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The Pacers And Raptors Help Each Other To Escape The Play-In

Pascal Siakam looks tired.
Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors traded away veteran swingman OG Anunoby on Dec. 30, in a swap with the Knicks that brought back a couple of solid rotation players in Immanuel Quickley and R.J. Barrett. It signaled an abandonment of a course the Raptors have pursued in the years following their 2019 title, of building a core of talented and interchangeable forwards and then surrounding them with slightly less talented but also broadly interchangeable forwards, and just having a team of forwards—forwards all over the place, forwards on forwards on forwards—with maybe a single guard thrown in there for variety. The experiment had run its course, and then some: From the start of the 2020 season through the execution of the Anunoby trade, the Raptors had accumulated a 128–139 record, they'd fired a head coach, and they'd sunk down into and then out of the pack of Eastern Conference play-in dregs.

The trade has not improved Toronto's fortunes. The suddenly Anunoby-less Raptors fell to the Pistons to break up Detroit's record 28-game losing streak, and recently dropped four in a row to hit a season-worst 10 games below .500. They are now 12th in the East, eight games back of the sixth seed and eight games ahead of the godawful Washington Wizards. Team president Masai Ujiri has evidently seen enough. Wednesday night the Raptors traded All-Star Pascal Siakam to the Indiana Pacers, in a transaction that brings back some salary ballast and three future first-round draft picks. It was possible to believe that the Anunoby trade was about freshening up Toronto's rotation and snagging some value from an impending free agent. The Siakam trade makes things more clear: This is the Raptors parachuting out of the dreary play-in chase.

The swap cost the Pacers the very good and extremely useful Bruce Brown, who signed in Indiana during the summer after winning a championship as a vital role-player for the Denver Nuggets. This is so fucked-up and wrong that I had to check it three times, but this trade moves Brown to his fifth team in six NBA seasons. The Pistons, who selected Brown in the second round of the 2018 draft, can be forgiven for never really having figured out how to use a player with his weird combination of skills and abilities, but Brown was a vital and perhaps even irreplaceable role-player for the Brooklyn Nets, and was a key contributor to a title team last season, and started 33 games for the Pacers prior to the trade. Now, unless the Raptors move him along or buy him out, he will spend the remainder of this season toiling for a squad that is angling for a slide down the standings. Free Bruce!

Siakam is worth it. He was the best of the three Dudes that made up Toronto's clunky core, and the move to the up-tempo and supremely fun Pacers should give him a more sharply defined role and more space in which to operate. Instead of barging into narrow slivers of space while defenders mostly ignore his teammates, Siakam will share the floor with a wizard of a primary playmaker, a floor-spacing knockdown shooter of a center in Myles Turner, and Indiana's one million combo guards, several of whom must be guarded when positioned out around the perimeter. If it's hard to imagine right away exactly how Siakam might fit with Tyrese Haliburton—Siakam has never really played with a ball-dominant playmaking point-guard before—the fit with Turner seems like an automatic winner: Both are excellent defenders, both can dive to the hoop or float to the perimeter, and each should make the other's job much, much easier.

The Pacers and Raptors are two teams that traditionally have avoided tanking, reasoning in Indiana's case that some markets are too small to endure a deliberate plunge to the very bottom of the league, and in Toronto's case that tanking can be avoided if you are simply good enough at all the other work of building out an NBA roster. The Raptors appear finally to have worn out their best efforts and are reaching for that dreaded lever, if only for the remainder of this season, and so far only to offload a pair of players who will reach free agency in the summer. These are two teams who started the season slotted in somewhere among the conference's middle class, both hoping to finally escape the play-in zone. This trade is designed to help them both do so, but headed in opposite directions.

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