This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
The Boston Celtics more or less ignored Lucas Nogueira's screen. Late in the fourth quarter, they decided they would only pay attention to Kyle Lowry in the high pick-and-roll. The Toronto Raptors point guard was already up to 32 points and had hit some deep threes off the bounce. And so as Nogueira screened, Marcus Smart and Al Horford converged on Lowry, first trying to trap him going left, and then giving chase in tandem as a quick pass and hand-off worked as a re-screen. It was as close to a hard double-team as you're likely to see, and Lowry was left to fling a late-clock heave over the 6'10" Horford and an outstretched arm.
That the play resulted in a fresh shot clock for the Raptors via a team rebound is not nearly as important as the message Boston sent. Game on the line, they were only worried about Lowry, and they'd live with whatever 4-on-3 situation resulted if Lowry could thread an impossible pass through the trap. With DeMar DeRozan still on the shelf, the Raptors, while spirited, just haven't had enough offensive creators.
If this sounds familiar, that's because it's been the refrain even with DeRozan healthy over the last two years. As games grind down and opponents can scout in more detail, defences can get aggressive in loading up on Lowry and DeRozan, and while they remain very good players, the team has long felt a third playmaker short of legitimate contention. (And if that playmaker could play defence, too, given that's a bigger weakness for the team overall, all the better.)
Wednesday's loss to the Celtics, while just a game, is probably cause for revisiting those needs. The Raptors have now lost seven of nine and 12 of 20, and while their earlier performance and overall net rating suggest they'll still be fine (Kevin Pelton of ESPN projects them to have the East's best rest-of-season record, for example), they now find themselves looking up at the Celtics in the standings.
Not only are they 1.5 games back of Boston (they own a 2-1 season-series lead with one more matchup to go, for tiebreaker purposes), they're also just 1.5 games up on the fifth-place Atlanta Hawks. They're as close to their presumed perch at No. 2 as they are to being the road team in a first-round playoff series.
The talk earlier in the season when Paul Millsap was reportedly on the trade market for a brief moment was that the Raptors needed to make a move in order to close the gap with Cleveland. A few weeks later and just three weeks from the Feb. 23 trade deadline, the Raptors need to look inward and determine if a move is necessary just to maintain their standing. After all, there's a good argument to be made that repeating 2015-16 would still be a major step forward for the organization, but a return to 2013-14 and 2014-15 would be quite the step back.
A season ago, the Raptors found themselves in a tough situation at the trade deadline. The poison-pill provisions in the contract extensions for Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas and the low salary of the bottom third of the Raptors' roster left them with very few tradable assets (they were essentially limited by not having bad contracts). Without getting bogged down in the salary cap math, the Raptors were essentially short a trade chip to make the math work in any move—to bring a mid-level piece in, they'd likely be looking at losing Patrick Patterson, who is paramount to the team's success and who had another cheap year left on his deal. And the Raptors were still, to a degree, still figuring out who—and how good—they were.
A year later and the Raptors are unlikely to run into similar constraints. Their salary structure is more varied this year, and the provisions on deals for Ross and Valanciunas are gone. They absolutely have the pieces—in terms of salary, contribute-now players, prospects, and picks—to put together attractive packages if a big name hits the market (not to the degree Boston or some others do, but they can get into conversations). If they're looking at a smaller-scale move, Cory Joseph and Jared Sullinger have mid-sized salaries and, while Joseph is well-liked and an important part of a successful second unit, the team has ample guard depth. Fans would be loath to see him go, and his minimum salary moves the needle little for matching, but Norman Powell would be one of the more intriguing trade chips a team could dangle.
In other words, the Raptors are in a better position to deal this year. They have a better salary structure. They have assets with real value. And they have a much better knowledge of who they are, what their strengths are, and where their weaknesses lie.
The thing about trades, though, is that they require a second team to make one. It's one thing to look at a deal for DeMarcus Cousins on paper, and another to convince the Sacramento Kings to eschew the chance to sign him to a no-brainer extension that the new collective bargaining agreement would allow for. It's easy to say the Hawks should trade Millsap ahead of free agency, and another to convince the Hawks they're not a legitimate threat to go to the conference finals if they keep him. And you'd have to convince Carmelo Ant... you know what, forget that one.
The Raptors are facing another year in which they need to make a trade, in which a trade is a fairly obvious route, and yet a trade may never materialize. It happened in the offseason, too—they were in on Serge Ibaka but the asking price was asinine. They had deals for Taj Gibson and Millsap in place before free agent moves changed things for their trade partners. And Pau Gasol was at one point believed to be incoming before Tim Duncan's retirement. That could wind up being the case again at the deadline, too: The Raptors want to trade, are suitable trade partners, and yet no deal actually materializes.
It leaves the franchise in a tough position, because it should be making an addition. Lowry is 30, and while amazing, probably only has another year or two at this level (assuming he re-signs). DeRozan is 27, and while he's improved annually, he's right around the peak of his development curve. Keeping Lowry and Patterson with no other additions will likely send the Raptors into the luxury tax with this same core, a core that can't compete with the Cavaliers and may get passed by other threats in the East as time wears on.
The Raptors have done well to maintain and develop youth while also contending in the near-term. With one of the youngest rosters in the league, they've managed to get by at roughly a 50-win pace while ensuring their doomsday scenario—Lowry, or DeRozan before him, leaving—would preclude a full tear-down in order to put the franchise back on the right path. That's a noble pursuit, and flashes from Powell as a starter or Jakob Poeltl in spot minutes Wednesday lend encouragement that these pieces will keep the depth in stock for years to come.
That depth matters a lot less in the playoffs, though, and it matters a lot less two years down the line when their stars begin to age and the window of contention begins closing. A high floor is great, and it's important to the long-term health of the franchise. It is not, however, a replacement for a high ceiling, which is what a team needs to compete with the Cavaliers. Should the Raptors go through this trade season quietly and come up empty-handed again in the offseason, there's a very real chance they will have let their best shot at a deeper run pass—it's one thing to wait for LeBron James to not-so-inevitably age now that he's 32, but it's another altogether when your window unfortunately lines up with his.
The solution is not immediately clear. Masai Ujiri, Jeff Weltman, and Bobby Webster have a strong track record in trades, but they can't will a player onto the market. There remains a chance no trade gets done because there is simply not a trade to be made. That wouldn't be anyone's fault, necessarily—it can't be advocated that the brass make a significant overpay or take an uncalculated risk just to do something. In that scenario, though, it's possible the Raptors wind up reflecting on these last two years and lamenting the lack of a move that was never there, wondering how high they could have pushed this core's ceiling with the right opportunity.