The Toronto Raptors have been near the top of the Eastern Conference for years now. They have won no less than 48 games in any season since 2014 and have had five seasons of 50 plus wins. They have one of the most brilliant basketball minds in the NBA in head coach Nick Nurse, the 2019-2020 NBA Coach of the Year, and a personnel mastermind in former executive of the year Masai Ujiri. Suffice to say, the Toronto Raptors have cemented themselves as one of the best franchises in the NBA over the past half decade.
Despite their continuous regular season success, they have experienced their fair share of struggles in the postseason. During the DeMar DeRozan/Kyle Lowry era, they were swept four games to zero three times in playoff series, twice by the Cleveland Cavaliers and once by the Washington Wizards. LeBron James even single-handily outperformed the duo of Lowry and Derozan in their 2018 playoff matchup.
These numbers are wild. 😳 pic.twitter.com/LU5ywYv2PT
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 8, 2018
Alas, they could not find a way to parlay their regular season dominance into postseason success. This eventually culminated in the firing of longtime head coach Dwayne Casey following the 2018 season. The Raptors were not done with their overhaul yet though, they also traded the fan favorite DeRozan, who is still the Raptors all-time leader in points scored. They were able to package him, center Jakob Poeltl and a first round draft pick for the San Antonio Spurs’ disgruntled superstar Kawhi Leonard and sharpshooter Danny Green.
The Kawhi Era
The Raptors’ trade was met with a fair amount of skepticism from the media and fans alike. Many questioned why the Raptors would trade away DeRozan, arguably the best player to ever play for the franchise up to that point, for Leonard, who had refused to play most of the 2018 season in order to force a trade from San Antonio. Additionally, Leonard had only one season left on his contract when the Raptors traded for him, so the trade was essentially a championship or bust move.
Skeptics would be forced to eat their words however, as the Raptors went on to have a terrific regular season, winning 58 games. Leonard had an All-NBA level season and led the team in win shares. More importantly however, they finally were able to achieve playoff success, and ended up dethroning the Golden State Warriors dynasty after years of dominance. Leonard had a posteason for the ages, averaging over 30 points a game and carrying the Toronto offense for stretches. He hit the first buzzer beating series winner in NBA playoff history to move past the Philadelphia 76ers in game seven of the eastern conference semifinals.
Their playoff woes were remedied by Leonard’s superstardom, his two-way dominance, and shot creating ability. Unlike DeRozan, he was the engine of the Raptors on both ends of the floor. Additionally, the Raptors roster featured a ton of players with excellent complementary skill sets such as Pascal Siakam, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and several others. They undoubtedly possessed the talent to be a playoff team without Leonard, they just needed a player with his talent to make the leap from really good playoff team to championship contender.
The Struggles Continue
Fast forward a year and a half later, and the Toronto Raptors have started the 2020-2021 regular season 2-8. Their offense looks completely stagnant, and Pascal Siakam has failed to take the offensive leap many hoped he would. Last year’s playoff series against the Celtics and the start to this year’s regular season has made it apparent that the Raptors lack the tools to be a title contender. They were unable to compete with the talent of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with their roster then, and have been further hurt since by the free agency departures of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol.
They still have a fantastic head coach in Nick Nurse and executive in Masai Ujiri, as well as lots of great complementary players like OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet and Chris Boucher. They also have a top five point guard in Kyle Lowry, and one of the most cohesive team cultures in the NBA. Pascal Siakam has struggled this year, but likely due to being asked to do too much on offense. He is a talented player, but he doesn’t have the skillset to carry a championship level offense, and he likely won’t improve much more as a 26 year-old. In last year’s playoffs, Siakam averaged an underwhelming 17 points per game, down over six points from his regular season average. He was inefficient as well, shooting 39.6 percent from the field and an abysmal 18.9 percent from three.
The Raptors are actually in a remarkably similar situation to their pre-Leonard days; they are a good but not great team with talented secondary and tertiary options. In order to be contenders, the Raptors need to trade for a player with Leonard-level talent. That player is James Harden.
