NBA Front Office Confidential: Raptors hold the key to opening up the trading market


If you’re waiting for an NBA trade promotion, you may not be a Toronto Raptors fan. In fact, you’re a fan of every team they play against, 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 stay pat or begin dismantling a team that has far underperformed and a multitude potential free agent has summer.

And the more they lose by the February 9 deadline, the greater the chance Ujiri will revise his roster and turn his attention to attacking one of the potential Superstars in the upcoming draft.

“Toronto is the #1 domino in all of this,” said an Eastern Conference GM. “They have three potential pieces that would spark interest. If they get through this next stretch unscathed, they might just stick with what they have. But if they are crushed in the next seven or eight days, Masai might decide to make some changes.”

The Raptors are 12th 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 Saturday against the Portland Trail Blazers. Then it’s on to Phoenix, Utah, Houston and Memphis, returning home on February 6th.

The reason Toronto’s near-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. may be out of their contracts this summer. Van Vleet denied reports that he turned down a $113 million four-year extension from the Raptors before the season, saying there was no “formal” offer. Even if that were the case, there are signs Van Vleet would like a deal comparable to the four-year, $130 million deal 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 added to their roster, with Jazz’s Mike Conley and Heat’s Kyle Lowry also on theirs list. It’s reasonable to think Van Vleet, 28, would be her top pick as the youngest of the three and youngest All-Star. And if there’s one owner who hasn’t shied away from meeting current player contract requirements, it’s Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, who already has the third most expensive squad in the league.

Trent Jr. could also attract interest as a 24-year-old floor spacer. He’s steadily improved over his five-year career, shooting 35% or more on 3s since his rookie year while averaging more than seven attempts per game. He’s set to earn $18 million next season, meaning it could cost Toronto nearly $100 million to keep him in the group as well if he chooses to do so.

However, the real potential prize on the Raptors roster is forward OG Anunoby. While his offensive performance is a shade below Trent Jr. and he doesn’t have Van Vleet’s all-star credentials, league sources say he would incite the fiercest bidding war after trade deadlines. Reason: his age (25), height (6ft 7, 232lbs) and tenacious defense (current leader in steals with 2.1) that comes with a 17-point average and a reliable 3-point shot (36%). He has everything teams have come to expect from a forward strong enough to defend the post and fast enough to cover the wide area 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 as of the deadline.”

His contract is also attractive. Unlike Van Vleet and Trent Jr., Anunoby will be signed for next season at a very buyer-friendly price of $18.6 million, which will suit anyone who acquired him this season and next before committing to have to bind him. And if for some reason they didn’t, they know it would be quite an asset.

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

So why would Ujiri even think about trading him?

League sources say Anunoby isn’t happy in Toronto and while the reason hasn’t been made clear, Ujiri has a track record of moving quickly when a player wants to be elsewhere.

Ujiri could not be reached for comment.

Fallback options for teams looking to add a player in the form of Anunoby are Phoenix’s Jae Crowder and Utah’s Jarred Vanderbilt.

But no one is likely to make a move to acquire any of them until they know what their odds are of landing Anunoby. And whether Anunoby is available might depend on it – well, you already know.

DEALER DAN COULD STAND PAT: If there has been one prevailing belief among fans, media and executives, it is that Utah Jazz team president Danny Ainge will proceed with the disbandment of the roster associated with swapping All-Stars Donovan Mitchell sometime this season and Rudy Gobert started 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 became known during his time with the Boston Celtics, is also known for talking about deals far more often than actually making one. Several executives who know him well said this year couldn’t be any different.

“He never changes,” said one scout. “He makes a deal if he likes the value for money. If there are no offers that he likes, he goes to play golf.

WHAT CAN RUI DO FOR THE LAKERS?: Lakers fans seemed pleased with GM Rob Pelinka’s acquisition of Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura in exchange for Kendrick Nunn and three second-round picks. A Western Conference GM suggested that this must be the biggest motivating factor for Pelinka to do so. Pelinka and 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 proud 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 do already have enough and his contract is a problem.”

Hachimura will be a restricted free agent this summer. The Lakers have indicated they plan to sign him for an expansion, but how quickly they do so — and at what cost — could impact their ability to add other upgrades. Hachimura’s qualifying offer for next season is approximately $8.5 million and the salary cap amount frozen until he signs that offer or an extension is more than $18 million.

“I’ve never been a huge fan, to be honest,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “Can get a couple buckets at times but I just don’t see it as an impactful player on a winning team. I also have some questions about his feelings and his IQ.”

But not everyone was thrilled with Hachimura or the deal. To add some positivity, the Lakers turned over an undrafted shooting guard (Nunn) and three second-round picks for a three-point-range power forward, which was the ninth pick of the 2019 draft.

“Rui has been playing great lately and I’m sure he can be a consistently high 30 percent 3 point shooter,” said an Eastern Conference second scout. “He can play in both forward positions. Being able to play in several positions is always a plus.”

A third Eastern Conference scout said: “Steal a deal for the Lakers. Rare assessment for your 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 authored two books, Rebound, about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and Yao: A Life In Two Worlds. He also has a daily podcast, On The Ball with Ric Bucher. Follow him on Twitter @Ric Bucher.

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