If you’re waiting for some NBA trade action, you can’t be a fan of the Toronto Raptors. In fact, you’re a fan of every team they play, at least for the next week or so.
Teams looking to make a move, league sources say, are waiting to see if Raptors team president Masai Ujiri decides to stand pat or begins the tear-down of a team that has fallen far short of expectations and has a host of potential free agents this summer.
And the more they lose between now and the Feb. 9 deadline, the better the chance Ujiri reworks his roster and turns his eye toward making a run at one of the potential superstars in the upcoming draft.
“Toronto is the No. 1 domino in all of this,” said an Eastern Conference GM. “They have three potential pieces that would draw interest. If they come through this next stretch unscathed, maybe they stay with what they have. But if they get crushed over the next seven or eight days, Masai could decide to make some changes.”
The Raptors are in 12th place in the Eastern Conference after starting a seven-game western road swing with a win over the Sacramento Kings and a loss to the Golden State Warriors. They play their second game in as many nights on Saturday against the Portland Trail Blazers. Then it’s on to Phoenix, Utah, Houston and Memphis, returning home Feb. 6.
The reason Toronto’s short-term results could influence Ujiri’s long-term plans is that their starting backcourt, point guard Fred Van Vleet and shooting guard Gary Trent Jr., can opt out of their contracts this summer. Van Vleet denied reports that he turned down a four-year, $113 million extension from the Raptors before the season, saying there was no “formal” offer. Even if there had been, indications are that Van Vleet wants a deal comparable to the four-year, $130 million one Tyler Herro signed with the Miami Heat.
If Toronto opted to make Van Vleet available, league sources say he is one of three point guards the Los Angeles Clippers have weighed adding to their roster, with the Jazz’s Mike Conley and the Heat’s Kyle Lowry also being on their consideration list. It’s reasonable to think Van Vleet, 28, would be their first choice as the youngest of the three and the most recent All-Star. And if there’s one owner that hasn’t flinched at meeting current player contract demands, it is Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, who already has the third-most expensive roster in the league.
Trent Jr. also could attract interest as a 24-year-old floor spacer. He has steadily improved over his five-year career and has shot 35% or better on 3s while averaging more than seven attempts a game since his rookie year. He’s scheduled to make $18 million next season, which means if he opts in, it could take close to $100 million for Toronto to keep him in the fold as well.
The real potential prize on the Raptors’ roster, though, is forward OG Anunoby. While his offensive production is a shade below Trent Jr.’s, and he does not have Van Vleet’s All-Star credentials, league sources say he would inspire the fiercest trade-deadline bidding war. Reason: his age (25), his size (6-foot-7, 232 pounds), and his tenacious defense (current league leader in steals with 2.1), which accompanies a 17-point average and a dependable 3-point stroke (36%). He has everything teams covet in a forward strong enough to defend the post and quick enough to cover the perimeter in today’s game.
“A versatile young player in his prime?” the Eastern Conference GM said. “One thousand percent he would be the best available player at the deadline.”
His contract is attractive as well. Unlike Van Vleet and Trent, Jr., Anunoby is signed through next season at a very buyer friendly $18.6 million, giving anyone who acquired him this season and next before having to commit to him. And if they didn’t, for whatever reason, they know he’d be quite an asset.
“OG would be a substantial prize,” said a Western Conference scout.
“Three-and-D player with size, who rebounds. Reasonable contract.”
So why would Ujiri even consider trading him?
League sources say that Anunoby isn’t happy in Toronto, and although the reason was not made clear, Ujiri has a track record of moving swiftly if a player wants to be elsewhere.
Ujiri could not be reached for comment.
Fallback options for teams looking to add a player in Anunoby’s mold are the Phoenix’s Jae Crowder and Utah’s Jarred Vanderbilt.
But no one is likely to make a move to acquire either of them until they know what their chances are of landing Anunoby. And whether Anunoby is available could depend on — well, you know already.
TRADER DAN COULD STAND PAT: If there has been one prevailing belief among fans, media and executives alike, it’s that Utah Jazz team president Danny Ainge would at some point this season continue his dismantling of the roster that began with trading All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert last summer. Conley, Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and Jordan Clarkson have all been mentioned as potential trade targets for other teams, presumably because they got a signal from Ainge that they could be available.
But “Trader Dan,” as he became known during his tenure with the Boston Celtics, is also renowned for talking about deals far more often than actually consummating one. Several executives who know him well said this year could be no different.
“He never changes,” one scout said. “He’ll make a deal if he likes the value. If there are no offers he likes, he’ll go play golf. He’s not afraid to work a sign-and-trade in the summer or bring a guy back.”
WHAT CAN RUI DO FOR THE LAKERS?: Lakers fans seemed to be pleased with GM Rob Pelinka’s acquisition of forward Rui Hachimura from the Washington Wizards in exchange for Kendrick Nunn and three second-round picks. One Western Conference GM suggested that had to be the biggest motivating factor for Pelinka to do it. Pelinka, and by extension owner Jeanie Buss, has been criticized by fans and media alike for not surrounding 38-year-old LeBron James with more talent.
“It’s a hefty price, but now he can say he did something,” the GM said of the trade. “It takes some of the heat off. I don’t know why else he would do it. I didn’t think it was a great trade. Rui gives them a little more size and a slightly better defender, but he’s injury prone, which they already have enough of, and his contract is a problem.”
Hachimura will be a restricted free agent this summer. The Lakers have indicated that they plan to sign him to an extension, but how quickly they get that done — and at what price — could impact their ability to add other upgrades. Hachimura’s qualifying offer for next season is roughly $8.5 million and the amount of salary cap frozen until he signs that offer, or an extension, is more than $18 million.
“Never been a big fan to be honest,” said one Eastern Conference scout. “Can get some buckets at times but as far as being an impactful player on a winning team, I just don’t see it. Have some questions about his feel and IQ as well.”
But not everybody was down on Hachimura or the deal. To put a positive spin on it, the Lakers flipped an undrafted shooting guard (Nunn) and three second-round picks for a power forward with three-point range who was the ninth pick of the 2019 draft.
“Rui has been playing great as of late, and I am sure he can be a consistent high 30% 3-point shooter,” said a second Eastern Conference scout. “He can play either forward position. Being able to play multiple positions is always a plus.”
A third Eastern Conference scout said: “Steal of a deal for the Lakers. Rare assessment for their front office.”
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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