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Raptors Once Again at a Crossroads? – The Line Between Contention and the Lottery

I’m tired of this narrative that the Raptors are at a crossroads, because lets be real, almost every NBA team can find themselves at a similar point where they’re one or two moves away from being a lottery team, or one or two moves away from becoming legitimate contenders.

The thing is with the Raptors, they’re not one or two moves away from being a lottery team. The Raptors have been better than their 17-19 record suggests, even with Kyle Lowry being out of lineup. They’re not far off a middle-seed playoff spot. The difference between fourth place Boston and Toronto is two games.

Fred VanVleet is in the middle of a career-year, Pascal Siakam has blossomed into a reliable secondary playmaker while also rediscovering his shot-making, and Norman Powell has shook off his early season struggles and emerged as a nightly scoring threat.

With or without Lowry, this team will remain a tough out in the postseason. Even with Joel Embiid playing at an MVP level, I’m sure he would prefer to face a team that’s not the Raptors and Nick Nurse. The Raptor defensive schemes have given Embiid problems this season, and the Raptors would be live underdogs in another potential seven-game series. This team will make it tough for whoever matches up with them.

At the same time, this team as currently constructed isn’t a title contender. The players would probably tell you otherwise, and rightfully so. You want players to have confidence in their abilities. And yet, there’s a key ingredient missing in this championship recipe.

The Missing Piece(s)

Chris O’Meara / AP

One of the biggest issues this team has had over the past two seasons is their struggles to score in half court sets, particularly when teams load up on primary creators like VanVleet, Siakam, and Lowry. The Raptors are a noticeably different team when opposing teams slow them down, take away the transition game, and close out on the Raptors’ three-point centric attack.

There’s definitely metrics out there to support this, but anyone that watches the Raptors on a regular basis have surely noticed the painful scoring droughts this team tends to suffer from.

The eye test suggests that Toronto is missing one type of player, one piece to the puzzle that makes a championship team. This presence has been absent for the most part since the 2018-19 season.

A transcendent isolation scorer would make a world of a difference considering the struggles the Raptors have had in the half court. Siakam, Powell, and VanVleet have their moments, don’t get me wrong, but against the top competition the East and the rest of the league has to offer, the Raptors need more to get to that next level of contention.

A stronger presence on the glass would also benefit the Raptors, as they’re currently ranked 24th in defensive rebounding percentage per basketball reference.

Potential Moves the Raptors Could Make

Brett Davis / USA TODAY Sports

With the current trade and buyout market in mind, there aren’t a lot of moves available that will absolutely thread the needle and make the Raptors into legitimate contenders, but there are a couple moves that can improve the team in areas of need.

Targeting a centre is likely the Raptors’ top priority heading into the trade deadline. Andre Drummond will likely be available on the buyout market as his trade value around the league is quite low. Other options such as DeMarcus Cousins (via buyout) and Nikola Vucevic (probably for a price Orlando can’t refuse) are also intriguing to think about. The reality is Drummond, if bought out, will probably sign with a contender like the Brooklyn Nets or Los Angeles Lakers. The same can be said for Cousins.

Vucevic isn’t probably available considering Orlando is also in the hunt for the playoffs, and he’s still under contract until 2023. A potential Vucevic trade (if accepted) would devoid the Raptors’ flexibility both financially and in terms of draft picks as the Raptors own their first rounders for the foreseeable future.

A young centre like John Collins or Jarrett Allen would be an ideal fit for the Raptors who are building around the core of VanVleet, Siakam, and OG Anunoby, but again, at what cost?

What The Raptors Will Likely Do at the Deadline

Sam Forencich / NBAE via Getty Images

If you’re betting on the Raptors making a home-run swing at an all-star level player, its likely not going to happen. There are just too many teams that either A. have more to offer, or B. are more attractive destinations for players.

In terms of addressing the Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell trade rumours, both players are key to the team’s past and present success. It would be extremely tough to part with a franchise icon like Lowry, but I do believe that the team will only trade him if the right offer is on the table. At the same time, if Lowry is to be traded, the organization will probably do him justice by trading him to a team that has a chance of competing for the championship.

If there’s any time to trade Powell, now would be one of the best opportunities as he’s also amidst a career-year while also in a contract year due to his player option for next season, which he’s likely to decline.

Despite the rumours, I think the Raptors will likely stand pat at the deadline. The East is extremely weak compared to previous years, and it’s not farfetched to believe that the Raptors think they’re good enough, as currently constructed, to make a competitive playoff run. Realistically, they’re not good enough to win it all, but objectively, they’re good enough to give any team in the East a run for their money in a seven game series.

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