NBA Front Office Confidential: Raptors hold key to opening trade market

If you’re waiting for an NBA trade, you can’t be a Toronto Raptors fan. 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 whether Raptors team president Masai Ujiri decides to applaud or begin tearing down a team that has fallen far short of expectations and has a slew of potential free agents. summer.

And the more they lose between now and the Feb. 9 deadline, the greater the chance that Ujiri will rework his roster and set his sights on one of the potential superstars of the upcoming draft.

“Toronto is the No. 1 domino in all of this,” said one Eastern Conference GM. “They have three potential pieces that will attract interest. If they come through this next stretch unscathed, maybe they’ll stick with what they’ve got. But if they get crushed in the next seven or eight days, Masai might 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 on February 6.

The reason Toronto’s short-term results could affect 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, it suggests Van Vleet wants a deal comparable to the four-year, $130 million Tyler Herro signed with the Miami Heat.

If Toronto chose to make Van Vleet available, league sources say he is one of three point guards the Los Angeles Clippers have considered adding to their roster, with the Jazz’s Mike Conley and the Heat’s Kyle Lowry also on their consideration list. It’s reasonable to think that Van Vleet, 28, would be their first choice as the youngest of the three and the newest All-Star. And if there’s one owner who hasn’t bothered to meet current player contract requirements, it’s Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, who already has the third-most expensive roster in the league.

Trent Jr. may also attract interest as a 24-year-old floor spacer. He has steadily improved over his five-year career, shooting 35% or better on 3s while averaging more than seven attempts per game since his rookie year. He’s scheduled to make $18 million next season, meaning if he signs up, it could cost Toronto close to $100 million to keep him in the fold as well.

The real potential prize on the Raptors’ roster, however, is forward OG Anunoby. Although his offensive production is a shade below Trent Jr.’s and he doesn’t 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 (currently leads the league in steals at 2.1), which goes with a 17-point average and a reliable 3-point stroke ( 36%). He has everything teams want in a forward who is strong enough to defend the post and quick enough to cover the perimeter in today’s game.

“A versatile young player in his prime?” said the Eastern Conference GM. “One thousand percent he would be the best player available at the deadline.”

His contract is also attractive. 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 season before having to commit to him. And if they didn’t, for whatever reason, they know he would be an asset.

“OG would be a significant prize,” said one Western Conference scout.
“Three-and-D player with size, who returns. Reasonable contract.”

So why would Ujiri even consider trading him?

League sources say Anunoby is not happy in Toronto, and while the reason was not made clear, Ujiri has a track record of moving quickly if a player wants to be elsewhere.

Ujiri could not be reached for comment.

Backup options for teams looking to add a player in Anunoby’s mold are Phoenix’s Jae Crowder and Utah’s Jarred Vanderbilt.

But no one is likely to make a move to acquire either until they know what their chances are of landing Anunoby. And whether Anunoby is available may depend on – well, you already know.

TRADER DAN COULD STAND PAT: If there has been a prevailing belief among fans, media and executives alike, it is that at some point this season Utah Jazz team president Danny Ainge would continue his dismantling of the roster that began with the trade of All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert in 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 might be available.

But “Trader Dan,” as he was known during his tenure with the Boston Celtics, is also known for talking about deals far more often than actually completing one. Several executives who know him well said this year could not be any different.

“He never changes,” said one scout. “He’ll make a deal if he likes the value. If there’s no offer 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 LAKERS?: Lakers fans seemed 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 so. Pelinka, and by extension owner Jeanie Buss, have been criticized by fans and media alike for not surrounding 38-year-old LeBron James with more talent.

“It’s a high 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 big deal. Rui gives them a little more size and a little better defender, but he’s injury-prone, which they already have enough of off, and his contract is a problem.”

Hachimura will be a restricted free agent this summer. The Lakers have indicated they plan to sign him to an extension, but how quickly they get it done — and at what price — could affect their ability to add other upgrades. Hachimura’s qualifying offer for next season is approximately $8.5 million and the amount of the salary cap that is frozen until he signs the 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 impact player on a winning team, I just don’t see it. Have some questions about his feel and IQ as well.”

But not everyone 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 in the 2019 draft.

“Rui has been playing well lately, and I’m sure he can be a consistently high 30% 3-point shooter,” said another Eastern Conference scout. “He can play both forward positions. 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 has previously written for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound”, about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young 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 @Rick Bucher.

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