The Raptors had a lot of legitimate reasons for trading Rudy Gay — his bloated salary, his inefficient game, and the difficulty of planning the franchise's path without knowing whether Gay would exercise his mammoth $19.3 million player option for next season. But they also understood the possibility that flipping the team's offensive centerpiece for rotation flotsam could send the Raptors into chaos — and into a top-five spot in the most anticipated lottery since 2003. It was not a coincidence that Toronto engaged the Knicks in Kyle Lowry trade talks just days after sending Gay to the reaching Kings.
The immediacy of the Lowry talks also revealed two truths that will define the next six weeks of Raptordom:
1. The market for Lowry, and whatever other veteran pieces the Raptors might wish to slough off, might not be as robust as the team had hoped. Tanking is painful on its own, and it's especially tough this season, with so many miserable teams at the bottom of the standings. Tanking can bring a double blow if the process includes selling off talent at a discount rate simply for the sake of getting worse without any guarantees in the end. Real talent has value; knowingly wasting that value hurts and comes with a cost.
2. The Gay trade might have made the Raptors better — an outcome that was not hard to predict. At the time of the trade, Gay was poisoning Toronto with a toxic and nearly unprecedented combination of volume shooting and bricklaying. Almost any team would get better by excising a player hogging possessions at Iversonian levels and shooting 38 percent.1 The Raptors added four useful rotation players, three of whom filled in positions where the team had minimal NBA-level talent: backup big man and backup point guard.
Not even the most cockeyed Raptor optimists could have expected this: Toronto is 7-3 since the trade, with road wins over Dallas and Oklahoma City and a point differential in that stretch that would rank just behind Portland's very strong overall mark. Two of the three post-Gay losses came against San Antonio, and the Raps didn't yet have the Kings' trade bounty for the first of those games. The Raps now sit atop the embarrassing Atlantic Division with a content group of players, a fun, whirring offense, and the toughest schedule to date of any Eastern Conference team.
"You can sink and drown, or you can float," DeMar DeRozan explained to Grantland over the weekend in Toronto while discussing his reaction to the trade. "And we out here like Michael Phelps."
Toronto has scored 105.8 points per 100 possessions since dealing Gay, nearly five points better than it managed with a Rudy-centric offense.2 Toronto is flinging the ball from side to side, one pick-and-roll bleeding into the next on the opposite wing, bending opposing defenses until an opening emerges. The Raptors are passing the ball 30 more times per game since the trade, per SportVU data provided to Grantland, and shooting about three more 3-pointers — an intended benefit of replacing Gay in the starting lineup with Terrence Ross. "The ball is just constantly moving," DeRozan says. "We don't care who scores, or who shoots the ball. Masai [Ujiri, the team's GM] made the best decision for us to win. You hate to see a close friend go, but he made a good decision. It's paying off now."
Dwane Casey, the Raps head coach, chuckles at the idea that Toronto has dramatically changed its offense since the Gay trade. "All the same sets," he says, smiling, though the equation has tilted a bit more toward the pick-and-roll.3 That has been a boon for Lowry, enjoying his best sustained stretch since his peak in Houston, and for all of Toronto's big men — especially Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. Johnson has long been a dynamic pick-and-roll finisher, and though Valanciunas is still in the early stages of learning to time his cuts to the rim, he's gotten better at ducking for little post-ups below Lowry/Johnson pick-and-rolls:
"The ball is moving," Casey tells Grantland. "Guys are playing together. Everyone is buying in. No disrespect to Rudy, but he's a different type of player."
This run has put Ujiri and the front office in an awkward position. Only two weeks ago, they were prepared to deal Lowry for future assets and dive headfirst for a top-five pick. That process may have included testing the market for DeRozan, though the Raptors are clearly growing comfortable with the idea of DeRozan as a long-term core piece. But Toronto has been winning with the kind of spirited, fun ball this city has been craving for years. And as it has done that, the rest of the tank brigade has continued to flounder around it. Milwaukee has Larry Sanders back, but the rest of the frontcourt is in shambles, O.J. Mayo is somehow a bench player, and Khris Middleton is routinely leading the team in shot attempts. Philadelphia is 6-21 since a 3-0 start. Orlando has shown spunk of late with Glen Davis back, but it's still just 10-20, a trade away from going down the drain. Utah has been better with Trey Burke, but it's still awful. The real possibility exists that neither flaming pile of basketball dung in New York City figures it out this season. Sacramento played the Spurs and Heat tough in a back-to-back, but its defense has stagnated, and it is just 3-6 since acquiring Gay.
Then there are the swing teams — Chicago, Charlotte, Detroit, Cleveland, and the Lakers, who look poised to implode with Pau Gasol ailing. Some of these teams will do better than expected; some will do worse. This is a deep draft, but you don't tank for the no. 7 pick. You tank for the no. 5 pick or better, and at 13-15 with an elite backup point guard in Greivis Vasquez, it's unclear whether trading Lowry would be enough for the Raptors to tank into the ideal range.
Add in the cost of tanking, and it's clear Ujiri and his team face a thorny choice. Getting worse isn't pain-free. It alienates a fan base that can only take so much, especially when there is nothing close to a guarantee that said losing would net Canadian proto-legend Andrew Wiggins.4 It can build bad habits among unmotivated players. It can cause friction between the coaching staff and management, which is why Casey wisely stays out of the entire discussion. "Masai is the boss," Casey says. "I'm a company guy. I've gotta go with him. I'm never going to talk about losing games on purpose. I won't even discuss it. [Management] doesn't bring it down here, but they have every right to talk about it. They have to think about the big picture. What I have to do is coach the guys we do have, and coach the heck out of them."