A Superstar Sized Hole
Harden would be a great fit for the Raptors, and they could likely facilitate a trade for him without sacrificing many long term assets. Harden is also only 31, and plays in a manner that is not overly dependent on his athletic ability. Players like Goran Dragic and Lou Williams have continued to be high-level scorers into their 30s despite their declining athleticism because of their craftiness and basketball IQ. Harden continuing to play at a high level into his mid-30s is realistic. Adding the three time scoring title holder would be a boon for a Raptors team that is just 17th in offensive rating so far this season.
The Raptors would likely have to give up some key contributors to entice Houston. The Rockets have reportedly made it clear to all Harden suitors that they want an appropriate replacement for the former MVP. This would likely mean that the Rockets starting point would be asking for Siakam. Other key contributors like Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher might also be sought after, but the Raptors can pick and choose who they want to keep around, as well as throw in some future draft picks to avoid giving up too many concrete assets. All in all, the Raptors have enough capital to make an enticing offer for Harden. The Rockets could likely get a solid return for their disaffected star that would allow them to continue to contend for a playoff spot with John Wall and Christian Wood as their offensive centerpieces. Harden would get his wish of leaving Houston and get to join a great organization with a winning culture and a championship pedigree, as well as be surrounded by players with excellent complementary skill sets. The Raptors would get a player that could give them the superstar power to truly complete for a championship.
The Raptors should be prepared to give up Siakam to make this trade realistic. He is their best player other than Lowry, and it would make little sense for Houston to inquire about an aging point guard with Wall already on the roster. Norman Powell is a solid defender, an energetic scorer and good 3-point shooter, but he is unfortunately Toronto’s second coming of Terrence Ross. He wows audiences with his shooting and athletic dunks, but he provides little else on offense outside of straight line drives and catch-and-shoot threes, and has a propensity to play out of control. It will not be too difficult for the roster to collectively replicate his production or for the front office to find somebody to replace him.
However, there are a few players the Raptors should make untouchable. Among these is fourth year forward OG Anunoby. Anunoby has developed from a raw, athletic college prospect into the Raptors best wing defender and a reliable shooter. He ranked in the 94th percentile in isolation defense last season, allowing just 0.61 points per possession on such plays. He is young, on a cheap contract and fits with Toronto’s timeline, but most importantly plays well off-ball; over 90 percent of his 3-pointers have been assisted since he entered the league. Simply put, he is exactly the kind of player Harden thrives with: good outside shooters and versatile defenders who do not need the ball in their hands to be successful. Vanvleet should be off the table as well. The Raptors just gave him an $85 million contract and are grooming him to be Lowry’s replacement. He is an excellent scorer and passer, and a solid defender despite being undersized. VanVleet was not even drafted in 2016, and his hard work and leadership are an important part of the culture that has been so vital to Toronto’s success.
A Distressed Asset
Harden is one of the best scorers the NBA has ever seen, so it is understandable why the Rockets are so reluctant to let him go, but it appears that his time in Houston has run its course. Daryl Morey leaving the Rockets following last season was likely the writing on the wall for Harden, as they were known to have a close relationship. Morey’s departure also came after last season, where the Rockets were once again bounced from the playoffs earlier than expected in a year with championship aspirations. Harden’s absence from the Rockets’ training camp only confirmed his discontent with the direction of the franchise. The Rockets should try to get what they can for him before his handling of the situation gives him the label of a “distressed asset” and hinders their ability to get the maximum return for him. Players become distressed assets when they make it obvious they want out of their situation, and questions about their character and commitment come into question.
ESPN’s Max Kellerman explains what it means to be a distressed asset
Toronto as a destination makes a ton of sense for both parties involved, and Harden on Raptors would be a blast to watch. The asking price for such an elite talent will certainly be high, but it is only a matter of time before somebody offers the Rockets a deal that is too good to pass up. Here’s to hoping this deal comes to fruition.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com
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