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The Raptors Used The Trade Deadline To Get Ready For LeBron

Despite a week and a half of rumors, this year’s NBA trade deadline turned out to be mostly uneventful — save for one big-name star switching teams.1 Neither Paul George nor Jimmy Butler was traded, and even smaller rumored deals, like one that would’ve sent Derrick Rose to Minnesota and Ricky Rubio to New York, didn’t happen. Most of what did take place was smaller in nature, or merely marginal in its scope.

And then there are the Toronto Raptors. While they didn’t necessarily move heaven and earth before the trade deadline, they better positioned themselves in the East just in case Cleveland is still vulnerable come the playoffs.

Last week, they dealt for Orlando power forward Serge Ibaka, giving up swingman Terrence Ross and this year’s first-round pick in the process. Then on Thursday, minutes before the deadline, they parted ways with Jared Sullinger and two second-round picks to acquire Phoenix’s P.J. Tucker, a hard-nosed small forward who doesn’t need the ball much on offense. Both qualify as welcome moves for the Raptors, who badly needed a jolt after losing 11 of their last 16 games and falling from second to fourth in the conference in less than a month.

In many ways, it’s already been decided that Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri won the trade, since he filled an obvious need for Toronto at the power-forward spot without giving up the farm. Before the deal, that position was the Raptors’ weakest, and one at which they’ve struggled defensively more than any team in basketball thus far.

The Ibaka move, paired with the one for Tucker (which gives Toronto another potential body to throw onto LeBron James and alleviates some pressure from DeMarre Carroll, who has struggled) gives the team a handful of lineups that should be relatively solid on either side of the ball.

Offensively, Ibaka and Tucker don’t hurt the Raptors’ dribble-happy, guard-oriented approach. (If anything, Ibaka helps stretch the floor for them, and Tucker, a low-usage option that would fit nicely with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, will fire up fewer forced looks than Ross off the bench.) Defensively, the additions give Toronto versatility, as both Tucker and Ibaka can adequately guard two positions, depending on the team’s lineup. (That option could be helpful in certain matchups, given the team’s problems on defense — particularly if lead-footed center Jonas Valanciunas struggles against shooting bigs.)

Some will point to Toronto as being the anti-Boston here, because of the Raptors’ willingness to make trades in hopes of challenging the Cavaliers, who beat them in the Eastern Conference finals last season. But that’s not a fair comparison.

Unlike Boston, who is blessed with high-level draft picks, Toronto doesn’t have the option of looking to the future and waiting out James’s reign in the Eastern Conference. For this team’s core, the time is now. And while these transactions alone may not put the Raptors over the top of a club like Cleveland, the gamble — and the logic behind it — makes perfect sense.

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  1. Nerlens Noel also qualifies as a newsworthy trade, but since Dallas, his new team, is unlikely to reach the postseason, that deal feels like more of a move for the future.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.