A 2020-21 season that kept the Toronto Raptors away from their Canadian home was miserable on and off the court, but it did help them land young star Scottie Barnes.
The Raptors are back in Canada, but they have done little to shake themselves out of the throes of mediocrity. With that in mind, the Raptors would be wise to be aggressive before the Feb. 10 NBA Trade Deadline and do everything possible to add more promising pieces around the dynamic Barnes.
If that means going full-blown into rebuilding mode, Toronto already has a head start because of the piece it plucked from last summer’s NBA Draft.
The Toronto Raptors have flirted with contending, but they’ve been too inconsistent
Because COVID restrictions kept others from entering Canada, the Toronto Raptors played the 2020-21 season in Tampa, Fla. While the Raptors undoubtedly enjoyed the Florida sunshine and the beaches, the experience was an abject failure. Toronto started 1-6, endured an awful stretch of 13 losses of 14 games, and was stuck with a 27-45 record.
This season, Toronto got Pascal Siakam back from shoulder surgery and have kept Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., and Chris Boucher mostly healthy.
The Raptors looked, at various times, like they could be contenders in the Eastern Conference. But each time, inconsistencies — especially on the offensive end — pulled Toronto back to mediocrity.
Toronto was once 6-3, but then it lost six of seven. The Raptors fell as low as four games below .500 before rallying to win four of five. Following some devastating bouts with COVID-19, the Raptors put together a six-game winning streak to get to 20-17. However, they ultimately slumped backward, and a recent 2-5 stint has them stuck in the NBA’s “middle” with a 22-22 record. They are in a tie for eighth with Boston, but Washington, New York, and Atlanta are lurking within two games.
Could rebuilding be ahead for the Raptors with the NBA Trade Deadline two weeks away?
Guard Fred VanVleet, who famously bet on himself when it came contract time a few years back, has more than lived up to his massive payday. He’s led the team in scoring (21.7) and assists (7.0) and is shooting the ball well from 3-point range (39.3%).
Siakam has had an excellent bounce-back season after getting over shoulder surgery. Not only is he averaging 21.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 1.2 steals a game, he’s been even better in every way in January. Importantly, he’s also avoided the blowups with fiery coach Nick Nurse that bedeviled the franchise last season.
At this point, with the Raptors in no position to make much playoff noise, the franchise would be wise to shop VanVleet and Siakam to see what they might fetch for the future.
Rumors persisted over the summer that Golden State was infatuated with Siakam, and it might be willing to part with young pieces Jonathan Kuminga or James Wiseman. Phoenix and Utah could use significant upgrades at the power forward position to better their championship chances. Dallas superstar Luka Doncic still hasn’t won a playoff series and is likely antsy about the lack of consistent support Mark Cuban has put around him. Undoubtedly, he would be open to Dallas adding Siakam or VanVleet to the roster.
Adding pressure to the situation is Indiana could be similarly shopping power forward Domantas Sabonis before the trade deadline. If the Raptors drag their proverbial feet on a Siakam trade, the Pacers could swoop in and nab the young, foundational pieces that are critical in any rebuild.
With a dynamic piece in Scottie Barnes in place, Toronto must build around his talent
Toronto President Masai Ujiri proved his savvy as a talent evaluator again when he plucked Scottie Barnes from the NBA Draft.
After Kyle Lowry left for Miami, most expected Toronto to choose Jalen Suggs as Toronto’s future point guard. Instead, Ujiri selected Barnes even though he was a bench player in much of his time at Florida State. While resembling the NBA’s best rookie, Barnes has averaged 14.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.4 assists in 35.4 minutes. If you squint your eyes and tilt your head just so, Barnes looks like a young Scottie Pippen operating from the point-forward position.
The day Toronto drafted Barnes, it sealed the Siakam’s fate. Barnes is the franchise’s future, and the Raptors have to wonder what a 2022-23 season might look like with him playing alongside Golden State’s Wiseman or Kuminga or Phoenix’s Cam Johnson or Mikal Bridges.
Or maybe the Knicks would part with Canadian and blossoming small forward RJ Barrett to pair with Barnes. Or the Raptors might be interested in flipping VanVleet to the Los Angeles Lakers for Talen Horton-Tucker and a host of draft picks? The possibilities might be endless based on the level of firepower that Siakam and VanVleet could bring to a contender.
Last season’s failed experiment of playing in Tampa at least brought the Raptors Barnes. Now, they would be wise to take the full plunge into rebuilding and add plenty of other dynamic young pieces around their talented, young point forward.
Statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com.