Raptors Weekly: Pump the brakes on Gasol or Jordan

Things are going swimmingly for the Raptors, so naturally, much of the discussion this week has centered around trades.

The two targets belong to floundering teams in the West. Marc Gasol is the disgruntled leader for a franchise on the brink of disarray, while DeAndre Jordan is practically wearing “SOS” on his jersey as the Clipper curse claims yet another lost season.

Loose reports have supplied hope to those who wish to hope, although it’s been radio silence as usual from the local journalists. Gary Woelfel, who is based in Milwaukee, says the Raptors want Jordan. As for the Gasol interest, that was reported by Mitch Lawrence, who is stationed in New York.

With all due respect to both writers, they aren’t exactly Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania in terms of credibility, so I would take these rumors with a grain of salt. But for the sake of weekly content, let’s have some fun with it.

Gasol is more dynamic than Jordan. The Raptors have sorely lacked playmaking from their bigs, and save for Nikola Jokic and DeMarcus Cousins, Gasol as good as it comes at the center position. He would give the Raptors a pressure release when DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry get swarmed by pressure-packed playoff defenses, and be able to either distribute to others or reliably score when receiving the rock at the high post. Gasol’s defense can also be top notch, although he hasn’t been sharp during the Grizzlies’ losing streak. When motivated, he is a clever mind and a clear communicator out of the back line.

Jordan is more of a specialist that happens to fit what the Raptors need. He is a dominant rebounder and a mobile shot blocker, although both stats are down for him this season. Nevertheless, he should fit nicely as someone who can anchor the defense similar to the Tyson Chandler, who Dwane Casey rode to a championship in 2011. On the other end, Jordan also doesn’t need the ball, and is strictly a putback and pick-and-roll finisher, which works nicely with a backcourt combo like Lowry and DeRozan.

Neither player will come cheap.

Woelfel reports that the Clippers are asking the Bucks for two of John Henson (middling player on a big contract), Khris Middleton (better than DeMar, according to the statistiks) and Malcolm Brogdon (won Rookie of the Year but is low key 25). I would not pay that much for an expiring year of Jordan.

As for Gasol, the franchise just beheaded a head coach on his behalf, and they’ve repeatedly called Gasol untouchable, a point they reiterated after David Fizdale’s exit, so you gotta figure they would want a king’s ransom. Memphis is also a tiny market that has traditionally struggled, so they won’t exactly be eager to launch an extended rebuild considering that they might need to relocate. It’s far more likely that they retain Gasol until the ownership situation with Robert Pera is resolved.

Based on the prices listed above, the Raptors would need to surrender Jonas Valanciunas at the very least, to go along with two of their prospects (Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam), and perhaps even a pick or two. Norman Powell just signed that extension so he can’t be traded.

None of those assets are particularly appealing, even if they’re doing well in limited roles for the Raptors. Valanciunas is a neutral asset at best, mostly serving as flotsam salary in the form of a luxury player, while the other young players have yet to even prove they can be starters, let alone budding All-Stars. In dealing away a star player, the focus is always more on potential than the unsexy assurance of steady play.

The money would also be difficult.

Toronto is already on the cusp of paying the luxury tax, so adding a fourth player who makes over $20 million would be damn near impossible. Matching salaries can be accomplished through Valanciunas and a prospect, but things will immediately get messy once Powell’s extension kicks in. Jordan can be a free agent after this season, while Gasol is firmly on the books for another two. They would both fit the three-year window, but the cost of keeping this core around would be absurd.

At this point, you must ask yourself what exactly it is that the Raptors are paying for. Dealing for either player would count as an upgrade over what Valanciunas and Ibaka are providing, but does it make sense at that price?

The Raptors have more depth at center than at any other position. Dwane Casey is already struggling to find time for Valanciunas, Ibaka, Jakob Poeltl and even Bebe Nogueira. All of them have played well to varying degrees, and being able to pick and choose based on the opponent has been a legitimate asset. Does consolidating those pieces into one player make sense?

On the subject of Ibaka, the bulk of his value is tied in his ability to play center. Adding Gasol and Jordan would neutralize that, which make Ibaka the most expensive mediocre power forward in the game. Does it make sense to create another logjam?

Raptors president Masai Ujiri and his team would be sending some centers back the other way, which should clear some clutter, but both the Clippers and Grizzlies would want more than Valanciunas and some filler. Does it make sense to cough up more picks (they can’t trade a first until 2020) and some prospects for a potential rental in Jordan, or a max-making soon-to-be-33-year-old in Gasol with a history of foot injuries?