Ujiri understands the downsides of tanking, a strategy he explicitly avoided in guiding Denver through the post–Carmelo Anthony world. "You play ball to win," Ujiri told Grantland. "It's difficult to teach winning by losing. There is value in winning. If it comes to a point where you feel like the team is not what you felt it was, then I think you can react. But I think the team will dictate where we go."
So will the trade market. The Lowry rumors have gone silent since James Dolan, the Knicks owner, quashed a deal that would have sent a first-round pick to Toronto in exchange for Lowry. That isn't an accident. How many teams are in a position in which it makes sense for them to give up a future asset, and specifically a first-round pick, for a league-average starting point guard? Contenders are contenders precisely because they have better point guards than Lowry, or play with rosters and styles such that an upgrade at the position isn't necessary. Russell Westbrook's injury might change the calculus in Oklahoma City a bit, but Reggie Jackson is ready to start now, and the Thunder are probably good enough to ride out Westbrook's injury until after the All-Star break. Miami would love a shot at Lowry, but it's got nothing to offer. Patty Mills and Cory Joseph have played well enough that San Antonio feels solid at backup point guard now. Indiana's fine. Golden State could use the help, but it's dealt two first-rounders to Utah already, and Toney Douglas will get healthy soon.
Dallas and Washington are among the sub-contenders dying to make the playoffs that could use a boost at the backup point, but both are already out first-round picks via prior trades. Minnesota needs depth, but it owes Phoenix a first-rounder, and it already dealt its upside asset in Derrick Williams.
Acquiring below-cost talent is a huge challenge in the NBA. Lowry is a difficult character, but he's a 27-year-old legit starting point guard on a $6 million expiring deal. Johnson is a solid two-way big man on an affordable contract only partially guaranteed in the final season. Those are real, valuable assets. Lowry will be a free agent after the season, which could scare off trade suitors now, but the "attitude" issues that have dogged him at every stop will deflate the value of his next contract. Flipping an asset like that for nothing — for an outside chance at a franchise player — carries an opportunity cost that is hard to swallow. Several teams, including the Rockets most recently, have shown that careful asset accumulation can serve as an alternate road map to a franchise-level star. Tossing aside assets in exchange for a low-odds lottery play is reckless in comparison — the tanking inverse of what the Knicks have done for years, mortgaging the future for low-odds plays in the present day. The Raps might lose Lowry for nothing in free agency, but they could also re-sign him on the cheap or use him as part of a sign-and-trade.
Winning a title in the NBA generally requires a top-10 or top-15 overall player. The Raptors don't have such a player. DeRozan gets better every season, but he's 24, putting up an above-average Player Efficiency Rating for the first time in his career.5 Ross is intriguing, but he's not going to be a star. Valanciunas has the best shot of reaching franchise-player status among Toronto's young core, but he hasn't shown those kind of signs yet. (He's only 21.)
The best way to acquire such a player is to draft him, and the best way to do that is to pick at or near the top of the right draft. That's why teams still tank today. Tanking doesn't always work, but for a certain species of team and ownership group, it can be the quickest and easiest way to transform a franchise. That's why Toronto thought about it, and why it might do so again if this run turns out to be fool's gold. The wins in Dallas and Oklahoma City were impressive, but the Raptors caught Oklahoma City on a back-to-back after a draining win over the Spurs. The rest of the recent wins have come against tankers or mediocrities, including a back-to-back sweep of the sad-sack Knicks. The Raptors have also had almost perfect health the entire season; what happens if a key cog gets hurt? Are these new Raptors for real? Is anything real in the Eastern Conference?
Related: A segment of fans tends to view the NBA as a ringz-or-fail league, and following such a philosophy, suggests teams avoid 45-win above-averageness and do whatever it takes to acquire a franchise star. But the real NBA doesn't work that way. Franchise players by definition are a scarce resource. A team that wins 45 to 50 games every season, enjoying a deep playoff run here and there, can be considered a huge success, depending on attendance figures and ownership priorities. Ujiri presided over just such a team in Denver, and he created believers in the possibility that a starless team, constructed the right way, could find itself in the conference finals given some luck with matchups and injuries.
But those post-Melo teams never got by the first round, and Ujiri was open during his tenure in Denver about his desire to land a top-10 overall star — either through the internal development of one, or by trading a pile of assets for one in a James Harden/Kevin Garnett–style deal. As we approach the trade deadline, Ujiri will evaluate all these factors in setting a course for his new team.
The Raps play Indiana and Miami three times combined in the next 10 days, and the schedule after that eases into a series of games against the kind of average-or-worse teams Toronto must beat in order to snag the no. 4 seed and win a playoff round. The Raptors will learn a lot about themselves over that stretch, and they'll watch how the trade market evolves — in both directions. The Raptors could turn into buyers, using Ross as the linchpin to net one of the many proven veterans playing on rebuilding teams. One such veteran, Arron Afflalo, is a former Ujiri guy who plays for a team that values Ross highly, per several league sources. There are lots of other potential targets out there, though things would get much more complicated if the Raptors work to unload either Landry Fields or Steve Novak in any "buy now" trade talks.
Of any potential future-for-present trades, Ujiri would only say, "That would be tough."
Team-building is rarely easy, and Ujiri finds himself in a spot today he probably didn't anticipate a month ago. The next two months are going to be fun.