*All stats accurate as of Jan. 10
The vultures are circling the Toronto Raptors, and it’s no wonder why.
The Raptors are off to a disappointing 18-23 start, sitting five games under .500 after having lost 14 of their last 21 games. They have several relatively young, talented players that any number of teams would love to trade for, but due to a combination of underwhelming individual play, a system failing to get the most out of everyone, and a roster with holes in it, the Raptors have been unable to play as a cohesive unit and string together wins.
It's no wonder reports are surfacing about league executives keeping a close eye on the Raptors as they reportedly take the rest of January to decide which direction they want to go. Will they they want to fight for playoff positioning or tank towards the draft lottery, likely trading away key players if they choose the latter.
There are reasons for the Raptors to hear offers on almost all of their best players. After all, both Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. are likely to turn down their respective player options and hit free agency this offseason, while O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are likely to hit the open market in 2024. And it’s better to get something for your core players than to potentially see them walk for nothing. In fact, part of the reason the Raptors are in this predicament in the first place is because of talented players leaving in free agency.
The Raptors have to consider trading their pending free agents if they are not confident they can get them to re-sign this summer or if they are not confident they fit the long-term vision of the team. And because people love trades, fans are taking to trade machines to fantasize about what a potential deal for each core member of the Raptors would look like.
But there are also very important reasons not to trade each of the Raptors' top players. From VanVleet’s leadership qualities to Trent Jr.’s elite spot-up shooting to Anunoby’s defensive prowess, here is one reason to hold onto each core member of the Raptors moving forward:
Fred VanVleet’s undeniable leadership
By his own admission, VanVleet has struggled this season. But regardless of whether or not his shooting stabilizes or his defence gets back to the elite level we have grown accustomed to, one thing that has not wavered is VanVleet’s leadership, which the Raptors depend upon him for.
“I'm not giving up. I'm never gonna hang my head. I'm always gonna stay positive and stay confident as long as we got this group together,” VanVleet said of the Raptors' recent slide. “It's the ultimate test, I think for myself as a leader, to try to keep finding ways to will this team to wins and help my teammates. And it's making me better as a player and as a man and as a leader.”
Since VanVleet joined the Raptors, he has always been a vocal leader. And when Kyle Lowry left in 2021, VanVleet became the captain of the ship. On the court, he sets the tone with his hard-nosed play while organizing the team and making sure everyone is in the right spots.
Off of the court, VanVleet is in charge of holding players accountable and setting the high standard that has become a key part of the Raptors culture. Siakam has taken a big step in that regard, and the addition of Thad Young has helped as well, but VanVleet is the glue that holds the team together in a lot of ways, while being a clear extension of the coaching staff. Losing his leadership could prove detrimental to the way the team operates and the culture it has built.
Gary Trent Jr.’s spot-up shooting
The Raptors are shooting just 32.6 percent from three this season, which is the second-worst mark in the league. And when it comes specifically to spot-up opportunities, which comprise 22.2 percent of the Raptors' shots, they are shooting 36.4 percent from the field and have an effective field-goal percentage of 48.9, also second-worst in the league. They have created relatively good looks all season but have been unlucky in their shotmaking. And a lot of their losses can simply be chalked up to not shooting the ball well enough.
Their one saviour in that regard has been Trent Jr., who is having the best offensive season of his career while shooting 36.5 percent from three on seven attempts per game, the best mark on the team among high-volume shooters. In spot-up scenarios, Trent Jr. is shooting 42.4 percent from the floor with an effective field-goal percentage of 56.6 percent, both the best marks on the Raptors by a wide margin.
Every team needs good shooters (the Raptors are learning this the hard way), and every team needs good spot-up options to space the floor for its stars. But the Raptors especially need good spot-up shooters since they rely on Siakam — who is a good kick-out passer who operates primarily from the paint — to run their offence. And this season, Trent Jr. has been the only legitimately scary threat in those kick-out scenarios, making defences pay for collapsing the paint. In fact, his spot-up shooting is one of the only things keeping the Raptors' 19th-ranked offence afloat.
“I’m happy with his growth,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said about Trent Jr. since he was acquired by the Raptors in 2021. “The guy is kind of a natural scorer, and was that when we first got him… One thing about him is he’s been an incredible pro. He’s really worked hard. He really works hard to try to do what we’re asking him to do. We really think he’s been great to have.”
O.G. Anunoby holding the defence together
Despite how ugly it can look at times, the Raptors have the 13th-best defence in the NBA this season. And nobody deserves more credit for keeping it respectable than Anunoby, who is one of the best and most versatile defenders in the league.
The Raptors are 2.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Anunoby on the court, — the best mark on the team among regular rotation players besides Christian Koloko, who is somehow at -9.5. A large part of Anunoby's defensive dominance has been due to his ball-hawking instincts, leading the league with 2.3 steals per game, which allow the Raptors to get stops and run out in transition. While it’s true Anunoby is a good shooter and can do increasingly more off the bounce every season, the real reason the Raptors need to keep him is his defence, which falls apart when he is off the floor. Take the four games he sat due a left hip strain in December, for example, which were all Raptors losses where opposing teams scored 111, 124, 119, and 126 points.
The Raptors have asked Anunoby to defend the opponent's best ball-handlers more than ever this season, even if they are smaller guards such as Tyrese Haliburton, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young or Damian Lillard. And he has done as well as anybody in the league at holding opposing stars in check. Without a true rim protector, the Raptors need to keep the ball in front of them to be respectable defensively, and nobody in the entire league does that better on as wide a range of players than Anunoby.
Pascal Siakam’s two-way dominance
Siakam is having one of the greatest individual seasons in franchise history, averaging 25.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists while carrying an unheard-of workload on both ends of the floor. To be frank, Siakam is the only thing keeping the Raptors respectable this season. And while he will turn 29 years old this year, Siakam is still just entering the prime years of his career and continues to get better every season. You simply don’t trade that calibre of player unless you have to.
The only reason the Raptors should even entertain the idea of trading Siakam is if they are truly skeptical he will re-sign with them once his contract expires in 2024. And if Siakam makes an All-NBA team this season, he would be eligible to sign the supermax extension that only Toronto can offer him, making their odds of re-signing him extremely high (which is another incentive for the Raptors to be good, by the way). Since the Raptors will not know whether or not Siakam will make an All-NBA team by the trade deadline, they simply shouldn’t consider trading him right now.
Scottie Barnes’ bridge to the future
Scottie Barnes is still the 21-year-old wonderkid who can pull a rabbit out of a hat on the basketball court. And Barnes’ upside is still tremendously high despite the up-and-down season he is having. He is such a versatile player that can do so many different things that it is sometimes difficult to define what Barnes is or what type of player he will become. But that’s the exciting part.
Barnes is the bridge to the Raptors' future. And while the Raptors are struggling to win and develop him at the same time this season, he is still their fall-back option in case they ever decide to go in a different direction and embrace the future. Trading him would signal just the opposite: that they are ready to win now. And by the looks of it this season, they are not.
More from Yahoo Sports