Feb 4, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) boxes out Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap (4) in the third quarter at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 113-86. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
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If the Toronto Raptors want to seriously contend for the Eastern Conference belt, here are five game-changing trades they need to make.
The Toronto Raptors have been a surprising success story in the Eastern Conference for the last three and a half years, but in 2016-17, it’s becoming more and more obvious that this team may have already reached its ceiling.
Coming off a franchise-best 56-win season in 2015-16, the Raptors reached their first ever conference finals, pushing the eventual NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers to six games in the process.
But when Toronto failed to address its glaring need at power forward over the summer, their only hope for surpassing LeBron James and company became internal growth.
DeMar DeRozan‘s hot start to the season made it seem like a legitimate possibility, but the former No. 2 team in the East has plummeted back down to earth in recent weeks. With the 2017 NBA Trade Deadline approaching, the need for a game-changing move is all too evident.
DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are still playing at an All-Star level, but the defense needs work, there’s still a need for an upgrade at power forward and the Raptors have lost nine of their last 13 games to fall to fourth in the Eastern Conference standings.
The question is, which players should be on Toronto’s radar as trade targets? If the Raptors want to overtake the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, and if they want to seriously challenge LeBron heading into Lowry’s upcoming free agency, here are five potential game-changers they should trade for — along with what those deals might look like and why they could fall through.
Mar 14, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) and Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson (22) react differently to a call at Air Canada Centre. The Bulls beat the Raptors 109-107. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
5. Taj Gibson
Okay, so maybe “game-changing” wouldn’t be the most accurate way to describe a Taj Gibson trade, but the Raptors need to do something to re-establish their footing in the East. If they’re hesitant to surrender actual assets to acquire other aging stars, Gibson is a lower-cost option who could fill this team’s needs at the 4.
Averaging 11.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game, Gibson can score on the block, shoot from the midrange and help improve Toronto’s 17th-ranked defense.
Though the Chicago Bulls are currently a playoff team at No. 7 in the Eastern Conference standings, their season has underwhelmed, they’ve got a losing record and a roster blow-up feels imminent — especially in Gibson’s case, since he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Even if the Bulls don’t opt for a full-scale rebuild, they probably don’t have much interest in overpaying to keep a 31-year-old veteran with so many young frontcourt players waiting for minutes. If another team offered a young player or first round pick for Gibson, it’d be hard for Chicago to turn down a deal like that.
Raptors get PF – Taj Gibson
Bulls get PF – Jared Sullinger PG – Fred VanVleet 2017 1st round pick
Jared Sullinger is hardly an attractive trade asset, averaging just 3.4 points and 2.5 rebounds per game in his lone 11 appearances for Toronto this season. But he’d just be included for salary-matching purposes, with point guard Fred VanVleet and a 2017 first round pick being the true prizes.
VanVleet is averaging 2.9 points in 6.9 minutes per game and has only appeared in 21 games for the Raptors, but he’s a 22-year-old prospect who put up a 10-point performance and a 15-point outing just last week. With Rajon Rondo‘s long-term future unlikely to be in Chicago and Michael Carter-Williams being an discouraging solution at the 1, having some guard depth wouldn’t hurt.
Giving up a first-rounder for a 31-year-old like Gibson seems like a lot, but the Raptors have their own 2017 first round pick and another a first-rounder coming from the Los Angeles Clippers (lottery-protected). Either one would be a score for the Bulls, and Toronto still would have one pick to fall back on.
However, there are other power forwards set to hit free agency this summer, and as much as Gibson might help on both ends of the floor, he doesn’t compare to alternatives like Paul Millsap or Serge Ibaka. If the Raptors traded for an upgrade at the 4, it’d be for one they’d actually have an interest in re-signing, not a temporary stop-gap for a do-or-die playoff run.
Apr 12, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) blocks Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel (4) from shooting in the first half at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
4. Nerlens Noel
Nerlens Noel wouldn’t exactly be the perfect fit for a team that needs help at the power forward spot, but if improving the defense is the goal, adding a player with Defensive Player of the Year potential certainly couldn’t hurt. Remember, just last year in his second season, he averaged 11.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.5 blocks per game.
But if Noel is still available because of his declining numbers this season (8.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 0.9 blocks in 18.2 minutes per game), he could be the rim protector and defensive anchor the Raptors need late in the fourth quarter when Jonas Valanciunas becomes unplayable.
The question is, what would the Sixers be willing to accept for one of their injury-prone centers?
Raptors get C – Nerlens Noel
76ers get PF – Jared Sullinger 2017 1st round pick
In our first scenario, the Raptors offer Jared Sullinger for salary-matching purposes and a 2017 first round pick — whichever Philly one projects to be more valuable between Toronto’s own selection and the additional pick they’ll receive from the Clippers.
Sullinger would serve little purpose in Philadelphia’s frontcourt, but his $5.6 million contract comes off the books this summer anyway. The real asset would be the first-rounder in this year’s draft to give the Sixers two last cracks at adding talent through the draft. They’d then enter the 2017-18 NBA season with legitimate hopes of rising up the Eastern ladder.
