Deadline Roundup: Raptors’ Playoff Path Grows More Arduous

Title: Deadline Roundup: Raptors’ Playoff Path Grows More Arduous
Date: February 20, 2015
Original Source: Raptors Republic
Synopsis: This article looked at the moves made by other East teams at the deadline, and how they could impact the Raptors.

The Toronto Raptors bet on chemistry once again at Thursday’s trade deadline, eschewing the chance to make any minor deals that may have been available and instead keeping the same roster in place that’s been here since opening night.

That’s an easy strategy to accept when sitting second in the Eastern Conference, especially given some of the realities facing the Raptors.

Realities like the fact that what could have been their best asset (Terrence Ross) completely depreciated its own value over the last three months. Or that there didn’t appear to be players available that would have moved the needle much in terms of the team’s expected outcome for the 2014-15 season. Or that the assets they could have moved – their own 2015 first-round pick, the lower of the Knicks or Nuggets picks in 2016 – are potentially more valuable than the return they would have brought (that, or I’m guilty of anchoring).

Looking at what happened with some of the names the Raptors were attached to makes the Raptors’ inactivity even more understandable. The Utah Jazz fetched a first-round pick, a second-round pick and cap relief for Enes Kanter, who was a bad fit in Toronto anyway.

Kevin Garnett was dealt, but he cost a useful roster player and had to waive his no-trade clause, something it was said he would only do for the Timberwolves. The Pacers stood pat with David West, the Celtics with Brandon Bass, and the Bulls with Taj Gibson, with none of those names even popping up in rumors on deadline day. The Denver Nuggets got a good haul for Arron Afflalo and didn’t budge on a two-firsts asking price for Wilson Chandler, so Kenneth Faried likely would have cost the farm.

On the buyout front, Amar’e Stoudemire landed in Dallas without much hesitation, it doesn’t sound as if Larry Sanders will play this season, and while the Raptors could have fit a veteran minimum contract in under the luxury tax line after waiving Greg Stiemsma (or anyone else), neither of those names were all that realistic. The Raptors can still keep an eye on the buyout market but it’s tough to think of a good fit that would be amenable to a quick stop north.

It’s easy to point to other deals and wonder why the Raptors weren’t involved – a second-rounder and Isaiah Canaan for K.J. McDaniels, are you serious? – but it’s rarely as simple as that kind of post-mortem analysis feels.

In making no moves, the Raptors don’t get any better or any worse, and their future flexibility and outlook remain unchanged.

That doesn’t mean the Raptors aren’t in a worse situation this morning than they were on Thursday, because they are, just not alarmingly so.

In shooting down a lot of Raptors rumors earlier this week, I wrote the following about why I would be hesitant to part with appreciable assets for a marginal upgrade:

I’d also be hesitant to surrender any future assets for anything that’s not a clear and demonstrable upgrade to the eight- or nine-man rotation. Not to be overly pessimistic, but the Raptors would be paying to move from “likely to win one playoff series and then lose in round two” to “likely to win one playoff series with a little more certainty and probably still lose in round two.” If a deal manifests itself that changes the second-round outlook, sure, but the deals being floated don’t really do that.

I would still classify the Raptors as “likely to win one playoff series,” but that status grew more tenuous on Thursday. The Raptors are likely locked in to a seed in the East between two and five, which just a few days ago suggested the rest of the season would be a fight to keep a top-three seed, thus avoiding the other top-five teams in a four-five match-up. The line of demarcation between the top-five and the others still exists, but the bottom of the conference has gotten stronger.

Taking a look at No. 6 through No. 12 in the East, almost every team made an acquisition or is set to.

