As the Raptors continue to turnover players and coaches, will Siakam be the next to go? –

TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors have been in a state of flux now for more than six months.

Who’s coming? Who is going with? What’s next?

It’s part of NBA life: The league is always in motion, but sometimes it can feel more confusing and unsettling than others.

The Raptors make no apologies for that.

“You’ve got to shock, you’ve got to hit, there’s got to be some kind of friction somehow,” was how Raptors president Masai Ujiri described the need to reboot a team culture he felt had slipped in the past year when he announced the firing of head coach Nick Nurse back in April.

The Raptors are in that kind of space now. Fred VanVleet’s decision to go to Houston in free agency was the second big move — and most shocking — after the decision to part with Nurse and hire the well-regarded but unproven Darko Rajakovic to replace him.

There is persistent speculation that Pascal Siakam — the team’s leading scorer, second-most prolific playmaker and ultimate homegrown success story — could be traded before the start of the regular season and perhaps much sooner as the NBA’s trade market simmers.

One way or another, there will be plenty of new faces around the club. In the wake of Nurse’s departure, all but one of the coaching and video staff — a group that ran 18-deep last season — has been replaced for the 2023-24 season, which begins this week with the Las Vegas Summer League.

Kevin DiPietro, a ‘Day 1’ employee and travel coordinator, is no longer with the Raptors, and there have also been changes to the team’s travel security detail. Even Jamaal Magloire, the local high school legend, 12-year NBA veteran and player favorite whose booming voice — “work” was his rallying cry — was a constant in pregame practices, is no longer part of the team on the court and will serve only as a community ambassador.

Rajakovic’s new staff was announced Tuesday with a total of seven assistant coaches, with only former Raptors assistant Jama Mahlalela and returning assistant coach Jim Saan having previous ties to the team.

It’s a new group with no previous NBA head coaching experience dealing with a roster that’s still a collection of moving parts. Not the easiest situation. “Darko will have his hands full,” said one NBA scout I spoke with.

As at the February trade deadline, the league is hovering to see if VanVleet’s decision to take Houston’s three-year, $130 million offer will trigger other moves. Atlanta has been linked to Siakam for weeks and tried to reacquire the Raptors over the weekend after the VanVleet news broke Friday night. Several other teams are also believed to have checked in.

If Siakam leaves, the focus will turn to OG Anunoby — the smooth-shooting NBA defenseman who remains on the watch list of several teams, most notably the New York Knicks.

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As usual, the rest of the league can only watch and wait. The Raptors aren’t sharing any PowerPoint presentations about what they have planned next. In the last few weeks, I don’t think I’ve had a conversation with a league source that hasn’t included a question about what direction Toronto is headed in, what their plan is, or how challenging the front office might be to get. a reading.

“They’re not the easiest team to deal with, I’ll just say that,” was how one league insider put it.

Which in itself is no sin. The job is to be better than the other 29 teams in the league, not make them comfortable.

But there is also a sense that some of the same issues are being wrestled with internally, and this has been going on for a while now.

Will the departure of Nurse and VanVleet and the arrival of a whole new coaching staff be enough to change the mood, which was not the best last season?

Or will there be more changes?

Pretty much since the then-struggling Raptors went to Orlando in early December and got swept — really, knocked around — in a few games by what was at the time a Magic team with the worst record in the NBA, everything has been off – kilts. Not quite right.

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Sources have described a team where the veterans — especially VanVleet and Siakam — were deeply frustrated with the younger players on the roster, and VanVleet told them about it, something the younger set didn’t appreciate at all. Nurse was unable to bridge the gap as key players kept getting injured and open three after open three only drew iron.

The loss made everything worse.

Subsequently, the 2022-23 tale of misery began to unfold in ways most remember but would rather forget: back-to-back defeats at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans and Brooklyn Nets on the road signaled a malaise acute enough that, that Ujiri had to address the team personally and specifically second-year star Scottie Barnes. It was the first of a number of times that Ujiri felt the need to make his feelings known about the way the team played and individuals performed.

