The Toronto Raptors are stronger than they've ever been. On Tuesday, they solidified their standing as the second-best team in the East with a 114-106 victory over the Boston Celtics, led by DeMar DeRozan's 41 points and 13 rebounds and Jonas Valanciunas' 18 points and 23 (!) rebounds. For the first time in franchise history, reaching the conference finals is not just a goal but an expectation.
Reaching the NBA Finals, however, seems like a pipe dream, or an accomplishment that could only be preceded by an injury to LeBron James or more than one member of his supporting cast. As presently constructed, the Raptors do not scare the Cleveland Cavaliers, who averaged a 28.5-point margin of victory in their four victories over Toronto last May and have (narrowly) won three times this season.
Toronto's position has led to a public push for the front office to make a move to close the gap with Cleveland before the Feb. 23 trade deadline. Raptors president Masai Ujiri is patient, but that shouldn't be confused with complacency. He wants to improve the team and challenge the Cavs, and he also wants to preserve as many assets as possible. With six weeks between now and the trade deadline and plenty of motivation to get something done, there are several significant questions surrounding Toronto. Here are five of them:
1. Are the Hawks serious about keeping Millsap?
It's no coincidence that the Raptors were linked to Paul Millsap the moment that he was reportedly made available. They've reportedly come close to getting him before, and he complements their other stars perfectly. If he was starting at power forward, you could think of him as a souped up version of Patrick Patterson or Toronto's version of Draymond Green.
Millsap is a top-notch help defender, clever passer and dangerous post-up player. He's the playmaking 4 that could relieve pressure on Kyle Lowry and DeRozan against good defenses in the playoffs. He could also help the Raptors' 19th-ranked defense. ESPN's Kevin Pelton projected what they would look like if they traded Patterson, Terrence Ross, Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright for Millsap and Kris Humphries, and concluded that they "probably would be favored in a series" against Cleveland if they had home-court advantage.
On Monday, though, the Hawks reportedly started telling teams that the three-time All-Star was off the market, with Millsap saying Tuesday that "everybody can stop talking about it." If Atlanta does keep him -- and risk losing him for nothing in free agency -- then Toronto's most obvious path to improvement is gone. The Raptors should be rooting for the Hawks, who have won seven games in a row, to go on a long losing streak and reevaluate things, or for Millsap to force their hand by informing them he'll sign somewhere else in the summer.
2. Are there any other difference-makers available?
Toronto has been linked to a bunch of 4s over the past year, and maybe the conversation about Chicago Bulls big man Taj Gibson -- another 2017 free agent -- could be resumed. Philadelphia 76ers big man Nerlens Noel could help defensively, and Denver Nuggets forwards Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler could fit in nicely, too. It's not clear if any of these guys would boost the Raptors' chances against Cleveland meaningfully, though, and everybody except Chandler would require a new contract in July to stick around.
DeMarcus Cousins is the other name Toronto fans have been watching. The Sacramento Kings center is a legitimate franchise player, and he would presumably be even better with a stable organization and other stars surrounding him. The Kings, however, are reportedly still committed to keeping him, and he directly said Tuesday that he loves Sacramento and wants to say.
This is the trickiest part about talking about the Raptors and the trade deadline. It's easy to say they should go all-in and do whatever they can to get a third star, but if this was simple, Ujiri would have done it by now. Unless someone unexpected comes on the market -- like Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Serge Ibaka or Derrick Favors -- then the big move, like the Detroit Pistons adding Rasheed Wallace at the 2004 trade deadline, might just not be an option.
3. How much are they willing to trade?
Toronto is one of the league's best teams and it also has a bunch of young to moderately experienced players who could be packaged in a deal. Unlike, say, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors have drafted well and maintained both depth and roster flexibility. If they trade Ross, then Norman Powell will be ready to play a bigger role. They have a young point guard (Wright) and center (Poeltl) who aren't in their regular rotation but have value. They also have two late first-round picks in this year's draft.
All of this means that Ujiri should at least be in the mix if a player he covets goes on the market. It doesn't, however, mean that he's in a hurry to sell all of these assets off. Toronto gave DeRozan a near-max contract last summer, and it wants to retain Lowry next summer, so it likely won't be a real player in free agency for years. In order to make progress in the next few seasons, the Raptors need to either trade well or improve internally.
Let's say, hypothetically, that Atlanta puts Millsap back on the market. If it would accept an offer of Patterson, Ross and a pick, maybe that's an easy decision. What if the Hawks asked for Patterson, Ross, Powell and two picks? Or Patterson, Ross, Powell and Cory Joseph? That's when this gets much more difficult. Toronto can't control competing offers or how other teams value its players, and, if catching the Cavs is the goal, there is no point of plugging one hole only to create another.
4. Where's Lowry's head at?
If Lowry leaves as a free agent, it would be a colossal setback, which means that the organization needs to know how he feels about the roster. It can be dangerous to make moves simply to placate a star -- remember when the Nets traded the pick that became Damian Lillard for Gerald Wallace in order to make Deron Williams happy? -- but the Raptors must want Lowry to believe that they've done everything they possibly can to compete for a championship. If they get the feeling that Lowry expects Ujiri to pull something off before February, there could be even more urgency.
5. What's the plan with Patterson?
The versatile forward is one of Toronto's most important players, as evidenced by his star-like plus-minus numbers over the past couple of season. He is also in a contract year. The Raptors were fortunate to sign him to a three-year, $18 million deal in 2014, but they won't be so lucky this time. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, it wouldn't be crazy for him to make $15 million or more per season.
The front office knows this, and it must know how much it is willing to pay him. If Toronto wants to avoid getting into a bidding war, then it might simply want to trade him ... but that will be tough to do without weakening the team this season.