- The Raptors righted the ship last week after struggling.
- But that momentum has been squashed by a sudden rash of injuries.
- With Toronto poised to fall down the standings, could Masai Ujiri blow it up at the trade deadline?
The Toronto Raptors righted the ship. Just when it seemed they were veering off course following a strong start to the season, losing four out of five games in early December, they responded by reeling off three impressive victories.
Just because Toronto refused to let those struggles linger for too long, though, hardly means it’s ready to climb the conference standings. In fact, due to a sudden rash of injuries, don’t be surprised if the Raptors fall behind the East’s top-five over the coming weeks – potentially sparking a league-altering move at the trade deadline.
Biting Injury Bug
Toronto has already withstood injuries to key contributors as it enters Friday’s game against the Washington Wizards at 19-8, with the league’s sixth-best net rating. Kyle Lowry missed 11 straight games after fracturing his left thumb on Nov. 8, an absence that overlapped with Serge Ibaka’s 10-game layoff due to a sprained right ankle.
Most left the Raptors for dead without Lowry and Ibaka, veteran stalwarts who were playing exceptionally well before going down with injury. But Toronto went 9-2 until both players were back in the lineup, an eye-popping stretch of play that began with a win over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center.
The Raptors, clearly, have the necessary depth to thrive even when multiple rotation players are sidelined. But the indefinite absences of Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell that the team announced on Thursday seem likely to prompt a downturn in their play regardless.
All three players were injured during Wednesday’s victory over the Detroit Pistons. It’s hardly encouraging that Toronto offered no timeline for their return to the floor, instead merely announcing that they will be “reevaluated in the coming weeks.”
Siakam is a borderline MVP candidate; the Raptors have proven unable to manage efficient offense without him in the game all season. On a team full of plus defenders, on-off data suggests Gasol is Toronto’s defensive bellwether. Powell, once considered a salary albatross, is playing by far the best basketball of his career.
As good as the Raptors were sans Lowry and Ibaka, missing Siakam, Gasol, and Powell simultaneously for weeks on end is a different beast – especially given the upcoming schedule. Seven of Toronto’s next nine games come against teams currently in playoff position, including four on the road against potential postseason foes.
Coming into the season, one of the league’s biggest prospective dominoes was the Raptors’ approach to the trade deadline. Would a cutthroat decision-maker like Masai Ujiri feel the need to hang onto veterans like Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka in the championship afterglow if his team wasn’t competing at a high level? Conventional wisdom said no, making Toronto basketball’s likeliest seller leading up to Feb. 6.
The Raptors’ strong play over the season’s first two months changed that equation, leading many to believe they wouldn’t just retain the core of their roster but look to improve upon it.
This sudden spate of injuries rules out the latter possibility almost entirely. The question now is how much more likely it makes the preceding one to take hold.
Only Ujiri knows for sure, but don’t be surprised to hear Lowry’s name re-floated in trade rumors. The one-year extension he signed in October makes him a more attractive target, and there are several teams with contention aspirations who could use an upgrade at point guard. Lowry, for instance, would be a fantastic fit with the Miami Heat or Denver Nuggets.
Either way, the injury bug biting with such ferocity drastically changes Toronto’s outlook for the season’s remainder. What’s left to find out as the trade deadline approaches is what that means for the rest of the NBA.