The Raptors Will Swing Some Teams’ Playoff Fates At The Deadline

The Toronto Raptors of Tampa aren’t likely to factor much in the postseason conversation, but they still are going to be in charge of the playoff fates of some teams. On Thursday, two of the Raptors top players are expected to be traded, as Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell now seem all but assuredly to have reached the end of their tenures in Toronto — one that, happily, ended with a blowout win over the Nuggets.

For Lowry, it’s one as the franchise’s all-time great, who, whenever he makes a return to Toronto in future seasons, will be greeted with well-deserved ovations. For Powell, it’s as a breakout player who it appears doesn’t fit into the team’s long-term calculus, headed for a big payday this summer from someone and the Raptors not eager to be the ones breaking the bank on the budding guard. In both cases, the interest in them is significant, particularly among contenders, many of whom are looking at this trade deadline knowing they need to upgrade their roster in order to give themselves the best chance at competing for a title.

As such, while the Raptors aren’t even guaranteed a spot in the play-in tournament, currently 2.5 games out of 10th in the East, Masai Ujiri still will get the chance to dictate what teams get that much needed help. With Lowry, it seems fairly simple, as the Heat and Sixers are each vying for the former All-Star point guard to bolster their roster with a veteran, playoff-tested presence — although with the LeBron injury the Lakers reportedly can’t be ruled out of the Lowry hunt. In any case, it’s clear the Raptors are allowing Lowry to pick his spot, as he’s friends with Jimmy Butler and is a Philly native, making those two unsurprising destinations. Still, it’s a bit odd for a team so recently a title winner and contender to be the one dealing a star in conference to a rival, but that’s how swift the drop has been in Tampa this year.

Whichever team lands Lowry will immediately vault up the East pecking order. For Miami, it would enter them into the conversation with the top three in the conference, particularly knowing what their core is capable of in the playoffs after a Finals run last year. For Philly, it would give them someone else with playoff bonafides, something a team with less than great recent playoff memories could use, and would provide them with a creator other than Ben Simmons, something they desperately need to keep up with the Nets and Bucks. Whoever fails to land Lowry will have to go to Plan B, whether that be Lonzo Ball, George Hill, or another point guard on the market who won’t bring quite the same intangibles as Lowry.

It’s a position of power that Ujiri can wield, trying to extract the most out of an offer for Lowry (who turns 35 on Thursday). Toronto rightfully is pushing for the best possible return, and the Sixers and Heat are understandably not trying to offer an in-conference rival too much young talent that they’ll have to deal with for years to come. Whoever blinks first between Miami and Philly (or, I guess, L.A.) and offers up the best young player will likely land him, and in doing so, will be even further entrenched in the conversation as an East contender.

With Powell, it’s a far more fascinating exercise. He’s enjoying a breakout season as a scorer, averaging 19.5 points on career-best efficiency with a 49.5/43.4/86.8 shooting split, and the list of teams that have inquired on Powell is, very possibly, longer than the list that hasn’t.

Powell is the type of scorer that any contender craves, whether that be in a 6th Man role or as a starter, depending on their backcourt situation. He’s also, at 27 years old, young enough that up-and-coming teams see him as a potentially foundational piece, and with few teams having serious cap room next year, landing his Bird Rights provides an avenue to keep him long-term. With so many reported offers on Powell, Ujiri will spend Thursday trying to parse what the best package of players and assets the Raptors can get in a sell-high spot with Powell. Contenders will hope to bolster their backcourt depth with him, while others will see him as a player to take them to the next level in positioning themselves as a perennial playoff contender.

It’s rare that a team has two such pieces so firmly on the market at one trade deadline, but this is a Toronto team with ample talent. It just hasn’t coalesced in the same manner as it did a year ago. That fact will also likely dictate what the Raptors seek in a deal for Powell and Lowry, as young players who can be contributors sooner than later may be higher on their wish list than draft assets, although they’ll surely seek a balance of both. The Raptors aren’t looking for a long rebuild so much as a brief step back this season and a reassessment of how to build around the likes of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby. Thursday will be a pivotal day for the franchise, but also what they do is going to have significant short-term implications around the league, as where they send Powell and Lowry will have a major impact on this year’s playoff race.