But if one pick and an unnecessary frontcourt player aren’t enough for Noel, an alternative that might appease Philly is Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet and the first-rounder.
Raptors get C – Nerlens Noel
76ers get C – Jakob Poeltl PG – Fred VanVleet 2017 1st round pick
Poeltl is an unproven rookie who hasn’t gotten much playing time in a crowded frontcourt that’s trying to win now, but he’s the exact kind of young player a team like the Sixers should think about taking a flier on.
VanVleet adds guard depth to a team currently thriving with T.J. McConnell at the 1. With Jerryd Bayless done for the year, having an extra young guard wouldn’t hurt, though the 2017 first-rounder would still be the ultimate prize.
However, the Sixers have been stockpiling first round picks for more than three years now, and might prefer to trade Okafor since he’s been a far worse fit alongside Embiid than Noel. Philly may also get better offers than this on the open market, and with Noel being a restricted free agent, Toronto may not want to deal with re-signing him in the same summer where Kyle Lowry can hit free agency.
Jan 15, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN: New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) bounces a pass defended by Toronto Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll (5) in the first quarter at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
3. Carmelo Anthony
As we’ve already established, the Raptors need to make some kind of blockbuster trade if they want to legitimately challenge LeBron James’ reign in the East. There are other targets that might make more sense as far as fit, but with Carmelo Anthony locked in through at least next season, he’s one superstar avenue worth considering.
Despite being 32 years old, Melo is still a high-powered weapon on offense, averaging 23.0 points and 6.1 rebounds per game while shooting 35.6 percent from three-point range.
While he wouldn’t improve their 17th-ranked defense in the slightest, he would give them an extra scoring punch and form a formidable Big Three with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
This would give us a chance to see what Melo could do in a potential conference finals against his rival, and depending on what Toronto had to give up, it could be enough to seriously threaten the Cavs.
Raptors get PF – Carmelo Anthony
Knicks get SF – DeMarre Carroll PF – Patrick Patterson SG – Norman Powell
One version of the deal would feature DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson and Normal Powell. It’d hurt to lose defensive players like Carroll and Patterson, but they’re almost essential because their contracts would be needed for salary-matching purposes with Melo’s being worth $24.6 million.
The New York Knicks would enjoy the boost on the defensive end, and they’d love to get their hands on a young prospect like Norman Powell, who many Raptors fans believe to be untouchable in potential trade talks. Powell isn’t that essential, but it’d definitelyhurt to part ways with the promising 23-year-old guard.
To that end, the Raptors would probably try to push for something more like Carroll, Patterson, rookie Jakob Poeltl and their 2017 first round draft pick, avoiding the inclusion of Powell if at all possible.
Raptors get PF – Carmelo Anthony
Knicks get SF – DeMarre Carroll PF – Patrick Patterson C – Jakob Poeltl 2017 1st round pick
Poeltl has a promising future in this league, but he hasn’t been able to show it in a crowded Raptors frontcourt that’s trying to contend now. Giving up a first-rounder in addition to Carroll and Patterson is the price of business if Powell isn’t included.
The Knicks would be getting an excellent-when-healthy 3-and-D wing in Carroll, a useful role player they could re-sign in Patterson and a young prospect either way. Toronto has the Clippers’ 2017 first-rounder to offer in addition to Poeltl, or they could offer their own in a future draft.
If Patterson didn’t interest the Knicks, maybe a younger bench scorer and three-point threat like Terrence Ross could be substituted in:
Raptors get PF – Carmelo Anthony
Knicks get SF – DeMarre Carroll SF – Terrence Ross C – Jakob Poeltl 2017 1st round pick
That would rob Toronto of its wing depth, but both Melo (35.6 percent) and Patterson (36.3 percent) are effective enough to spread the floor from three-point range no matter which one is playing the 3. The defensive end is where they might struggle in a deal like this, however.
The Raptors also may not believe Melo to be the piece that gets them over the hump in the East, especially at the price of two important defensive players and one intriguing youngster (no matter which one it is).
Toronto is a great city that might get Melo to waive his no-trade clause while playing for an Eastern power, but that wouldn’t be a guarantee either.
Apr 7, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap (4) shoots over Toronto Raptors center Lucas Nogueira (92) during the second half at Philips Arena. The Hawks defeated the Raptors 95-87. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
2. Paul Millsap
The Raptors don’t appear to be Cleveland’s biggest threat in the East anymore, but since they’re still in that same tier below the Cavaliers alongside the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, the need for a game-changing move is even more apparent than it was before their recent 4-9 skid.
The Atlanta Hawks, meanwhile, are a tier below that tier, ranking fifth in the East at 31-22 and once again looking like a team that’s good enough for the playoffs, but not good enough to actually do anything once they get there. With Paul Millsap just turning 32 and hitting free agency this summer, it could be the perfect time for a rebuild.
