Could another ball handler be the real need for the Toronto Raptors?
The Toronto Raptors are significantly improved from the team that started the season by losing six of their first seven games, but it’s hard to ignore the sense that they still need one more piece to get them where they need to be.
Currently, most trade speculation tied to the club is centered – pun intended – on help in the middle, and rightfully so. Alex Len has been waived, and Aron Baynes hasn’t come as advertised since signing as a free agent. The Raptors were always going to be center-deficient with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol flying the coop, but the position looks particularly thin now.
Still, they’ve managed. Chris Boucher is garnering Most Improved Player buzz on the back of his red hot start, Baynes is slowly starting to bring more value and Nick Nurse has found ways to use Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Stanley Johnson and Yuta Watanabe to fill the frontcourt minutes. Even without Siakam against Indiana, increased minutes for Anunoby, Johnson, and Watanabe provided just enough resistance against Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis and company
The point guard position, however, has been another story.
The Toronto Raptors need more point guard depth
On the surface, of course, this seems ridiculous. The club returned every guard they had from last season and even added draftees Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris while signing free agent DeAndre’ Bembry. In theory, Flynn and Terence Davis should be able to handle running the offense while Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, or both are sitting, with fellow guard Norm Powell serving as a go-to bench scorer.
To date, quality ball-handling minutes from anyone not named Lowry or VanVleet have been hard to come by. After a promising rookie season, Davis has struggled, with his legal situation presumably weighing heavily on his mind. Flynn hasn’t fared any better, undergoing a bumpy transition to the NBA thanks, in part, to a 26.5 percent shooting percentage.
As such, a 34-year-old Lowry had still been logging 36 minutes a night before being sidelined with a toe infection, a non-serious injury that nonetheless makes real the possibility of a long-term absence for the six-time All-Star. VanVleet, meanwhile, is seeing a career-high 35.9 minutes per night. Against the Pacers on Sunday, it was Bembry – not Davis or Flynn – who Nurse entrusted with the secondary ball-handler role in crunch time.
Adding a point guard would not only provide additional injury insurance and cover for the under-performance of incumbents Davis and Flynn, but it would bring another creator into the fold to potentially diversify what has been a one-dimensional, three-heavy offense. Luckily for Toronto, there seem to be plenty of potentially available options.
Big Splash options for the Toronto Raptors
While a major trade for a point guard is unlikely, maybe it is time to consider what life after Lowry might look like. It’s possible that GM Bobby Webster and team president Masai Ujiri, whose own futures are up in the air beyond this year, could be looking for the franchise icon’s replacement sooner rather than later.
If that’s the case, then some intriguing possibilities emerge. The club has been rumored to have at least checked in on Lonzo Ball, who is still only 23 and has quietly improved over his four seasons in the league after a much-hyped arrival with the Lakers.
Other big-name options at the point include Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose, veterans stuck on floundering Eastern teams.
Westbrook is a non-starter, given his age (32), ball-stopping reputation, and the more than $100 million left on his contract. Rose, on the other hand, is enjoying something of a career renaissance and would probably be a great NBA story if not for the fact that he plays for the lowly Detroit Pistons. Still, it goes without saying that neither man is a viable long-term Lowry replacement.
Depth Options for the Toronto Raptors
Far more feasible, especially in-season, would be adding a backup ball-handler to support Lowry and VanVleet, giving Nurse someone else to trust with making plays. Looking around the league, there stands a decent collection of point guards who are currently seeing limited action on account of being stuck behind higher priority players on the depth chart.
Malik Monk and Dennis Smith Jr. both represent young, talented guards who appear to desperately need a change of scenery. George Hill, meanwhile, wound up in Oklahoma City via the Jrue Holiday mega-deal, and he’s never looked like much of an on-court fit with the Thunder, especially now that he’s losing minutes to teenage rookie Theo Maledon.
On the overseas front, JJ Barea recently signed in Spain after being waived following an 11-year tenure with the Dallas Mavericks, but he reportedly can opt-out of the deal to pursue an NBA job. The 36-year-old would bring another steady veteran presence to the roster and could mesh well with the second unit right off the bat.
If Toronto chooses to look for a high character floor general a little closer to home, they could pursue free agent Shabazz Napier, who is still just 29 and has always had the type of hard-nosed, feisty reputation that seems well suited for the Raptors organization. Even closer, they could potentially look to the Raptors 905 roster and sign Gary Payton II (whose nickname – “The Mitten” – is one of the best in all of basketball) or Mississauga’s own Nik Stauskas.
While several of the aforementioned options offer no guarantees of improvement over Davis and Flynn, we don’t know what will come of Davis’ legal situation, nor do we know if Flynn’s learning curve will be quick enough to bring about immediate internal improvement a la Boucher, Johnson, and Watanabe. The club’s improved performance offers promising signs, but are one significant injury away from a rather perilous situation.