The Raptors are taking a risk on an aging Marc Gasol, but they have to shoot their shot now, or risk losing everything.
Pause for a second on the Marc Gasol trade and put yourself in Masai Ujiri’s shoes. The Raptors are probably either the best or second best team in the East. Their LeBron boogieman is gone to the West. Your team may not make the NBA Finals this year, because Milwaukee is very good, but you have to at least put a good faith effort into it because looming over the shadow of everything you do is Kawhi Leonard’s free agency.
Your players watch Philly add Tobias Harris, who practically speaking should have been an all-star. They watch Milwaukee add Nikola Mirotic, who gives them positional flexibility and a shooting lineup that rivals the ones that destroyed you for years under LeBron. And Boston is still a sleeping giant. Chris Mannix called it an arms race, and it’s absolutely that. Everyone at the top of the Eastern Conference knows the finals are in reach and they’re all going for it.
Valanciunas was good for the Raptors. He ran a fairly unique series of play types, had good chemistry with Lowry, and once his coach stopped stranding him on the perimeter by hard trapping the pick and roll, he managed to squeeze out good rim protection, allowing 48.9% at the rim. That’s likely what he’ll continue to do in Memphis too. Well, other than the chemistry with Lowry, far as I know.
Delon Wright and Miles are less important, but they did give the Raptors a level of lineup flexibility that was hard for other teams to match up with. Wright was a bit of a miscast combo guard, but he played for a team that could cover that well. He probably won’t be able to do that as well in a potentially post-Mike Conley Memphis. All of them will reunite with former Raptors’ assistant Jerry Stackhouse as well, which should be a familiar home for them. Memphis is getting a pair of players with miles left to go on their legs and picks, so they’re not coming away from this empty-handed.
But overall, the Raptors are doing this because Marc Gasol, even if it’s just for a short time and he may not be the player he once was any longer, is a good player, and he’s the kind of player that can make teams like these truly special. He’s highly skilled, high IQ, spaces the floor but doesn’t need touches, but when he does touch it he’s one of the most accurate and willing passers in the league. He simply makes everything on both sides of the ball flow better.
It may be a disaster. He may be too slow to play against the other three Finals contenders in the East. He may not fit with Pascal Siakam, or he may dislodge Serge Ibaka from the starting lineup and rotations that have worked. And the Raptors may come away from the trade worse for it as a result.
But the one thing this season that the Raptors absolutely can not do is say they didn’t try. They have to go in on the upside to this team that Gasol brings. They can’t be sitting back and hoping that a series of three players that play less than twenty minutes on average in games that they do play makes the difference against the Celtics, because as rotations tighten like they do in the postseason, those guys were probably going to lose time anyway. Gasol gives them their best shot at going as far as possible, especially in a rapidly weaponizing East, and that makes this trade worth going after, even if it hurts and might not work out.