This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
It was as fateful a move as the Kyle Lowry-to-Knicks non-trade: on December 9, 2013, the Toronto Raptors dealt Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, intending to kick-start a rebuild. Coming back were Chuck Hayes, John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, and Patrick Patterson, fine pieces but ones largely included to make unloading Gay's salary possible. The Raptors were tearing things down, and were no longer attempting to be good.
The way things broke from there is history at this point: James Dolan nixed the Lowry deal days later, the new-look Raptors found an inexplicable, ethereal chemistry that turned a would-be tank into a low-rumbling force, and Toronto had their most fun season in years. At the heart of it was Patterson, who on Tuesday signed a three-year, $15.4 million deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In his three and a half years with the team, Patterson stood as a fitting avatar for the Raptors' unintended success, and not just because his arrival signaled the start of that period. That the Raptors got good makes sense, in retrospect, given the development of their two star guards and the decent-to-good role players around them. That off-season, the Raptors opted to stay competitive and give it a longer try rather than resuming their teardown, and Patterson re-signing on a three-year deal (along with Lowry) was a strong indicator of that.
In the years that followed, Patterson continued to provide immense, if underrated value. While he averaged only 7.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game, his impact was pronounced on both ends of the court. The Raptors were better with Patterson on the floor than without each season, to the tune of +7.5, +4.5, +10.3, and +10.4 points per 100 possessions successively. Over the last three years, he ranked 16th in the NBA in raw plus-minus, doing so in fewer minutes than all but two of the names ahead of him. At a certain point, the sample size is large enough to draw some conclusions.
While not a high-usage or even particularly high-efficiency offensive piece, Patterson helped move the ball and space the floor, an important consideration at the power-forward spot for a team that was light on shooting and needed to invert the floor to create breathing room for their guards. At the other end, Patterson was the Raptors' highest-IQ defender, capable of guarding three positions in a pinch and rotating all over the backend as needed.
Patterson's popularity fluctuated during his time in Toronto, owing in large part to some psychological biases, like the trouble we have processing variance. With a large portion of his offensive value being derived from threes, a high-variance shot Patterson was particularly inconsistent with, there were sustained periods or high-leverage moments where recency and primacy and small samples took hold. All the while, the value metrics would suggest he was still providing as much as ever (even in "clutch" scenarios).
Even in that sense, he fit perfectly with what the Raptors of the last four years represented: a good, if frustrating team that maybe wasn't fully appreciated as such because they weren't always the easiest to watch.
Still, the Raptors were consistently looking to upgrade a starting power forward position Patterson probably could have filled capably. He was always a nice schematic fit with the other starters at both ends and the lineup data usually held up, but a belief that he "couldn't" start, rooted in a small handful of unrepresentative games, persisted. Again, though, it's a nice reflection of where the Raptors stood: good, but with the constant need to try to improve their lot. (That Patterson is outbound after the Raptors finally found a starting four in Serge Ibaka, but said starting four is now best suited for the five and the power forward position is once again in flux, is some delicious irony.)
On Tuesday, the two sides decided to go in different directions. It's unclear if there was ever an offer made, but the writing seemed to be on the wall when Patterson skipped his locker clean-out day. Patterson is the last piece of the fateful Gay trade to leave. Hayes became a free agent, Salmons turned into Lucas Nogueira and a sixth man season from Lou Williams, and Vasquez became Norman Powell and a pick that helped land Ibaka (or OG Anunoby, depending on how you prefer to frame it). Patterson leaves behind nothing but a reflection on that last four years of unexpected, sometimes difficult to explain success.
Sometimes it's time to just move on. Picturing the Raptors without Patterson, without one of their leaders and loudest voices, without one of the biggest advocates for the city (during a time it, like the Raptors, felt to be on the come-up), without a fixture of most of their best lineups, will be strange. He was a big, if sometimes unappreciated, piece of the reshaping of the franchise.