Raptors' future is murky after missed opportunity at NBA trade deadline

The Raptors were the belle of the ball at the NBA trade deadline but didn't take advantage of a seller's market.

If Masai Ujiri isn’t the most interesting man in the NBA, he is certainly the most mysterious. Everytime you think you know what he is going to do with the Toronto Raptors, he does the opposite. And that's exactly what happened at the NBA trade deadline.

The Raptors entered Thursday's deadline with a disappointing 26-30 record while sitting in 10th place in a top-heavy Eastern Conference. They have talented players, but the on-court fit hasn’t looked clean all season, and they've been worse than the sum of their parts.

In what was thought to be a seller's market, the Raptors were the belle of the ball, and it was expected that they would trade at least one of their expiring or soon-to-be expiring contracts in Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr. or O.G. Anunoby in order to reshape the team in a forward-focused move.

But instead of selling at the deadline and trying to recoup assets while bolstering their chances at a high pick in a top-heavy 2023 NBA Draft, the Raptors went the other direction, adding former Raptors center Jakob Poeltl from the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Khem Birch, a top-6 protected 2024 first-round pick, and second-round picks in 2023 and 2025. Poeltl is averaging 12-9-3 on 62/0/62 shooting splits this season.

It’s a risky deal for any team to make, let alone one who has been up and down all season like the Raptors, never establishing a solid floor or knowing what to expect from their core players on any given night. If the Raptors are disappointing again next season, they could end up giving a very valuable pick to the Spurs for Poeltl, who is ultimately a slightly above average center on an expiring contract.

But it goes deeper than that. As much as this trade deadline appears to be a lost opportunity for the Raptors to sell players at peak value and recoup future assets, there is always more nuance to it, and Poeltl ultimately makes them a better team now and likely for many years to come.

Let’s break down the Raptors trade, the lack of a blockbuster move, and what it all says about the team’s future.

Poeltl coming home

In a vacuum, adding Poeltl to this Raptors team makes a lot of sense.

The 7-foot Austrian is going to immediately step into the Raptors starting lineup as an elite rim protector, rebounder, screen setter, finisher, and burgeoning playmaker. The Raptors have been lacking a starting-caliber center for years in a league that requires you to be talented and deep at that position, not to mention in an Eastern Conference that requires you to go through elite bigs like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. It’s no wonder the Raptors have been 11.5 points per 100 possessions better with rookie rim-protector Christian Koloko on the floor this season despite his offensive shortcomings and foul issues.

In addition to bolstering a 17th-ranked defense and-16th ranked defensive rebounding team, Poeltl will help almost everyone in the starting lineup on offense, setting bone-crushing screens for VanVleet to take advantage of above the arc, helping the vertical spacing as a roller and lob threat, finishing plays as a cutter, playing off Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes, and getting guys easier shots by making quick decisions as a dribble-handoff hub and playmaker in the mold of Marc Gasol. In fact, Poeltl is sporting a career-high 16.6 assist percentage this season, which ranks in the 90th percentile for bigs.

“I think there’s a fit here,” Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri said about adding Poeltl to the mix. “I think sometimes we've played a little selfish… He’s going to pass the ball a little bit better for us. So knowing him, knowing his style of play, just knowing the guy already, I think brings a little bit of spirit for us and guys see that.”

Poeltl noted there were a number of teams trying to trade for him and that he didn't know where he was going to end up, but said "I'm glad it worked out this way" with Toronto acquiring him, adding that "it definitely helps even just getting to the facility yesterday and watching shootaround today, it all feels familiar."

As important as the two-way fit and ball movement Poeltl provides for a team that ranks 24th in assists per game, the move also gives the Raptors some real depth for the first time in years. Poeltl will likely start in place of Gary Trent Jr. when the Raptors are fully healthy, allowing them to bring Trent Jr., Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher off the bench, which should ease the heavy minutes burden on the starters.

However, the downside to adding Poeltl and sending a shooter like Trent Jr. to the bench is that the Raptors now have very little spacing in their starting lineup after already ranking 28th in the league in three-point shooting percentage. Plus, the move solidifies the frontcourt of the future in Siakam, Barnes and Poeltl: three non three-point shooting players.

"I've had a lot of experience over the last year or two with limited spacing," Poeltl said. "So I think it's about just finding your spots... find the right spacing. Even though you might not shoot it, find the right spacing, still stretch the court and then cut at the right moment to make the defense react to it, and then you have other guys out there shooting on the court that might get open from that."

It’s difficult to succeed without spacing in the modern NBA. And Ujiri acknowledged that the team needs to improve in the shooting department to make it work, saying “I think we need to be one of those top tier three-point shooting teams [to win]. But we’ll get there. Whether it's by addition or these guys getting better. It’s patience and we are going to grow with our team. But yeah, it's not, and I plead: it doesn't happen overnight.”