Trading for Millsap wouldn’t make the Raptors favorites over Cleveland, but it sure as hell would provide LeBron James with his greatest Eastern Conference foe since the Indiana Pacers. He’s one of the most well-rounded two-way players in the NBA still, averaging 17.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks per game.
Toronto doesn’t quite have the same plethora of assets available to trade like the Celtics, but there are a number of packages that might get the job done.
The best deal for Toronto — which allows them to keep Jonas Valanciunas and Norman Powell — would be centered around Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross and rookie Jakob Poeltl. A lot of people like Poeltl, and T-Ross has done well off the bench, but that’s a pretty favorable package for Toronto.
More than likely, a deal like that would also require Toronto’s 2017 first-rounder and their other 2017 first-rounder from the Los Angeles Clippers. That’s a lot to give up for a 31-year-old, but that’s the price you pay to become a legitimate threat to Cleveland in the East.
Raptors get PF – Paul Millsap
Hawks get PF – Patrick Patterson SF – Terrence Ross C – Jakob Poeltl 2017 1st round pick 2017 1st round pick (via LAC)
If that’s still not enough for the Hawks, the Raptors may opt for something like Valanciunas and Ross, with one of their two first-rounders from this year’s draft to sweeten the deal.
JV is having a down year, but he’s on a solid contract at only 24 years old, he could replace Dwight Howard down the road and he’s still managed to produce 12.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game despite getting limited touches behind Toronto’s star-studded backcourt. Toronto may need to include the more valuable of its 2017 first-rounders in this scenario.
Raptors get PF – Paul Millsap
Hawks get C – Jonas Valanciunas SF – Terrence Ross 2017 1st round pick (via LAC)
If the Hawks asked for Valanciunas AND Norm Powell, that might be too much for We The North to stomach, since Powell has legitimate two-way potential and JV is their starting center.
There are other players who could facilitate a deal, like Jared Sullinger, Bruno Caboclo or even Cory Joseph if need be, but the Raptors could — and should — pursue any and every avenue in the coming weeks to pry Millsap from Atlanta. If they can do so without surrendering Valanciunas or Powell, more power to them…as a legitimate threat to the Cavs in the East.
Unfortunately, Boston could outbid Toronto if general manager Danny Ainge expressed interest in Millsap, and the Hawks reportedly took their star power forward off the trade block a few weeks back. That could always change, but there’s a chance Atlanta still isn’t ready to rebuild even after dealing away Kyle Korver.
Feb 3, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) shoots the ball over Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
1. Serge Ibaka
No one knows what the Orlando Magic are planning — rebuild or retool for a fruitless playoff push? — for this year’s trade deadline, but one thing is certain: With Serge Ibaka hitting free agency and most likely to bail, the team needs to get what it can for their stretch-4 before he leaves for nothing.
Once again, the Celtics possess more trade assets for a potential Ibaka bidding war than Toronto. But that also means Boston could choose to fry bigger fish, and since the Raptors also need help at the 4, Ibaka should be one of their top trade targets.
Setting their sights on a useful but less sexy addition makes the most sense for Toronto. They’d get the upgrade they need at power forward with Ibaka, but they’d also be able to do so without sacrificing too much in their pursuit of an Eastern Conference Finals rematch with Cleveland.
Assuming the Raptors would want to roll with a starting five of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas (plus Norman Powell off the bench, because he’s close to being indispensable at this point), that limits their options of what they could offer in a potential deal to match Ibaka’s $12.3 million salary.
Raptors get PF – Serge Ibaka
Magic get SF – Terrence Ross 2017 1st round pick (via LAC)
Parting with an explosive athlete and sixth man like Terrence Ross would be a blow, but if the Raptors could get away with offering Ross and their 2017 lottery-protected first round pick that’s incoming from the Clippers, shouldn’t they pull the trigger?
Losing Ross’ 10.4 points per game on 36.4 percent shooting from deep wouldn’t be a huge blow to the bench, but adding Ibaka would help improve the NBA’s 17th-ranked defense and cover for some of Valanciunas’ flaws on that end.
He’d spread the floor with a three-point shot at 38.7 percent, he wouldn’t take too many touches away from Lowry and DeRozan and he could potentially elevate the Raptors to even ground with the Cavaliers thanks to his rim protection (1.6 blocks per game).
That being said, the Magic may seek a larger return from a team more desperate for Ibaka’s services, and they may not even want to rebuild as general manager Rob Hennigan continues to fight for his job by pushing for the playoffs. If that’s the case, that first-rounder would lose its value, even if Ross could help provide some of the extra scoring Orlando is looking for.
There’s also the issue of the Raptors re-signing Ibaka in free agency this summer. Millsap would probably be a better fit at the 4 despite being four years older than Ibaka, but if people balked at the idea of re-signing him after this summer, the same could be said for Ibaka — especially with Lowry capable of opting out and joining free agency as well.
The Raptors make the most sense as a potential destination for Serge Ibaka’s skill set, but whether they could work out a deal with Orlando and commit to re-signing him for the long haul is another matter entirely — especially if he doesn’t prove to be the missing piece that can get “We The North” over that LeBron James-sized hump in the playoffs.