The fervour of the NBA trade deadline is an easy thing to get swept up in. The allure of fast moves, new pieces, and a team gaining a perceived added gear to shift into because of it is a strong one, especially smack dab in the middle of the season. By now, leaders have emerged in both conferences and for the teams that have fallen behind comes an exercise of evaluation.
Is it worth putting together a package of appealing prospects, or bartering with a notable star, to draw something they need in return? Alternately, for teams that on the surface seem to require a slight tweak, is it appropriate to gamble with what could be working in a few weeks time in order to secure the more immediate edge? In a league with parity across the board, is it worth it to risk the more mystical components of the game—like chemistry, or being due a shift in fate from the basketball gods—when pursuing a trade? Opt to shore up for the permanently lurking threat of injury? There is just about every reason not to envy the decision-making process of front offices across the league this week.
But still, there can be a sense that no moves made mean a team is automatically falling behind. That in order to stay competitive, one needs to be in the mix, generating momentum at every available opportunity.
The Raptors went ahead and proved this theory wrong this deadline, but quietly and with assurance, the way they like to do everything these days.
The thing with teams that are working, really working well, is that they make it look easy. We get a bit of a pass in Toronto, having suffered through lean years and many less than ideal iterations. There is either a latent PTSD embedded in the fabric of our fandom or else we are unfamiliar with what a confident, competitive and successful team can look like. The Raptors are there now, and have been slowly building to this point across moves more foundational—with the exception of one year with Kawhi Leonard—than blockbuster. Toronto was one of the first teams in the league to invest in their developmental arm, mainly out of necessity. Using it to bring up overlooked prospects like Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, players now central to the team’s model and storied successes. The trajectory of these two breakout stars set the model for more to follow: Chris Boucher took the 905 to Toronto Raptors route and Terence Davis, who went undrafted and did not spend any time in the D-League, instead used Summer League as a personal sling to snag himself a roster spot with the Raptors. It’s this ethic of working under the radar—head down, putting the work in, keeping at it—that has in the last few years, certainly under Masai Ujiri’s tenure, been a core quality of the team.
To drill down into that bedrock and take a look at the individual pieces for what their trade potential would have been is to see the same value they have within the Raptors, but amplified. Terence Davis, when he’s consistent, is not only a considerable perimeter and in-the-paint threat, but also offers a crucial release valve for VanVleet and Kyle Lowry. Rotations that utilize Davis in place of Lowry or VanVleet allow the other two guards a rest while keeping a similar proxy in tenacity and decision-making on court. Lineups that bundle the three of them together are fast and fearless, working like a portable defibrillator in tough spots or energy slumps. It’s not that Davis wouldn’t be an asset to any number of teams looking for exactly what he’s got, either alongside developing young cores or to support superstars, it’s that Davis is not going to thrive anywhere as freely as he does in Toronto. His energy, fearlessness and self-made work ethic snap so neatly in place alongside his on-court prototypes of Lowry and VanVleet, and under Serge Ibaka’s guidance, which Davis has referred heartbreakingly to as “a light in my life”, he has gained footholds in what it means to stay competitive within a league that had previously overlooked him.
The engines of the team, Lowry and VanVleet, are so confident in the work they put in, in the essential roles they’ve built for themselves, that they could easily be established as working prototypes on almost any other team in the league. As a team leader, Lowry has excelled this season. It’s the first year he has had the leadership role all to himself, not alongside an anchor and confidant like DeMar DeRozan or a star the calibre of Kawhi Leonard, who he readily passed the team he had a major hand in building over to knowing it was his an their best shot to a title. We have always known Lowry as a capable co-pilot, but as the de facto boss he has been benevolent. Continuing to find new ways to push his team to success while supporting the individual bursts his teammates are riding without much need for the spotlight. On court, his “maniacal competitiveness”, as Sixers coach Brett Brown recently called it, is manifesting more than ever in the moments he makes for his teammates. Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich, called Lowry a “competitive, tough-minded, physically tough guy” when attempting to explain how it was Lowry is so clever on court. A handful of players, like Lowry, could be called basketball geniuses, but fewer, if any, have the same hold that he does when it comes to generosity. This season it his pure unselfishness that has made so much room for experimentation and overall acceleration of this Raptors squad, and it’s this model of cooperation that underscores everything the team is doing on and off court.