Patiently evaluating

Speaking of things not happening overnight, the overlying message of Ujiri’s post-trade deadline press conference was “patience.” Instead of making the type of blockbuster move that many people expected, Ujiri noted that the trade deadline is “really not a great place to make long-term decisions,” adding that it’s easier in the summer when “there are 29 losers and one winner. There are 29 teams looking to do more.”

Plus, Ujiri and the Raptors front office want more time to evaluate their core and to let their young players develop before making any big decisions on who to trade away, if anybody. He said “Growth is not linear. We’ve had a really bumpy road. That’s what you expect sometimes with a young team… But I believe in these guys. We believe in them. We think growth sometimes takes a while. There’s a level of impatience now with how we think about things and do things. Hopefully we can have a little bit of patience.”

The Raptors particularly want to use until the end of the season to see what their vision 6-foot-9 team-building philosophy looks like with a 7-foot center in the middle of everything, evaluating if the fit between their core players improves with Poeltl manning the middle and doing some of the dirty work.

“I think it’s something we’ve lacked on our team. To be fair [to] this team, I think I haven’t done my part for this team to maybe play a little bit better,” Ujiri said about the move. “I think we needed a big like Jak, protect the rim, who these guys have confidence in… I think I look at it like we needed to at least give them some chance with a big rim protector there and see what this team does… I feel that this will be a good period to assess the fit.”

The downside to being so patient and relying on internal development and things to naturally fall into place is that it comes with the risk of potentially missing opportunities to add talent. Instead of tanking for a better pick in the 2023 NBA Draft or trading for young players and future picks, the Raptors decided to run it back with essentially the same middling team.

Which begs the question: how do they take the next step towards contention?

Raptors guards Fred VanVleet #23 and Gary Trent Jr. are both likely to hit free agency this summer. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Raptors guards Fred VanVleet #23 and Gary Trent Jr. are both likely to hit free agency this summer. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

The future is murky

The Raptors are undoubtedly better than their record indicates, with a positive net rating and an unlucky 14-18 record in close games being good indicators. But they are not contenders — not even close.

The Raptors have the 20th ranked half-court defense and 27th best half-court offense on a point per possession basis, two of the biggest indicators of playoff success. And while Poeltl could help improve both of those numbers marginally, the Raptors still have a ton of holes to fill and a lot of room to grow before they can actually compete with the best teams in the East.

According to Ujiri, that growth has to come from within before it comes from the outside, saying “Sometimes it’s how we’ve operated with development on our team: I think it has to come a lot of times from the inside. Whether that inside provides an opportunity outside later on, I don’t know. We have to rise here with development and our talent and it does take time.”

Ujiri added: “I truly believe that it’s going to be internally, it has to rise. And then when the opportunity comes, you put it together.”

By “put it together,” Ujiri means the Raptors are trying to keep their options open and strike at the right time, whether it's as buyers or sellers. They think they have put themselves in a good position to be flexible, saying “We have good young talented players. 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-energize this team, whether it’s a retool or rebuild or any way you look at it.”

While that may be true, the Raptors have put a ton of pressure on themselves this offseason with the moves they made at the deadline, now holding three pending free agents in VanVleet, Trent Jr. and Poeltl. While Ujiri said he believes in the players on this Raptors team and that “we are always focused on trying to retain our players,” he also said that “everything we could have done today [regarding trades] maybe we could do in the summer” in the form of sign-and-trade deals.

“This is the first year, outside of the year in Tampa, that we’ve had really bumpy times here. This is, I think, the most bumpy it's been for us and we acknowledge that, we know that, and we hope to solve it,” Ujiri said. “But I just want to caution everyone that it’s not going to be overnight. That’s what happens with young players and young teams: You have to build gradually and hopefully we get there but hopefully in the short term we make a good assessment at the end of the season.”

The Poeltl acquisition hasn’t fundamentally changed the Raptors' ceiling, as they are still in all likelihood set for a first-round exit this playoffs. But they are better. And the deal was never just about this season — it was about the future, too. Given that it was the only realistic way to add a starting-caliber center to the roster, it’s not the end-of-the-world trade some Raptors fans are making it out to be.

But, again, it only puts more pressure on the Raptors this offseason. Poeltl may give them a better chance to evaluate what they really have, but if they come to the same conclusions regarding their personnel in the summer that they came to at the trade deadline, they will likely have missed out on a real opportunity to trade players at peak value in order to better set themselves up for the future.

As always, only time will tell. But next time, don’t be surprised when Ujiri does the exact opposite of what everyone is expecting him to.

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