He did it again in the weeks leading up to the February trade deadline, lambasting the team for selfish play and bad body language. The message: straighten up or get kicked out.

Things were tense enough that Nurse planned his exit even then, believing he would be fired. He may well have welcomed it.

Except nothing really followed other than weeks of trade rumors that almost touched the player in the rotation.

As the team entered the next significant transaction period — the NBA Draft on June 22 and free agency on July 1 — there was more speculation and rumor. The players reached out to each other for reassurance. “Did you hear anything? What’s going on?”

Meanwhile, Rajakovic met with groups of his new players on a get-to-know basis, apparently unaware of some of the issues that had been brewing the previous season, and without addressing some of the issues that may still be in danger.

Behind the scenes, VanVleet’s departure has not been characterized as an irreparable loss, even though he was a former all-star and the team’s only proven point guard. The Raptors were poised to increase their initial three-year, $90 million offer to include a partially guaranteed fourth year that would have brought the total guaranteed to $100 million — a nice, round number that was an important threshold for the previously unexercised shift.

The Raptors felt they could still be considered if the Rockets offered two years at $83 million, but when they went to three years and $130 million, there was no counteroffer. Instead, there are just best wishes for a player who had a number of factors fall apart right when he hit the open market, from the Rockets’ decision not to use their cap space to sign James Harden to a new head coach, Ime Udoka, who saw VanVleet as the presence in the locker room he needed to help mature one of the NBA’s youngest teams.

It was a remarkable turn of events for VanVleet, who at times regretted not taking the full four-year, $114 million extension the Raptors were prepared to offer before the season as he struggled with the team. Toronto was in a difficult position at the trade deadline – moving VanVleet for a relatively paltry return (the Clippers offered a package centered around Luke Kennard) would have been a tough sell locally, and trading him somewhere he wouldn’t want to re-sign would also have hurt his market value. Nor would it have been the right thing to do by a player who had offered the franchise so much. In some ways, not trading VanVleet at the deadline for a low ball offer was similar to how the Raptors honored Kyle Lowry’s wishes to help him come to Miami in free agency. It may not be perfect capital management, but in the long run it is good people management that also matters.

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VanVleet moving on accelerates the trajectory the Raptors were already on — a team with 21-year-old Scottie Barnes as the focal point, both on the floor and off, with 25-year-old Anunoby as the most likely last veteran standing.

This doesn’t mean that Siakam being moved will automatically be the next shoe to drop.

But it’s been an uncomfortable stretch for the two-time NBA selection. He turned down a three-year max extension at the start of last season in the hope that he would qualify for his third NBA team and thus become eligible for a ‘super max’ extension worth 35 percent of the salary cap.

But he fell 15 points shy of that goal and is still awaiting news of an extension of any kind after becoming the first player in franchise history to log a season in which he averaged 24.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists per of superstars Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James as the only five players to do so in the entire league this season.

Meanwhile, his longtime teammate VanVleet has departed and the Raptors have let go two members of the coaching staff — Rico Hines and Earl Watson — whom Siakam considers close to family and were hired in part to support his development in Toronto.

You have to wonder how the delay in getting an extension done — the two sides have yet to formally meet on the subject — sits with Siakam, or how he would feel if a career-best season wasn’t enough to earn one, or an offer for the full four years and $183 million he would be eligible for.

Or what if the deal came with caveats regarding role or usage as the Raptors try to reconfigure how they play under Rajakovic?

Meanwhile, just as the Raptors did when they made the call not to exceed their in-house budget for VanVleet, they might be ready to look at the cold hard facts, which — simplified to be sure — say that if Siakam’s best season didn’t move Raptors past the .500 mark and instead left them in the play-in tournament, maybe testing the trade market isn’t the worst idea?

It’s all complicated and multi-layered stuff. The Raptors would certainly like to enter next season with all the questions about their roster that hampered the team last season buttoned up and answered, but there is a ways to go before that can happen.

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