Toronto enters the trade deadline as the clear second-best team in the East behind Cleveland, on pace for a sprightly 55-27 per FiveThirtyEight’s ELO. Despite being managed by the trigger-happy Masai Ujiri, most signs seem to indicate continuity for the Raptors. This is not without sound logic. Toronto is trending upwards, and entered the All-Star Break on a 14-2 run. And as currently constructed, they would almost certainly get the playoff series win that has eluded them the past two seasons.
Yet they are also at a crossroads with their own future. Their backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are both in the midst of career years, and this season is likely the apex of their collective talent. Cap woes are also of concern as this team ages, with DeRozan in line for a mammoth deal this summer.
DeRozan will get a max contract this offseason. The Lakers have already said that they will offer him the max, and the Raptors will (and should) be ready to offer him the max to stay in Toronto. Doing so would incur a $25 million cap hit in 2016-2017, and put over $106 million on Toronto’s cap for 2016-2017. After handing Terrence Ross a 3 year - $33 million extension in October, the Raptors would be committing over $35 million to two shooting guards.
The cap will rise to $92 million this summer, and early projections have the cap rising to $108 million for the summer of 2017. Even under the soaring projections, Toronto would be capped out. Of course, they would still retain financial flexibility, and their mid-sized deals are fairly movable.
In general, no team is ever completely stuck with bad contracts, as there will always be a team under the salary floor willing to absorb the albatross deals in exchange for future picks. But even if nearly every team will have max-level room, cap space is still an asset, and Toronto will have precious little if they want to run it back with their core.
Considering the financial uncertainties in Toronto’s future, it makes sense to go for it this year. They are the quintessential win-now team, and have the assets to make a serious move. Masai reportedly loves Patrick Patterson, who would most certainly be involved in any trade for a 4. More attractive to most trade partners is the Raptors’ duo of 2016 1st rounders, both their own and an unprotected Knicks’ pick.
Most theoretical trades involving Toronto have them acquiring Ryan Anderson, Kenneth Faried, or Markieff Morris. While each is a substantial upgrade over Luis Scola, they do not necessarily move the needle for the Raptors. Masai would understandably hesitate to agree to a deal which includes Patterson + a young asset, or simply an unprotected first for any of those players.
Upgrading their starting 4 is imperative for the Raptors. The Scola-Valanciunas lineups are untenable, with a net rating of -3.1. Playing the vast majority of minutes with the starting 5, Scola manages a -0.9 net rating. But Toronto should not hastily give up Patterson in order to demote Scola.
On a wonderfully tradeable deal with 2 years left for $12.3 million, Patterson been a part of the Raptors’ two most productive lineups by net rating. The lineup of Lowry - Joseph - Ross - Patterson - Biyombo has managed a +36.6 net rating in 171.6 minutes together, their third most-used lineup.
Additionally, a unit of Lowry - Joseph - DeRozan - Patterson - Valanciunas has a +25.0 net rating, albeit in a painfully small sample size of 53.4 minutes. While his contributions do not translate well to the traditional counting stats, Patterson has proved himself a valuable bench piece, meshing with the starters more effectively than the hapless Scola.
Reportedly, Masai is not enamored with any of the potential replacements for Scola, and is cautious to deal a first rounder (especially the Knicks pick) for an Anderson/Faried type. But if Toronto really wants to win the East this season, they should go after Horford.
Raptors Receive: Al Horford, Mike Scott, Lamar Patterson
Hawks Receive: Patrick Patterson, Lucas Nogueira, James Johnson, less favorable 2016 1st-Round Pick from New York and Denver via Toronto, 2017 1st-Round Pick from LA Clippers via Toronto (lottery-protected)
This is undoubtedly a hefty price to pay, and would nearly clear the coffers of future assets. But Toronto can retain its own picks, and acquire a versatile big man in Horford who vaults them a level. Furthermore, the Raptors would possess Horford’s bird rights, and the ability to offer him a 5th year on any deal. Sources close to Horford affirm that he values that extra 5th year above anything else, so the Raptors could eschew paying him the max by being able to offer that additional year.
