Raptors need a win-now move, but they can afford to be patient

It was true for the last two years and it remains true heading into February: the Raptors need a win-now addition.

Toronto is in the same spot as last season: they’re in second. Second to the Cavaliers in the East, second to the league’s elite teams, powered by the second-best backcourt in the league, a second thought when it comes to the title race.

What they lack is a third contributor. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan empty the tank every night carrying this team. One must be on the floor at all times or the Raptors completely fall apart. Both players rank in the top-10 for minutes played with Lowry, a sub-six-foot pitbull past 30, a half-hour behind James Harden for most in the NBA.

They need this third contributor to join them this season. Lowry and DeRozan are both having career years, but it’s tough to count on the team’s engine in Lowry to consistently produce at a top-10 level. Toronto’s window for contention equals the number of good years Lowry has left. The Raptors don’t have a breakout star waiting in the wings, nor do they have time to wait for that development. Their time to win is right now.

Right now, their limited supporting cast is asked to do two things: make shots and defend. Lowry and DeRozan monopolize the ball and create more than 80 percent of the team’s offense either for each other, for themselves, or for their teammates. That means when Jonas Valanciunas and Bebe Nogueira receive the pass on the roll, they must finish. When Terrence Ross and Norman Powell receive the kickout, they must drain the three. On the other end of the floor, with Lowry and DeRozan exhausted from the workload, Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll must defend their asses off.

This formula works beautifully for the most part, but it breaks down when tested by the league’s best teams. The Raptors fancy themselves as title contenders but are 0–5 against Cleveland and Golden State, who unlike last season, actually take them seriously this time around. Those teams can weather 70-point point barrages from the backcourt because Toronto’s defense breaks down. Valanciunas cannot defend pick-and-rolls, Patterson gets overextended as a center, Carroll is inconsistent and there’s no rim protection whatsoever.

This formula also breaks down when a key cog goes missing. Patterson missed time over the past few weeks with a sprained knee and the defense fell apart. Giving up 123 and 114 points to the Bulls and Lakers should never happen. The Patterson absence showed that (a) the Raptors cannot defend without his versatility on defense, and (b) the Raptors are overly dependent on a backup power forward. Both (a) and (b) are extremely concerning.

This formula also breaks down in the playoffs, which explains their less-than-satisfying postseason results. A few things come in to play for this. One, the Raptors thrive on depth and continuity with their Lowry-led bench units but opposing teams shorten their rotations to negate this advantage. Two, teams force the ball out of Lowry and DeRozan’s hands by sending traps and doubles. The Raptors then either (a) ask their supporting cast to make plays (which they largely can’t), or (b) have DeRozan and Lowry play in isolation to avoid doubles (although teams still help at the basket). Neither outcome is a winning strategy.

What the Raptors badly need is another consistent two-way player, preferably in the frontcourt. Patterson is a superstar in his role but he can’t even consistently give you eight points a night. Valanciunas has his moments (ex: DET, BOS) but most nights he’s disengaged and hurts the team’s already thin defense. Nogueira is talented but he’s soft as baby shit and isn’t anyone’s idea of consistency. Adding a frontcourt player who can (a) defend the pick-and-roll and the rim, and (b) score in the paint would provide much needed balance on both sides of the floor.

The Raptors recognize their weakness, but they just haven’t found the right deal as of yet. Every power forward that hits the market gets linked to the Raptors and that’s no accident. Kenneth Faried, Thaddeus Young, LaMarcus Aldridge, Serge Ibaka, Paul Millsap, Taj Gibson, Markieff Morris, Ryan Anderson — the list goes on and on.

However, team president Masai Ujiri doesn’t like making moves in-season, when the deck is stacked against him, and hasn’t had cap room to work with in free agency. Instead the Raptors have trotted out the likes of Pascal Siakam, Tyler Hansbrough, a broken Amir Johnson, an even more broken Jared Sullinger, and everyone’s favorite Argentinian gentleman Luis Scola. Those aren’t even bandaid solutions so much as the Raptors have just left an open wound to the air.

Without making an upgrade the Raptors have no chance of beating the Cavaliers in the playoffs. Even getting back to the Eastern Conference Finals isn’t a guarantee if we’re being entirely honest. But in the specific case of Cleveland, they have too many shooters and too many talented one-on-one scorers for the Raptors to handle — and that’s before factoring in LeBron James. The frontcourt battle is especially lopsided: it’s LeBron, Kevin Love, Channing Frye and Tristan Thompson vs. Carroll (too weak to check LeBron), Patterson (can’t score), Valanciunas (can’t defend) and Sullinger (total question mark).

In so many words, the Raptors are in the same spot as last season. They’re firmly stuck in second until they make a move. Millsap would be an ideal target for all the reasons listed below, so I won’t go any further on him.

Knowing Ujiri, he won’t make a move unless a perfect maneuver falls into his lap. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe detailed, “Ujiri likes to really win trades” as evidenced by his dealings in the Carmelo Anthony, Andrea Bargnani, John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez swaps. Ujiri prefers to build teams in the offseason and that strategy has worked wonders. The Raptors consistently find reliable contributors for cheap.

In any case the Raptors don’t need to rush. The trade deadline (Feb. 23) is still six weeks away and very few teams are in obvious sell-now mode. There is an incredible amount of parity in the league with too many clubs trying to win this season despite what appears to be a loaded draft.

At the moment only three teams are looking to sell: Miami, Brooklyn, Phoenix. There’s nothing on any of those rosters so appealing that the Raptors would need to rush out and buy. Tyson Chandler would be a nice backup center but matching salaries would be too difficult. Brook Lopez would be interesting but ultimately he’s a souped-up version of Valanciunas with less rebounding. Miami regularly starts someone called Rodney McGruder so they literally have nobody useful.

The market should heat up once reality dawns on teams like the Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets. The race for eighth has a quarter of the league paralyzed but cream will rise to the top given time. More sellers means the price will drop to something closer to what the Raptors can afford to spend. The likes of Ibaka, Gibson, Danilo Gallinari, Darrell Arthur, Kyle O’Quinn and the smoking wreckage that is the Mavericks should become available (ed note: not reporting anything here, just reading the landscape).

As it happens, although the league is short on sellers, it remains a buyer’s market when it comes to frontcourt players. The rush towards smallball has everyone ditching their bigs while lusting for wings (Jerami Grant fetched a 1st). Could Derrick Favors be had? Probably. Talented scorers like Nikola Vucevic and Greg Monroe are practically wearing “For Sale” signs, while Nerlens Noel is openly begging for a trade. The Raptors just happen to be a tad overstocked on the perimeter, so cutting against the grain should work in their favor.

The point is a frontcourt upgrade shouldn’t be too expensive if the Raptors bide their time. As it is they’re locked into the third seed at worst, and their only ambition is the playoffs, so there’s no rush to buy while the market is dry. The opportunity remains for Ujiri to really win a trade even though it’s the Raptors who on the surface appear desperate.

The trickier question for Ujiri to answer is who would actually make a difference. Millsap is a perfect fit but top-five power forwards don’t just grow on trees. Very few bigs are mobile enough to guard the perimeter and the rim while also being decent on offense, and even fewer teams are looking to trade those types of players. The options who can easily be had aren’t very useful.

Even still, any move short of kidnapping LeBron would pin the Raptors in second. Even grabbing Millsap doesn’t guarantee anything other than a little more competition in a series against Cleveland. The Raptors definitely need an upgrade, but they need to weigh any marginal benefit against the cost to their future. That’s the tough question Ujiri must answer and it’s the same as it ever was.