophy: don't make a move unless it has a clear benefit. The team's goal is to win, and that includes winning trades. This is why the Raptors didn't blow it up year after year when people called for complete tear-downs involving Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Picks and younger players filled those trade proposals. If you’re brave enough to go down the rabbit hole, you’ll see proposals centred around the likes of Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Goran Dragic, Kelly Olynyk, and Andrew Wiggins for the Raptors' 2017 core.
Instead, the Raptors were patient until they could make a move they knew would better their team, and now they have a banner in the rafters to show for it.
The key here is recognizing the grass isn't always greener on the other side, and making a move because you’re underwhelmed and hoping for something better is different from making a move when you know you'll get something better.
Of course, trades like the Kawhi Leonard deal don't come around every day, but the NBA is always in flux. The recent Kevin Durant trade that featured Mikal Bridges is a perfect example of this. Phoenix was able to make that deal because it had the flexibility, good young players on team-friendly contracts, and all its future first-round picks.
Panic moves may make splashy headlines and get people talking, but they're a sign of instability, a lack of direction, and a lack of pragmatism. It's better to be patient, assess what you have, and only make moves that will benefit your team in the long run.
The most extreme example of this is Philadelphia 76ers president Daryl Morey’s reluctance to trade Ben Simmons for anything short of a haul and then getting James Harden in return. Patience pays off amidst chaos.
To ensure the continued success of this iteration of the Raptors, the front office must evaluate several factors over the remaining 23 regular season games. They will consider whether the group can develop chemistry, defend effectively, win games in different ways, and most importantly, whether this core makes sense moving forward around Scottie Barnes.
At the trade deadline, Ujiri made some harsh remarks about team chemistry, stating that at times he felt the team played "selfishly." Ujiri believes the addition of Poeltl can help improve team play, saying, "he can pass the ball a little better for us," and crediting his style of play for doing many of the things this team needs.
Poeltl's impact will especially be felt on the defensive side of the ball. The Raptors have struggled defensively all season, with some of their best defensive lineups featuring second-round pick Christian Koloko at the five. A rim protector has been their biggest need, and in just three games, Poeltl has more than filled that role.
Raptors defensive on/offs with Koloko/Poeltl (def. rating & opp. eFG%)
Koloko: 103.6, 51.8% on; 116.1, 58.0% off
Poeltl: 103.6, 52.1% on; 130.2, 66.4% off
Raptors have played 737 minutes with Jakob Poeltl or Christian Koloko on the court this season. They're +155 in those min.
— Keerthika Uthayakumar (@keerthikau) February 15, 2023
The mark of a good team has been thought to be versatility, but it's really malleability. The Raptors have been able to match up well by going small against every team, and they can put out lineups that are among the NBA's most switchable. However, they have struggled to go big all season. A malleable roster is something the Raptors had when they won a championship; it allows them to match up against teams that go big or small.
Nick Nurse mentioned Poeltl's arrival frees up wings like O.G. Anunoby from matching up against opposing teams’ 7-footers, noting that now the Raptors’ dearth of long, switchable wings can be unleashed on smaller players.
Though Poeltl’s presence opens up a lot for the Raptors, none of it will matter if it doesn't work around Barnes in terms of fit and timeline. The most pressing evaluation over the next 23 games will be how a more traditional roster fits around Barnes. While Poeltl, specifically, may not be the key focus, with three free agents in tow, how the core of this team looks around its emerging star is where all eyes should be fixated.
“The Raptors could jump into the luxury tax if they retain their pending free agents.”
Sound familiar? It was a popular headline in 2017 after the Raptors acquired Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline. And it’s as true now as it was then.
According to Ujiri, the Raptors' goal is to retain all of their players, which they were unable to do in 2017 when Tucker left in free agency to join the Houston Rockets. The Raptors face a similar risk this year, with three core players becoming free agents in Poeltl, Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. If all three choose to stay, the team will need to find creative ways to avoid the luxury tax, because patience in team building only pays off if maximum flexibility is maintained. But before any financial considerations, the core players need to prove they deserve to stick together.
The Raptors' two biggest trade pieces are Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, and they're both signed beyond this season. Toronto spent the deadline testing the market on its guys, so it knows what to expect if it becomes a seller.
The Raptors showed faith in this core by reportedly refusing to trade Anunoby for three first-round picks. While details on the picks, including protections, were not included in the report, it suggests the Raptors value having players over picks at the moment because their current goal is to see how this team works. If things go poorly, they will prefer picks over players.
They were also wise enough to protect the first-round pick they gave the Spurs in the top six for three years. So if things go off the rails in the last 23 games of the season. You can rest assured the tank will be in full swing next year.
And if you’re worried the pick not conveying in 2024 may lock up the Raptors' first-round pick to trade, don't be. For starters, most tanking teams don’t trade their own pick. But beyond that, with the projected first-round pick returns for Anunoby and Siakam, the Stepien Rule that prohibits teams from being without a first-round pick in consecutive years would no longer apply.
If things don't work out, the front office can take comfort in knowing they tried their best to address a major issue the team was facing. Instead of leaving the fate of the group to the luck of the ping pong balls, they put their trust in the players on the court to determine their future. Unlike in the cases of Lowry and DeRozan, time is not on the players’ side, and they have only 23 games to figure out if this group can work together. The clock is ticking, and if they want to prove that this team can succeed, now is the time to show it.