As running mate to Paul Millsap in the Atlanta frontcourt, Horford has shown his ability to stretch the floor on offense this season. After making just 21 threes in his first seven seasons, he has already hit on 55 triples in 2015-2016. This newfound range allows him to space the floor, an essential component for DeRozan, who has the league’s highest drive rate with 11.6 per game.
Here, Horford takes advantage of a non existent rotation following the screen. When Dennis Schroeder passes to him out of the double team, Horford does not hesitate in hoisting up an open 18 footer. Alongside the slashing Schroeder this season, Horford has flourished. He has posted a +10.8 net rating in 657.2 minutes with the young German. However, that mark falls to a -1.6 net rating in the 1081.6 minutes he has played with Jeff Teague.
Horford’s struggles with the starting unit (and with Paul Millsap) have been symptomatic of Atlanta’s regression this season. His on/off numbers with Millsap are of concern, as the duo posts just a +0.6 net rating when on the floor together. Yet that mark climbs to +4.7 when Millsap plays without Horford, and crests to +7.8 when Horford plays without Millsap.
With Horford and without Millsap, Atlanta’s defense thrives. They allow just 0.933 PPP, a figure which would rival the Spurs for league’s best. Offensively, Horford has fit well in Mike Budenholzer’s system predicated on ball movement as a lithe big and strong passer. Amongst starting (28+ MPG) centers, Horford’s 16.4 AST% places him 3rd, behind the Gasol brothers.
Playing alongside ball dominators such as Lowry and DeRozan, Horford’s value would not be diminished. His game is based on fluid pick and rolls rather than ball stopping post ups. Horford is the 8th most-used roll man in the league, but has only the 30th-most post up attempts (coincidentally, DeRozan is 31st in post ups).
A post-heavy player could throw a wrench in Toronto’s offense, and be forced to compete with Lowry and DeRozan for possessions. Horford posts up on just 15.3% of his used possessions, a figure lower than Ryan Anderson (17.3%) and teammate Paul Millsap (16.6%). Horford could also be used as an ideal pick and pop screener with Toronto’s guards.
Horford excels off ball, using his guile and awareness to slip behind defenders in the paint. After setting a screen, he smartly slips down to the restricted area, anticipating Lopez's eventual rotation to stop Bazemore, resulting in an easy layup.
Pectoral injuries to Horford in the 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 seasons are viewed as red flags by some. But including the postseason, he has played (and started) in 137 of 143 games since the start of the 2014-2015 season. Horford plays below the rim, but with his smooth game out to 20+ feet, this hardly puts him at a disadvantage. His cerebral game will age better than most, as he has never needed to lean on athleticism for his production. If Toronto can convince him to accept below the max in exchange for a 5th year on the deal, their inevitable cap problems would be mitigated.
Despite all of this, a blockbuster deal for Horford looks to be a pipe dream. Atlanta’s asking price has been prohibitive for most teams. Zach Lowe wrote on February 15th about the Hawks and the price tag of Horford.
“To put it politely, the league is skeptical this is anything more than a Hawks fishing expedition designed to gin up one crazy offer for Horford. Wes Wilcox, Atlanta's GM, is asking teams to "wow" him, sources say, and no one is biting.” - Zach Lowe
If the Raptors could get Horford without giving up any of their own first rounders or young assets, they should make the trade. At the very least, Masai should call Atlanta. Windows in the NBA are more fleeting than many think.
Just look at Memphis, a great comparison for Toronto. They won an average of 53 games from 2011-2015, even advancing to the conference finals in 2013 after Patrick Beverley bumped knees with Russell Westbrook. But they were swept by the Spurs in the conference finals, and have won just a single playoff series since. Memphis’ window was that 2013 season, and they were not in a position to capitalize.
Toronto can make the conference finals in their present state. They could even beat the Cavs in the presumptive ECF matchup, if a few things broke in their favor. But just making it to the Finals seems unlikely, let alone winning. FiveThirtyEight’s ELO model agrees, giving Toronto just a 3% chance of winning it all. ESPN's BPI model is even more pessimistic, setting Toronto's chances of a championship at just 1.9%.
By adding Horford, Toronto can push themselves to the Cavs’ level, without completely depleting their arsenal of future assets. Masai has made a name for himself in large part due to his willingness to disrupt status quo. The acquisition of an All-Star big man would certainly shake things up in the East, and could even make the NBA Finals an international affair.