The Toronto Raptors are reeling. First, they lost two close games to the cellar-dwelling Magic. Then they lost by a point to the Kings and succumbed to a Kyrie Irving buzzer-beater against the Nets. And then a Steph Curry–less Warriors team ran them out of Scotiabank Arena and the 76ers bested them in overtime.
All those defeats have dropped the Raptors to 10th place in the East with a 13-18 record. And their precarious perch isn’t likely to improve anytime soon: The Raptors visit the surging Knicks on Wednesday, followed by a gauntlet of the Cavaliers, Clippers, Grizzlies, Suns, Pacers, and Bucks. They might hit the halfway mark with a record in the range of 16-25 or worse.
The disappointing Bulls—one spot behind Toronto in the Eastern standings—are the NBA’s most obvious blow it up! candidate, but the Raptors aren’t far behind. They’re falling just as far below expectations, after they claimed the East’s no. 5 seed last season and just about every NBA nerd with a podcast thought they’d be more dangerous in 2022-23.
Instead, the Raptors are rotten. We don’t have to look very far to identify the first problem:
Worst Half-Court Offenses
Alongside a handful of rebuilding and/or tanking teams, the Raptors have one of the league’s worst half-court offenses. (Also note the Clippers’ placement here; their offense remains putrid!) They try to skirt the issue by avoiding standard half-court sets as much as possible, thanks to the league’s most potent transition attack.
But they’re ruined by a dreadful combination of not enough playmaking and not enough shooting. When not allowed to run in open space, Toronto’s offense frequently bogs down, without enough creativity to generate optimal looks.
The Raptors rank second in the NBA in isolation frequency, behind only the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic–centric attack, according to Second Spectrum. But the Raptors rank 26th in isolation effectiveness, averaging just 0.88 points when an iso produces a shot, foul, or turnover. The other teams—except those darn Clippers again—that use the most isos are, naturally, the best at turning those plays into points.
Most Frequent Isolation Users
|Team||Isos/100 Possessions||Points Per Iso||Rank|
|Team||Isos/100 Possessions||Points Per Iso||Rank|
With a rotation mostly populated by non-shooters and with guards Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. slumping far below their career norms, the Raptors are also suffering from subpar shooting everywhere on the court. According to Cleaning the Glass, they rank 17th in finishing at the rim, 24th from midrange, 27th on corner 3s, and 27th on above-the-break 3s. Malachi Flynn is the only rotation player making even a league-average percentage from distance.
|Gary Trent Jr.||170||33.5%|
Yet to some extent, this level of offensive challenge is normal at this point. Since Kawhi Leonard left after the 2018-19 championship season, the Raptors have ranked 15th, 16th, 16th, and now 14th in offensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass.
The problem this season is that the middling offense is paired with an uninspiring defense. The Raptors’ swarming collection of 6-foot-9 thieves force the league’s highest turnover rate, which has the double benefit of denying opponents points and generating fast-break opportunities. But that approach pays off only about 20 percent of the time. The other 80 percent has become disastrous.
When the Raptors don’t force turnovers, they foul a lot, and they allow sky-high shooting percentages. Toronto ranks 29th in opponents’ effective field goal percentage—and also ranks 29th in expected opponent eFG% based on factors like shot and defender location, according to Second Spectrum. That’s because the Raptors give up a lot of high-value shots at the rim and behind the 3-point line; only the Blazers and Magic have induced fewer midrange shots, per CtG. And the no-center Raptors don’t have the personnel to disrupt those juicy looks: Opposing teams shoot 70 percent at the rim against Toronto, the league’s third-highest mark.
(Precious Achiuwa’s absence hurts here, as he’s played just 12 games because of an ankle injury. Christian Koloko has promise but isn’t ready; the 7-foot rookie leads all players with at least 400 minutes in foul rate, averaging six whistles per 75 possessions.)
The Raptors play a high-risk, high-reward style, and the risk is winning. After a rough weekend, the Raptors dropped to 19th in defensive rating, according to CtG, equivalent to their mark from the forgettable 2020-21 campaign.
That 2020-21 season is a useful reference point as the 2022-23 version keeps losing. With the trade deadline approaching and 89 percent of the NBA’s players now eligible to be dealt, the Raptors could be prime participants on this season’s market; after all, Masai Ujiri isn’t afraid to complete a major midseason deal.
