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Will There Be a Roster Casualty in the Raptors’ Quest for Innovation?

Toronto GM Masai Ujiri notes that changes are afoot as Canada’s team tries to once again climb the Eastern summit. It isn’t the first time he’s made that kind of proclamation.

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Another summer, another offseason when the Raptors try to spin their position in the league as something to look forward to. After three straight ass-kickings by LeBron, the Raptors are “open for business” again. Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri didn’t use the words “blow it up,” but he did signal on Thursday that the roster isn’t quite suited to execute the forward-thinking plans of this new Dwane Casey–less era of the Raptors.

Ujiri has used this language before: In 2015, the front office was also “open for business.” Back then, the team had just come off a disappointing first-round exit against the Washington Wizards. Their goal was to bolster their squad without giving up on their core. To be fair, that’s what the team has done. Three years later, the Raptors remain committed to its two stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, they’ve developed their young talent, and they’ve taken a chance on Serge Ibaka. (Serge was supposed to make it a Big Three, but he’s performed more like an overpaid role player.) The core hasn’t changed, but under new head coach Nick Nurse, the efficiency might. Nurse, Casey’s former top assistant, led Toronto’s “innovation” last season to space the floor, take more 3s, and share the ball. With full control now, the offense should continue improving in that direction.

Before Nurse was an assistant in Toronto, he was coaching Houston’s G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to a championship in 2011 using a fast, 3-point-heavy system that served as a test pilot for the system the Rockets deploy today. Lowry, DeRozan, and Co. leaned into pace and space last season; under Nurse, they’ll have to free fall. If that transformation isn’t achievable with this roster, who might no longer fit?

Serge Ibaka

Name another Big Three with a third man as forgettable as Ibaka. At least we talked about Carmelo Anthony. (To be fair, it was apparent early on that Toronto would have more of a Big 2.5 when they added Ibaka.) The early-2017 trade that landed Serge was supposed to be a game-changer. His skill set made Ibaka seem like the “last piece” Toronto had been waiting for, but expectations waned after the fan base realized he wasn’t the player he had been when playing next to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. His athleticism has fallen off, reducing him to just another center on a team full of them. Pairing him with Jonas Valanciunas might have been effective half a decade ago; now, it’s far from … innovative.

Ibaka faded into the background this season, conveniently after inking a three-year, $65 million contract. Ibaka did his part in the Raptors’ postseason collapse, averaging only 8.7 points and 5.9 rebounds, successfully erasing the last bit of his trade value before the offseason hit.

Jonas Valanciunas

Nurse worked with Valanciunas last season, and the 26-year-old big man has one stat in particular to show it: For the first time in his six-season career, Valanciunas averaged one 3-point attempt a game. (The five before, he averaged zero.) It’s progress, but at a glacial pace. Unfortunately, the 7-footer has two seasons and $34 million left on his contract, and might be a tough sell on the trade market.

Nurse’s concepts of “innovation” seem to include the Lithuanian big man. Valanciunas appears to be something of a pet project for Nurse, evidenced both by the coach’s building a defense that keys in on the big man’s strengths rather than forcing him to confront his weaknesses, and by giving more freedom to his offensive game. In an interview with the Toronto Star, he said Valanciunas’s growth had been stunted because he wasn’t involved enough. “I think his offense is going to continue to expand.”

DeMar DeRozan

DeRozan doubled his 3-point attempts and shaved his midrange shots in the name of efficiency last season, averaged a career-high 5.2 assists, and was an outside, on-the-lawn MVP candidate. But he also fell flat when it mattered, in the elimination game against Cleveland. People return to what they know in pressure situations, and DeRozan is no different: He went 0–13 from the perimeter in his final five playoff games before abandoning the shot altogether.

At 28 and locked into three more years on his contract, DeRozan is the easiest trade to make on this list. He has a bad track record in high-pressure situations, but for some win-now teams or ones aspiring to be, DeRozan could be appealing in a situation where he doesn’t have the weight of a franchise on his shoulders. It also might be a chance for the Raptors to walk back their load of commitments. Though DeRozan was willing to start shooting from the perimeter, that didn’t automatically make him good at it. He finished the season 31.2 percent from distance, hardly the mark an “innovated” offense wants from its shooting guard.

But what the Raptors would seek in return is interesting — any front office with the space is likely trying to rebuild, and doesn’t have a player of his caliber to swap. Would Toronto seek a substitute near his caliber to put next to Lowry, or picks to build toward the future? What’s his value around the league, anyway? Trading away a superstar like DeRozan in his prime almost seems like a white flag for a franchise that’s been trying to win it all for years now, but it also might be the innovation Nurse has in mind.