Hold the rebuild, Powell’s emergence & Lowry’s future

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The Toronto Raptors finished the first half of the regular season schedule with losses to the Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics, playing with a shorthanded roster and coaching staff in both. 

The slow climb back to .500 begins again on Thursday against Atlanta. At 17-19, the Raptors are in the eighth spot in the East. The better way to read the standings is this: Toronto is two games from the fourth seed and one game from falling out of the play-in tournament altogether. 

Before we start up the regular season again, here are five takeaways from the first half of the season.

MILWAUKEE, WI - FEBRUARY 18: The Toronto Raptors walk off the court during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on February 18, 2021 at the Fiserv Forum Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Toronto Raptors are better than their record shows. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Raptors have too good of a roster to consider a full rebuild

You might find this hard to agree with, considering how frustrating this season has been, but there have been positives. If you take away the 2-8 start and strip away the two losses to end the first half due to health and safety protocols, the Raptors are 15-9. It’s a selective sample of games that might be ignoring some real problems on the team, like their depth and the centre position, but it’s genuinely the sample that I think represents what this Raptors team is: a well-coached, hard-working team with clear flaws on their roster. The parity in the Eastern Conference means the Raptors are an above-average playoff team in the conference when they’re fully healthy.

There are so many external factors that have impacted this team (and every team in the league) this season, but it also doesn’t mean they will return to Toronto at some point and transform into a championship contender. But the 2-8 start increasingly looks like a blip rather than the norm. The first 10 games might ultimately doom them this season given how close the playoff race is, but it’s hard for me to see the talent on this roster and think they’re closer to a full rebuild than becoming a contender again.

Whether they should opt for a full rebuild is an entirely different question. The idea of securing a franchise-changing lottery pick is compelling, but tearing it down will mean moving a lot more players on the roster. A rebuild is also rarely a quick process. Consider the Pistons, who won the championship in 2004, returned to the Finals the following year, and then made three straight Eastern Conference finals before the roster started to age. They’re on their 13th season without a playoff series win. Be careful what you wish for.

Fred, OG, and Chris Boucher continue to improve

Another reason to feel optimistic about this team is the improvement the young players have made in the first half. Fred VanVleet is a borderline All-Star and an All-Defensive First Team candidate. He has continued to add to his offensive game (shoutout to the mid-range jumper) and improve as a point guard, as we’ve seen in Kyle Lowry’s absence. OG Anunoby is another All-Defensive Team candidate who can legitimately guard all five positions. Chris Boucher has outperformed expectations as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Throw in Pascal Siakam’s steady play, improved playmaking and defensive presence since an up-and-down start, and that’s four players, still either in their prime or entering their prime on the roster who are under long-term contracts. It’s a great place to start assembling a contending team.

Norman Powell should be part of the team’s future

Coming off a sizzling second half of the regular season, Norman Powell, who can opt out and become an unrestricted free agent this summer, seemed like Toronto’s best bet to improve via trade. 

But then something strange happened. 

After a slow start, Powell has been so good on the offensive end, and arguably the team’s No. 1 option for stretches at a time, he not only forced Nick Nurse to keep him in the starting lineup (although we probably should give Aron Baynes some credit for this too) but has become such an essential part to this team’s offence it feels foolish to let him go. I’ve done a complete 180 about Powell (and honestly, check back in two months, I might do another one). 

The Raptors, who will have cap room this summer (thanks, Giannis?), should prioritize bringing Powell back on a reasonable deal. What will that contract look like? Four years, $60 million? $70 million? If he keeps playing like this, that might be the starting price this summer.

Kyle Lowry is still a difference-maker at age 34

Lowry will turn 35 later this month. We’ve been waiting for him to fall off for a few years now, but ever since a blip during the 2018-19 regular season, Lowry has been incredible and continues to be the one player most capable of raising the overall ceiling of this team.

We’ve all seen the report about his Toronto home being sold, and it really pains me to say this, but a trade to Philadelphia makes a lot of sense. It will be up to Lowry. He can work with the front office on a new destination at the trade deadline or wait until the offseason when he’s a free agent to decide. The demand for Lowry will be high from contending teams. He is that much of a difference-maker, especially for a Sixers team with championship aspirations.

Selfishly, I would love to see Lowry stay and help transition this team to the young guys, but we might be seeing that already this season. Be prepared for anything at the trade deadline.

Masai Ujiri’s future remains the most important question heading into the second half

With all due respect to Lowry, the biggest question surrounding the Raptors remains Masai Ujiri’s future. The chatter on this has been very quiet in recent months and reflects a front office that rarely leaks to the league’s top reporters.

There are days when I see how invested Ujiri is with the team this season and convince myself a person leaving would not be so committed. Still, then I remember Ujiri is the kind of leader who would be dedicated to his role until his last day on the job. There are other days when I wonder if it’s time for Ujiri to find a new challenge outside of basketball. He’s always seemed destined for so much more, and his cache and reputation have never been higher. The possibilities are endless if he decides to leave the NBA.

The parallel to Lowry’s situation is that there’s already a succession plan in place with Bobby Webster signed for the long-term. Aside from Ujiri’s importance from an organizational standpoint, losing him from a pure basketball decision-making standpoint would be a crushing blow. Toronto is headed towards an important offseason. We’ll see if Ujiri will be a part of it.

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