If I had to choose one, I would take Gasol. I’m desperate to see what this offense looks like with a frontcourt player who can bring balance as a third option. Although they tweaked the system this year, the bulk of the attack still flows exclusively through the guards, and it’s proven that they can be limited in the playoffs. Gasol might not be able to solve the rebounding issue (not directly, at least) and it would take a lot to work him into the team, but he would definitely raise the ceiling.

But ultimately, I would pass. Yes, both players would be an upgrade, but the bottom line is the playoffs. How serious are the Raptors about making a deep run? It’s one thing if Gasol or Jordan were the missing piece to the puzzle (although Gasol is pretty much exactly what they need) but I still don’t see how this solves the issue of stopping LeBron James, let alone challenging the Warriors.

Let’s wait for the next one.

OG’s weakness

Anunoby has been such a nice surprise with his Wolverine-esque recovery, rapid ascension to a starting role, and advanced offensive skillset, that it feels wrong to nitpick. It’s like finding a loonie on the street and complaining it wasn’t a five.

But look, he’s not perfect. One area Anunoby has struggled with this season is guarding quick shooting guards. It was first exposed by Bradley Beal, and the trend has been carried on by Tim Hardaway Jr. and Victor Oladipo. All three have torched Anunoby for 30 or more, sometimes twice.

Part of it stems from Anunoby’s lack of quick twitch explosiveness, which has been the slowest to return following major knee surgery. Anunoby can’t quite keep up on those sharp cuts from the paint out to the perimeter, and teams are capitalizing by running him around down screens to delay him even further.

The other part is the learning curve from college to the pros. College offenses are slower, and they feature far fewer actions on and off the ball. There’s a lot more swinging the ball aimlessly and dumping it into the post as compared to how fast and how composed the professional ranks are. Guarding players who can thrive on and off the ball requires repetitions and experience.

For the moment, the Raptors have found a solution by switching those assignments to their smaller guards. Lowry and his wavy twin VanVleet are much better at getting into their man and navigating through screens. Powell should help, too, but his defensive intensity hasn’t consistently been there this season.

Poeltl’s efficiency

The Raptors don’t ask a lot from their centers. The less you notice them on either end, the better. Poeltl serves that role better than anyone else.

Poeltl goes completely undetected. He overwhelms you with nuance instead of blinding you with flash. Even when he does catch your attention — normally with the chasedown block — it is borne out of surprise. He lulls you into a sense of false security because he always stays within himself, but he is very capable. Everyone underestimates his nimble feet, his anticipation, and his 7-foot frame. Just ask Kevin Durant (be like Lady Kokachin and ask for “Polo”).

He’s just always in the right spaces, wedging defenders wayward with solid screens before skulking into the gaps. Poeltl’s movement off the ball is a masterclass of intuition and determination. His effortless chemistry with every guard on the roster is a product of his ability to read the game quicker than most. Poeltl stays in sync and reacts accordingly like a seasoned tango dancer.

When a small guard like Lowry or VanVleet drives, Poeltl drags his roll so he’s available as a pressure valve. When it’s a slasher like DeRozan or Powell, he carves out space early and gets himself in position to rebound. When Siakam does the strange prancing drive that he does, Poeltl just flashes to the rim for the dump-off.

His movement allows him to attack efficiently. Poeltl never holds the ball and his footwork is clinical. He scored a career-high 18 points on 8-of-8 from the field in Friday’s win over the Indiana Pacers and took exactly zero dribbles before shooting. I thought this was an anomaly, but upon further research it appears Poeltl hasn’t taken a single shot all season after using even more than one dribble.

And yes, you read that right. Poeltl is finishing more than 70 percent of his shots. This was a concerted area of development for Poeltl after his rookie season and he’s shown tremendous strides.

Regarding referees

The infinitely frustrating yet endlessly nebulous subject of officiating became a talking point after the Pacers win.

The Raptors were relentless in attacking the basket, as evidenced by their 70 paint points, but they were getting battered under the hoop and getting no calls whatsoever. VanVleet and Lowry, in particular, were among the many that were frustrated with the stingy whistle. Lowry finally snapped near the end and took a technical to express his frustration.

Beefing with refs isn’t anything new for the Raptors, but their complaints this season have been understandable. Toronto’s entire offense is predicated on generating pressure on the rim through drives, and although they’re driving more than ever, they’re getting fewer calls.

This looser whistle appears to be a league-wide trend. Every single team in the league was fouled on at least 10 percent of their drives, as compared to just one team in double digits this season.

More contact is being allowed, and that must be especially frustrating for a driving team like the Raptors to adapt to these changes.