This approach has trickled down or out, depending on how your hierarchy of the team looks, to veterans like Ibaka who have worked openly with new players as much as they have taken an honest approach in going back to the drawing board and working on what improvements and adjustments they can make in their own game. Ibaka’s passing, for example, has improved immensely. He’s been working on it, of his passing Nurse said Ibaka has been “serious about continuing to improve”, and of his own approach Ibaka attributed it to something of a mantra for the team overall, “Don’t give up, keep trusting each other.”
But on-court concern is the primary one when it comes to the trade deadline and teams reshuffling themselves. Another reason why the Raptors might have decided to sit this one out is because they have already had a whole lot of reshuffling forced on them. Though it was no one’s preference, the slew of injuries the Raptors had from the late-fall onward, up to even now, made it essential for the team to get creative if they wanted to keep competitive. Rotationally, it gave a boon of minutes to guys like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Patrick McCaw and Chris Boucher who it only seemed were waiting for the right opportunity to explode. Core players who remained miraculously unscathed in what felt like a hex on the team were able to sub in where needed, with no one individual shouldering more minutes than usual to make up for the deficit of healthy bodies.
All of this has made the Raptors uniquely loose. You can see it in the way the team will flip and flow through lineups, going from small and quick, cutting, a pummelling speed in VanVleet-Lowry-Davis, to big in the middle, with someone like Ibaka or Marc Gasol, even Siakam, as an anchor point with pace moving around them in a big, crushing wheel. They have become adept out of necessity, but without any of the severity that scarcity can force. Nick Nurse has been frank in his approach to trying things, and if “something works” to “let it roll for a while”, he said as much in the Raptors first win against the Pacers in their double-header. He has also been honest when it comes to the team stepping up to win, even when pinched, often in ways that surprise even him.
Looking ahead to the postseason, which is never really that far out of the picture, especially when it comes to trades, this versatility will serve the Raptors as much as their Championship confidence. Equipped to match up against huge teams—long like the Bucks or more traditionally gigantic like the Lakers—as much as they can be matched against agile, tenacious teams like the Pacers or Heat. A playoff series can get long, as any Toronto fan can attest to after last year’s run, and staying flexible, ready to made changes when needed and not overly losing the larger picture when one singular plan does not go accordingly, is a key to staying competitive as much as it is to staying sane. Teams that have made successful trades on paper now have the work of introducing those newly acquired players into rosters and the more difficult to predict way they could alter the overall chemistries of their new teams. It seems like a minor detail, but it can ultimately be what causes even a pure x’s and o’s trade to fizzle, fall flat. The Raptors had a whole season to introduce Leonard, and then later, probably due to understanding their team’s playing deficits as much as its personality, the addition of Gasol seemed tailor made. There is a lot of sussing out to do from now until April and for some franchises it ultimately won’t prove to be enough runway to pilot a successful takeoff.
Addressing the media once the time finally ticked down to the deadline itself, Raptors GM Bobby Webster acknowledged this balance being a factor in the team’s decision to make no move, “You want to strike the right balance between pushing yourselves to think about the team, and think about the construction of the team, the future of the team. But also respecting what this team has done. Respecting what they did last year and their growth this year.”
“We’re sitting second in the East,” Webster continued, “which we’re all happy with. We feel like we can continue to grow. We haven’t been healthy all year, so I think where we are now we’d all take, with some improvement.”
So much of what is driving this current Toronto roster, the team as a whole, is an overarching sense of what’s possible. There is, perhaps for the first time, a newly vaulted ceiling when looking ahead to the next few years of the Raptors franchise. Because regardless who stays or goes from this season to the next, or in the seasons to follow, a very stable and careful groundwork has been laid. Toronto is deep, and in more ways than just their stifling defence, frenetic energy or sincere trust in one another. Whatever gets built up now is going to be all the more harder to tear down.