The trade machine vultures are circling the Raptors, and deservedly so. The league’s front offices plan months and years in advance to be able to acquire players the calibre of some of the Raptors’ best, and the team has earned its turn in the unwanted spotlight with its languid play. In a way, it’s a compliment: If the team didn’t have players worth acquiring, the trade chatter would be quieter.
During Sunday’s loss to the Warriors, Kevin O’Connor, a basketball writer at The Ringer, tweeted that the Raptors were in “blow it up” territory. Now, O’Connor has become a blow-it-up connoisseur (not a criticism; he likes to identify which teams might be better off disbanding than staying on their current path), so it must be read in that context. The Raptors aren’t there yet, but in a league in which you want to avoid getting stuck in the middle, the speculation is understandable — especially in a draft year with a potentially once-in-a-generation prospect, Victor Wembanyama. (Beyond him, the class is thought to be a good one.)
The Raptors are in Blow It Up territory
-13-17 record, losers of 5 straight
-The team looks broken
-No realistic path to contention
-Only 3.5 back from the bottom 4
-Veterans they could get a haul for
-Young talent to build with, making it more of a retool and not a long rebuild pic.twitter.com/QEmfLKHZjz
— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 19, 2022
Before we get too far into this conversation, which wasn’t quieted by the 104-101 overtime loss in Philadelphia, the sixth on the trot for the Raptors, we need to define some terms. When people talk about “blowing it up,” they mean a team should abandon its current plan for success. When people talk about “tanking,” be it a long-term or short-term strategy, as John Hollinger did last week, it involves roster machinations and, let’s say, strategic decisions about player availability that make losing more likely. Blowing it up can lead to tanking, but not all tanking is the same as blowing it up. Got it? Good.
For the Raptors’ purposes, this is how you’ll know the difference. If they trade Pascal Siakam, they will be blowing it up. Anything shy of that falls shy of that definition, too.
Trading Fred VanVleet, a first-time All-Star last year who is shooting poorly this season and will likely hit free agency at age 29 in the summer? Not blowing it up. Trading OG Anunoby, a tremendous defensive player with solid utility as a tertiary scorer, to add some draft picks and/or increased depth? Not blowing it up. Trading Siakam, a two-time All-NBA player who is playing some of his best basketball ever? Yep, that qualifies. Without him, the premise of the Raptors evaporates.
For the struggling Raptors, Siakam is basically the whole damn thing, the last guy separating them from generally competitive and a train wreck. His offensive output has dipped a bit from before his adductor injury, but he has done multiple things recently — holding Kevin Durant to 15 shot attempts, notably — to distinguish himself.
Monday, he was great. Full stop. He had 38 points, 15 rebounds and six assists, the first two stats being season highs. He also produced one of the greatest individual sequences in Raptors history. With the Raptors down two points at the end of regulation, he skied for a rebound in traffic, took the ball down the floor, slithered by P.J. Tucker and hit the score-tying layup high off the glass at an awkward angle. The 76ers still had some time on the clock, and Siakam switched on to Joel Embiid and guarded him physically without fouling, forcing a miss.
SIAKAM UP TO 38 POINTS.
WE ARE GOING TO OT.
5 more minutes of CrunchTime: https://t.co/l0hlhlmrQi pic.twitter.com/qpBef2cb9N
— NBA (@NBA) December 20, 2022
Siakam did it all, and it was only countless missed 3-pointers, several from VanVleet on clean looks, that kept the Raptors from breaking this slump. On consecutive possessions late in the third quarter, Siakam pushed the ball up the floor and got off the ball, only to get it back and drill a 3. Philadelphia took the ball down the court, and Siakam got an offensive foul called by having the energy to go over the screen. He got his rest soon after, only to be called back in for the last possession of the quarter, hitting just his fifth pull-up 3 of the year to tie the score. The Sixers dutifully started sending a double-team at Siakam to start the fourth quarter when VanVleet, Anunoby and Scottie Barnes were resting. Siakam adjusted. He played all but 84 seconds in the second half and overtime.
Early in the game, Siakam got the Raptors going with two baskets by going straight at Embiid, the first one a trademark spin move. In the NBA Finals run, Embiid’s defence flummoxed Siakam. Almost four years later, he knows how to counter it. When Embiid wasn’t guarding him, Tucker, one of the most physical perimeter defenders in the league, was. Siakam and Tucker exchanged trash talk in a game earlier in the year and exchanged technicals Monday. Siakam smiled widely as he was called for an offensive foul, probably one possession after he actually deserved one. Siakam never stopped sizing up the defence correctly, though, making the passes that needed to be made to get some necessary ball movement, with one exception.
Whether the Raptors should trade Siakam is yet to be determined. It depends on how, whether and when they can get themselves out of this hole they cannot stop digging. It depends on the offers that are on the table. It depends on the ancillary moves that might be available. If the Raptors continue to lose, there will be plenty of time to discuss that.
“At the end of the day, I don’t care about the schemes or this or that,” a frustrated Siakam said Sunday night. “We’ve just got to win. That’s the only thing. I don’t know the difference compared to (past) groups. I just know this group right now, we’re struggling. It’s really bad. We have to get out of it.”
Just know that without Siakam, they’d have no chance of doing that. Siakam is the type of player you move only when you’re sure every other possible route takes you nowhere worth going.
• Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to show you Barnes setting a screen and then catching a pass on the roll. More, please. Like, five-times-a-game more.
• Given the Raptors’ offensive shortcomings and lack of confidence, Nick Nurse has to stagger the minutes of Siakam and VanVleet. One of them should be on the court at all times. Both sat for more than three minutes to start the second quarter, a stretch in which the 76ers outscored Toronto 17-5. Managing minutes is difficult, but that’s not the way for Nurse to accomplish that right now.
• Monday was one of the Raptors’ best defensive efforts in a long time. Still, doubling Embiid in the middle of the floor, late in regulation, ahead by four points, seemed like a bizarre choice to me. VanVleet leaving De’Anthony Melton in the corner for James Harden above the break was worse. Chris Boucher’s poor closeout effort was the capper.
• I thought Khem Birch would start Monday for the Raptors. Instead, Nurse opted to stay small in the starting lineup, having Anunoby slide into Christian Koloko’s spot upon his return from a hip injury and keeping Juancho Hernangomez in the opening group. I anticipated Nurse would want somebody more physical to deal with Embiid at the start, avoiding foul trouble with some more central players, but that’s not what Nurse chose. Birch started the second half, with Young and Boucher combining to finish the game.
Birch’s offensive shortcomings make leaning on him difficult, but he made an obvious difference against Embiid. Unlike Barnes at the beginning of the game, Birch fought for space with an ability to win (or, at least, lose more slowly). Birch encouraged some awkward shots from the MVP candidate, a reminder of his utility.
• Anunoby returned from a four-game absence because of a hip injury; during that time, he also got to rest his sore hand. He was not good to start. The low point: trying to throw an alley-oop pass to Barnes on a two-on-one with Montrezl Harrell defending the rim. Either drive it to the bucket and make Harrell commit a foul or keep it simple with the pass. (The Raptors’ transition efficiency has taken a huge hit since the start of the year.)
Anunoby found more of his rhythm as the game progressed and finished with 13 points and some stout late-game defence.
(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)