It’s a long fall from the top, and the Toronto Raptors are learning that tough lesson today. In the 2018 offseason, Toronto made a calculated risk trading for All-Star, All-NBA player, former defensive player of the year, and NBA finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard was coming off a wild season where he only played nine games after various injury issues and disputes with Spurs management about whether or not he was healthy enough to play. Raptors President Masai Ujiri saw his team’s tires were spinning in the mud and going nowhere fast built around Demar Derozan and Kyle Lowry. Ujiri saw an opportunity and took it, pulling the trigger to trade for Leonard.
Demar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a 2019 first-round pick in exchange for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. I am sure you all know about what happens next as the Raptors go on a storybook run led by Leonard, who hit one of the greatest shots in playoff history to win game seven vs. the 76ers. The magical run went the distance, with the Raptors winning their franchise’s first-ever NBA title. That offseason, Kawhi Leonard left for the Clippers, and now, in 2023, Ujiri and the Raptors are in a similar spot to 2019.
Eastern Conference Loser Number 3: The Toronto Raptors.
Fred VanVleet, who was a significant contributor to that 2019 ring, decided it was time for a change and left in free agency as an unrestricted free agent to the Houston Rockets for a 3-year $128 million deal, hopefully, to help them make a turnaround in H-Town.
The Raptors replaced VanVleet with a serviceable backup in Dennis Schroeder, who looks to be in a position to start at point guard for the Raptors in 2023-2024. Toronto also added Kansas sharpshooter Gradey Dick in the NBA draft and signed the aforementioned Jalen McDaniels to their roster.
The question for the Raptors is, where are you going from here? It feels like we are on year five or so of waiting on the OG Anunoby leap, and as time goes on, it feels like an Anunoby trade is inevitable. At one point last year, it was rumored a team offered three first-round picks for him, and Toronto turned it down. That might have been the best return you could have gotten for him, and now he is a year older, one year less of team control on a contract, and he is still not happy in his role.
Pascal Siakam stepped into some big shoes when Kawhi Leonard left for the Clippers. Siakam, an All-Star and All-NBA player, also feels like he is on the chopping block. Siakam is going into next season on an expiring contract and is looking for long-term money. Currently, there don’t seem to be many suitors for Siakam other than the Hawks or Pacers, who don’t exactly offer a blue-chip trade package.
The focus should be on Scottie Barnes’ development and building a team around the 2021-2022 NBA Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately for Barnes, the Raptors have created a log jam of negative spacing around him that could end up hindering his development as a player.
As I mentioned before, the worst place to be in the NBA is in the middle. That is exactly where the Raptors project going into next season in a deep Eastern Conference. The question is how will Ujiri pivot out of this and try to extract value out of Siakam and maybe Anunoby to help build around Barnes. The answer? Only time will tell, but for now, I would say the Raptors got worse this offseason.