The Toronto Raptors are in a rut … so what options do they have moving forward?
Meanwhile, things might be even more dire in Chicago and Los Angeles.
That, and more, in our NBA Talking Points.
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Joe Ingles returns to NBA action | 00:31
RAPTORS’ BIG KD REGRET AHEAD OF KEY DECISIONS
The Toronto Raptors are in NBA purgatory – a place no team wants to be.
They’ve gone 2-10 over their last 10 games – including a six-game losing streak – to fall to 13-18 overall and sit just two and a half games ahead of a bottom four record.
At this stage, they look like not much more than a play-in team or fringe playoff contender.
Despite their recent drop off, the Raptors still have a lot of stars in the prime of their careers in Pascal Saiakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby plus reigning Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes.
And so it’s created ample debate about which direction president Masai Ujiri should go in given they’re essentially built to win-now and compete for a title, yet are currently a ways off.
Of course, the season hasn’t even reached the halfway point yet, and this time last campaign, eventual NBA finalists Boston were in a similar position.
So what do the Raptors do? Firstly, they may be having regrets about what they didn’t do.
Toronto was among the teams interested in Kevin Durant over the off-season after the Nets superstar requested a trade despite being contracted with the franchise until 2026 for a total of $192 million (AUD $287), however a sticking point in negotiations was the Raptors’ unwillingness to part with Barnes.
Ujiri might be second guessing that now given the Raptors’ current position, how rare it is for a player of Durant’s ilk to be available and with Barnes in something of a sophomore slump.
But frankly, there just isn’t anyone currently available on the trade market even close to Durant’s level right now.
“Get the dynamite ready. The offence looks totally disconnected and the team looks broken,” Kevin O’Connor said of Toronto on The Mismatch Podcast.
“(But) there’s no trade for them to make that can bring them to contention … KD (Durant) is not available, SGA (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) is not available. Who? Karl-Anthony Towns from Minnesota? Please. Damian Lillard is not going to become available.
“Should they have traded Barnes and picks for Kevin Durant last summer? The Nets would’ve considered it for Barnes, but the Raptors didn’t want to trade Barnes.”
It might be a case that Toronto takes two steps backwards to take one step forwards.
This is factoring in that the Raptors’ payroll is set to skyrocket. VanVleet can become a free agent in 2023 with an option for 2024, while Siakam and Anuoby will be free agents in 2024 – all of whom are set for hefty pay increases.
Plus, according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the “entire league” wants Anunoby and the price and picks that he’d command “might be on par almost” with what the Cavaliers gave up for Donovan Mitchell – a package featuring Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, three unprotected first rounders and two pick swaps.
It’s also worth noting generational talent and looming Pick 1 Victor Wembanyama isn’t the only highly-rated prospect in this year’s loaded draft class – creating further incentive for the Raptors, who, as contested, have the equal eighth-worst record in the league – to explore a mini-tank of sorts.
Ujiri has always been a shrewd operator not afraid to take risks including landing Kawhi Leonard ahead of his free agency in 2018 to help lead the franchise to its inaugural championship win.
He’ll no doubt be pondering the many options to get Toronto out of this mess.
“They don’t necessarily need to go full on ‘we’re going to bad for five years’ blowing it up. They can trade one or two guys and just be a little bit worse,” O’Connor noted.
“Is the path being a little bit worse this year and having a better opportunity at a Victor Wembanyama or a Scoot Henderson or an Amen Thompson or whoever it might be – this is a great draft.
“Or is it better to maintain all of your current core and compete for a play-in spot, and then probably get roasted in the first-round at best?
“This team is about to get very, very, very expensive once those OG, Siakam and VanVleet extensions come up again, you’ll be stuck.
“I’m saying they should move away from the very expensive future and gamble on this great draft with Scottie Barnes and retool for the next 5-10 years.
“This isn’t a bottoming out path I’m proposing here. This is just let’s try to not be a play-in team and let’s try and be in a position where we have the fourth or fifth best odds (at Pick 1).”
LAVINE AND BULLS ‘NOT SEEING EYE-TO-EYE’
While things haven’t clicked on the court for the Chicago Bulls this season, there’s now issues arising off the court as well.
The Athletic reports star guard Zach LaVine and the Bulls are “not seeing eye-to-eye” and that there’s a “palpable feeling” through the franchise of a disconnect between the two parties.
The report states LaVine, who’s in the first year of a five-year, $215 million contract, and co-star DeMar DeRozan even recently held one-on-one meetings to work on the team’s issues.
And according to Chicago reporter Joe Cowley, multiple Bulls players “directed frustration” at LaVine during the team’s 150-126 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday (all times AEDT).
Chicago is currently a dire 1-18 to sit 11th in the Eastern Conference despite going into the season with optimism after 12 players returned from last campaign’s sixth-placed finish (46-36) where it ended a four-year playoff drought.
If anything, things are only getting worse amid a four-game losing streak, while in December, they have a bottom five record, a bottom five net rating and have ranked bottom 10 in offensive rating and ranked bottom 10 in defensive rating, per StatMuse.
A knee injury to Lonzo Ball has clearly been a massive blow, with the team going 22-13 with him last season and 24-23 without him, but his return to the court is a big unknown after his knee didn’t respond well to surgery.
“I think everybody goes through ups and downs, just like every team does,” LaVine told The Athletic.
“Obviously if we’re not winning games, not everybody’s going to be happy. It’s not going to look as good as it was before. It’s all glitter and show when you’re winning games. But when you’re losing games and you’re trying to do the same things it’s turmoil.