Milwaukee (30-23): The Bucks are almost surely locked in to the six-seed, and they may now be the preferred opponent if things shake out a certain way in the next two spots. The Bucks are terrific defensively and can frustrate a great deal with their length, but Thursday’s swap of Brandon Knight for Michael Carter-Williams represents a present-term offensive downgrade, something the team could ill afford. In adding Miles Plumlee (and I suppose Tyler Ennis), the Bucks improved their depth, and Carter-Williams has taken appreciable strides defensively, but the Bucks may be the least equipped of any playoff team to take advantage of the Raptors’ sometimes-porous defense.

Charlotte (22-30): The Hornets may have been left behind by Thursday’s moves, even though they added Mo Williams ahead of the deadline. They’ll get Kemba Walker back sometime during the stretch run, but they may have lost their hold on a playoff spot by that point. Even at full health, and even with their track record of having the Raptors’ number, this would be one of the preferred match-ups for Toronto.

Miami (22-30): If the idea of Goran Dragic and Chris Bosh running pick-and-pops ad nauseam while Dwyane Wade lurks off the ball doesn’t terrify you, you have rose-colored glasses on when it comes to the Raptors’ defense. Two future firsts is a steep price, and the loss of Danny Granger and Shawne Williams will hurt their depth some, but this team is built for the now, and their window is now open a crack further. The paucity of depth – that could be aided through the buyout market, as Miami’s a popular destination – and lack of contingency for any injury to Dragic, Bosh, or Wade leave the Heat on shaky footing in the big picture, but for seven games they’d be pretty scary. Related: Hassan Whiteside.

Brooklyn (21-31): Oh good, Joe Johnson is still around. The Nets probably aren’t good enough to steal one of the final two playoff spots, but if they do, Thad Young would have more utility against Toronto than Garnett would. Given the Nets-inspired skeletons in the Raptors’ closet, even their certain favorite status in such a season would have us all quietly terrified. This is unrelated, but how fun is Garnett returning to Minnesota?

Boston (20-31): The Celtics would probably prefer to miss out on the playoffs given their long-term goals, but adding Isaiah Thomas should help balance the offense-defense dynamic in the guard rotation. Boston plays really hard and can be a frustrating opponent, one that could at least wear the Raptors down some heading into round two.

Detroit (21-33): It looked as if the Pistons’ playoffs hopes died when Brandon Jennings went down for the season, but their post-Josh Smith momentum was given new life at the deadline. The Pistons gave up a pair of second-round picks, the bane of my existence in D.J. Augustin and a decent depth wing in Kyle Singler to land Reggie Jackson from the Thunder. I’m not a huge fan of the Jackson at the numbers being thrown around for his potential restricted free agency this summer, but for now, this is a low-cost move that stands as a significant upgrade for the Pistons. The Raptors would still be a favorite, but the Pistons are back on the radar as a possible opponent.

Indiana (21-33): The Pacers stood pat, likely because of the reports that Paul George could return in the middle of March, adding a recovering All-Star to their roster for the final 15 games or so. George likely won’t be his old self in time to lift the team’s offense where it needs to be, but Frank Vogel and Roy Hibbert have kept the defense respectable in George’s stead. A rounding-into-form George and this defense would at least be a concern.

None of this is to say the Raptors are no longer a favorite to make the second round of the playoffs. They are, and like I was before the season, I remain confident they’ll win a playoff series for the second time in franchise history. I also still believe they’d beat Washington in a four-five match-up or if the Wizards sneak into round two (they’re a terrible matchup for the Bulls if that lands four-five), though I’m more pessimistic about showdowns with Atlanta, Cleveland, and Chicago.

All of this is just to say that several potential first-round matchups now look more daunting. The Heat – the likely seven-seed now – in particular have moved themselves from tough out to appreciable threat in round one, and many of the potential eight-seeds are a little better than they were 24 hours ago.

But hey, there’s a reason the Raptors felt confident sticking it out with the roster as is. This is a pretty good team, one that appeared to be finding a nice groove again before the All-Star Break and one that should see DeMar DeRozan round back into top form eventually. There’s no cause for hand-wringing over the lack of a deadline deal.

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