That’s what happened in 2020-21, when the Raptors, playing in Tampa because of COVID, took a strategic step back once they realized they couldn’t meaningfully contend. They sent Norman Powell to the Trail Blazers in exchange for Trent, six years Powell’s junior, and nearly traded Kyle Lowry as well. And after starting 17-17, they finished the season on a 10-28 run, including a 1-10 losing sprint to improve their lottery odds. The stealth tank—which included late-season starters like Freddie Gillespie, Jalen Harris, and Stanley Johnson—paid off with the no. 4 pick and the arrival of Scottie Barnes.
What would that pivot look like this season? First things first: Barnes isn’t going anywhere. The reigning Rookie of the Year winner has become something of a lightning rod this season because of inconsistent performances. He still takes too many midrange jumpers and isn’t making as many this season. But amid all the Sturm und Drang about Barnes’s development, he should be just fine in the long run and was probably buckling under the weight of the extra responsibilities he needed to assume with Pascal Siakam hurt. Since Siakam’s return in late November from a 10-game absence, Barnes has bumped his season-long numbers right back up to where they settled in his rookie campaign.
Scottie Barnes’s Box Score
Beyond Barnes, the Raptors are unlikely to move either Siakam or OG Anunoby, given their immense two-way ability; Siakam is a contender for his third All-NBA nod in four seasons, and Anunoby should make an All-Defensive team if he plays enough games. But in a true teardown scenario in which the Raptors decide to fully rebuild around the younger Barnes, this duo could be moved, especially because Siakam will reach free agency after next season and Anunoby could join him by declining a player option.
And if Siakam and Anunoby will be available via trade, a bunch of teams would be interested. Anunoby would fit especially well in New Orleans or Memphis, and Siakam in the latter city, because both young upstart teams could use another impactful big wing, and both overflow with the young talent and draft equity necessary to swing a blockbuster—though matching salaries, particularly Siakam’s $35 million, could prove tricky.
The Raptors’ guards, conversely, seem much more gettable. Both VanVleet and Trent have player options for next season but will likely decline to become free agents this offseason, and thus they might not remain in the Raptors’ long-term plans as readily as the core members of the 6-foot-9 crew.
With regard to VanVleet, not many contenders need a lead guard, and Minnesota, maybe the prospective contender most in need of point guard help, doesn’t have any picks to trade. A few fine fits still emerge, however.
The Lakers are an obvious choice, given their dire need for perimeter scoring, though Anthony Davis’s monthlong absence could limit their appetite for a win-now trade. VanVleet would also make sense in Dallas, where his off-ball experience playing next to Lowry would help him slot in as the Mavericks’ much-needed Jalen Brunson replacement. (Hey, Brunson replaced VanVleet as the Knicks’ targeted guard in free agency, so it’d only be right if VanVleet replaced Brunson elsewhere.) And in a completely different, if less likely, direction, if the Magic—Just off a six-game win streak! Including two in Boston!—want to fix their omnipresent guard problems with a veteran, VanVleet would work great in Orlando for the rest of this season and beyond.
Of all the current Raptors, however, Trent seems the most likely to depart if Ujiri decides to sell at the deadline, for three reasons. First, he’s slumping on both sides of the ball, and he fell out of the starting lineup after coach Nick Nurse said Trent’s defensive sluggishness meant “he doesn’t fit us” anymore. Second, he would presumably fetch a lower pick cost from another team than any other main Raptor. Third, he has a payday looming this summer, and as The Athletic’s Eric Koreen notes, Trent could be the odd man out as the Raptors anticipate extensions for Siakam, Anunoby, and Barnes in the coming years.
Still, Trent profiles as a disruptive defender when engaged, as well as a microwave scorer who, for all his inconsistency this season, is still a career 38 percent shooter from distance. Essentially every non-Celtics team could use another two-way guard off the bench, so it’s not hard to imagine one of them—the Bucks and Suns are particularly apt fits—springing a trade and hoping that a change in scenery helps the good version of Trent reemerge.
Whichever level of sale Ujiri decides, though—whether he sticks small with Trent alone, or deals VanVleet as well, or completes a true blockbuster with an All-NBA talent—it seems more clear with every dispiriting loss that some manner of shake-up is necessary for this moribund Raptors squad. The situation isn’t quite as dire as that in Chicago; at least the Raptors have a core of two-way players and a future centerpiece in Barnes. They don’t need to blow it up. But they’re not remotely fulfilling their potential for this season, either, and pursuing a strategic retreat to reset for next season would make plenty more sense than striving for a play-in berth with a team that can’t score.
Statistics through Sunday’s games.