“There’s a certain level of frustration in people trying to figure out what we can do to help right the ship. I think with the players that we have, we try to put it on each other to right the ship. We have those type of guys, those type of mentalities where each of us have been number one options on a team before and then we all come together collectively.
“It’s not going to take one person. It’s going to take all of us as a unit. I think that’s what guys are trying to figure out how to help the group.”
Chicago’s woes has led to calls for it to blow up its roster, and it’ll be one of the teams to watch ahead of the February 9 NBA trade deadline.
LaVine hasn’t looked himself – despite still averaging 21.8 points per game – after undergoing knee surgery that strangely required him to sit out the first two games despite playing in the pre-season.
27 REBOUNDS?! Jokic’s insane night | 00:41
Meanwhile DeRozan becomes eligible for an extension this summer worth a maximum of four years and $153.7 million. The franchise has a big call to make on whether he’s a centrepiece to build around.
The Bulls’ third star, Nikola Vucevic, is eligible for a four year, $118.2 million extension, but he’s expected to become a free agent.
Should they go down the path of a reset, at least one of the big three would likely be moved, with DeRozan and Vucevic already linked to trade talks.
However complicating matters is that the Bulls owe Orlando a top-four protected first-round pick from the Vucevic trade. Chicago could therefore go into tank mode but still end up with a pick outside the top four, meaning it’d be passed on to the Magic.
Despite all of the Bulls’ issues, the report states coach Billy Donovan’s job is safe for now, having signed a multi-year extension at the start of the season.
But the team would want to get moving quickly, or else change – in some or form – feels inevitable.
NEW AD INJURY REPORT ‘CHANGES EVERYTHING’
Look away now, Lakers fans.
Superstar centre Anthony Davis’ foot injury could be more serious than originally thought, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.
There’s been no concrete news on how much time Davis will miss, with initial reports stating multiple weeks before the Athletic’s Shams Charania revealed he’ll be out for at least one month.
And now, Windhorst says Davis’ injury is considered more of a long-term issue.
“He’s not gonna be out a game or two,” Windhorst said on The Hoop Collective podcast. “He’s gonna be out an extended period. Hopefully, it’s an injury he can get some treatment on and get it healed.
“It’s not good, it’s not a sprained ankle, it’s not a sprained foot. From what I understand, it’s something more concerning than that.”
Davis tweaked his ankle against the Denver Nuggets last week and didn’t return, but it’s now being labelled a foot issue.
Anytime the oft-injured big man goes down, there’s some level of concern, so Windhorst’s update should set off alarm bells for the Lakers.
It came after a dominant stretch from Davis, who’s averaged 27.4 points on a career-high 59.3% shooting, 12.1 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game as arguably the form player of the league to play a leading role in turning around the Lakers’ once bleak season.
After starting the campaign 2-10, LA has improved to 13-17 to get back into playoff contention – in large behind Davis.
Their resurgence even led to calls for the Lakers to explore trading future draft picks for win-now pieces, but Davis’ injury has thrown a spanner in the works and then some.
Lakers withstand Wizards in thriller | 01:04
“If AD is out, the Lakers are totally screwed. It changes everything,” Kevin O’Connor said on The Mismatch Podcast.
Windhorst speculated that the Lakers’ trade decisions would largely be dictated on how much time Davis misses.
After all, things in LA could go very south again by the time he’s back – whenever that’ll be.
“They‘ve got to choose between closing cap space or giving away the draft pick. And they’re only going to do that if they believe this year’s team can get something real done,” Windhorst said.
“If he is facing a month or longer (out), I wonder if they make the decision to just take it on the chin this year.”
TEAMS CRASH BACK DOWN TO EARTH AS TANKING RACE TAKES TURN
We’ve returned to some level of normality … or at least what we originally thought was.
Several teams thought to be in the tanking race for Victor Wembanyma that shocked the NBA world early in the season have now come crashing back down to earth.
Some more than others.
The Utah Jazz were the story early in the season, at one stage owning a 10-3 record – behind their band of very good, but no star players (maybe excluding Lauri Markkanen) – and sitting first in the West after trading Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert last US summer.
Utah has since gone 5-13 to fall to 17-16 overall and tumble down to ninth in the West.
The Indiana Pacers started their season 10-6 and sat top four in the Eastern Conference for a big chunk of the season under the lead of breakout superstar Tyrese Haliburton and other solid pieces like buzz rookie Bennedict Mathurin.
But Rick Carlisle’s team has since gone 5-10 to also occupy the ninth seed in the East.
Although a much smaller sample size, even the likes of OKC (started 4-3, now 13-18) and San Antonio (started 5-2, now 10-20) looked capable of exceeding expectations early in the season before falling off in a big way.
So how much of this was early-season form being somewhat unpredictable – or could team presidents and general managers have potentially had a quiet say on the matter behind closed doors?
Of course, Wembanyama has looked as good as, if not better, than advertised, averaging 22.6 points on 51% shooting, 1.4 triples, 9.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks in 31.7 minutes through 13 games for Metropolitans 92.
Of course, there’s several more highly-rated young prospects like Scoot Henderson, Amen Thompson, Nick Smith and Ausar Thompson in what’s being touted as one of the best draft classes in some time.
Along with Wembanyama being considered a generational talent, it’s why the tanking race was considered such a key watch this season and a very real storyline.
Well, a few more teams have re-entered the conversation.
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