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Raptors Get Aggressive at Deadline Without Mortgaging Future

Toronto impressively balanced its present vs. future needs with additions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker.

by Blake Murphy
Feb 24 2017, 2:31pm

Photo by Eduardo Lima/Canadian Press

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

Almost since the moment they backed in to being good thanks to the cold feet of James Dolan during the 2012-13 season, the Toronto Raptors have been faced with a difficult question: Is their core good enough to warrant mortgaging the future to push their near-term window open further?

Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and company make for a very solid starting point, and a mix of depth, development, youth, and chemistry has helped the Raptors climb into the league's second tier. Even as the team rose to a franchise-best 56 wins and their first trip to the Eastern Conference final, the question of how to close the gap with the Cleveland Cavaliers during LeBron James' prime—if a solution to "how" even existed—continued. As this year's trade season approached, the Raptors complicated things further by playing poorly, ratcheting up the "is this team even good enough with an extra piece" side of the equation.

And so again 10 days ago, president Masai Ujiri and GM Jeff Weltman found themselves facing a tough conundrum: You have to maximize the Lowry-DeRozan window, but in the event that window still isn't good enough when maximized, there's an argument for maintaining long-term flexibility. What do you do, then? Add pieces now in hopes of taking a more aggressive shot at Cleveland, or hang on to assets to ensure the window, however small, is open longer?

READ MORE: How Serge Ibaka Fits with the Raptors

Thursday's deadline—and the week-and-change that preceded it—answered those questions with a wink and a sarcastic question of their own: Why not do both?

Last Tuesday, the Raptors made the logical move of cashing in a young, useful player on a good contract and a first-round pick in the loaded 2017 draft for Serge Ibaka. It was their big move. A player they've been after for some time, Ibaka was the Raptors' splash, the piece to re-solidify them as the East's biggest threat to Cleveland. If that was the only move the Raptors made, Ujiri and Weltman would have done a good job, landing the second-biggest piece to change homes during trade season (after DeMarcus Cousins), for a reasonable price.

P.J. Tucker comes back to the Raptors, who drafted him in 2006. Photo by Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors, though, were not done there. Thursday saw them faced with similar questions, and after a very quiet day, Toronto beat the buzzer with a move that snuck in just under the wire, acquiring P.J. Tucker from the Phoenix Suns for Jared Sullinger and two second-round picks.

The deal is another nice piece of business for the Raptors, considering the Suns held adamant for some time that they wanted a first-round pick for the impending free agent. Tucker promises defense, toughness, and intensity across multiple positions, and he's thrived in a low-usage offensive role with an outside shot that isn't far off of league average. He's not an offensive weapon, to be clear, but he might be the team's best perimeter defender, and he's another option against LeBron.

And it's that fit in a potential James series that makes the Raptors' deadline maneuvering so interesting. On a day when Cleveland and Boston, the top two teams in the East, were quiet, the Raptors stayed aggressive. Washington and Atlanta each added much-needed bench pieces (Bojan Bogdanovic and Ersan Ilyasova, respectively), but no team the Raptors are battling with—or figure to—improved nearly as much as they did. There's still the buyout market—the Raptors don't figure to be players on that front—but it's unlikely any competitor makes additions with the impact of Ibaka or Tucker, let alone both.

In pushing assets toward the middle of the table, the Raptors are sending a clear signal of aggression. Their hopes of landing a top-two seed in the conference are likely gone, but it's obvious they still believe they're good enough to warrant making a push. Ibaka and Tucker help in a vacuum, and even more through the lens of series with Boston and, more notably, Cleveland, making the Raptors a far more versatile defensive outfit without sacrificing spacing as some of their top defensive groups have done in the past. The Raptors made win-now moves despite a shaky seven-week stretch, revealing that they very much consider the current window of competition to be worth propping open further.

That makes plenty of sense. DeRozan is under contract and hitting his peak, Ibaka is 27 and headed for free agency, and Lowry will be 31 when he seeks a massive deal this summer. There's no assurance that those three players will stay at this level for several more years, or even that they'll all be retained, for financial reasons or because free agents have, umm, agency over their future.

When the organization gets the star players some help. Photo by Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

By striking now, the Raptors accomplish several goals: They show Lowry they're fully committed to winning during his prime, they show Ibaka the same, and they show the league that they're serious about being a top contender. There was no path available to put them on par with Cleveland, but they made the moves available to them to close that gap as much as possible, and to ensure the perception of that gap will actually come to light in the conference finals once again.

Best of all for the Raptors, they mostly bucked the present-versus-future conundrum. Yes, they surrendered a first-round pick, two second-round picks, and a nice piece in Ross. They also maintained their deep roster of intriguing, inexpensive prospects, ensured they kept a first-round pick in every draft in perpetuity (including the better of theirs and the Clippers pick in June's enticing class), and they left themselves plenty of options—in terms of roster and finances—moving forward.

This isn't to say the Raptors are in a perfect position now. The questions they've faced for multiple seasons still exist philosophically and will resurface in a practical sense this summer. But they've managed to get very aggressive in improving the current team without sacrificing too many long-term assets, which will make those questions easier to answer in a few months and the answers easier to act upon down the line. Widening without shortening your window is tough, but nice work if you can manage.