The Raptors, like most formerly successful NBA teams, have hit a fork in the road.
Does Toronto — currently 19-30 and 11th in the Eastern Conference — embrace the tank or make a run for a league-leading eighth-consecutive playoff berth?
Tanking is obviously a tough pill to swallow. While it's proven to be successful for some teams, purposely losing games to get a better draft pick doesn't always work out. Take the Magic, for example. After selling off their best players in Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, Orlando is back to rebuilding once again.
Heck, even the Philadelphia 76ers, who are famous for "Trusting the Process," earned the No. 1 overall pick only once and have yet to win an NBA championship — or make the Finals — after tanking.
This season, however, is very different. The Raptors aren’t even playing in Toronto; they’re playing games in Tampa Bay because of COVID-19 restrictions. That makes this year the perfect time for the Raptors to go full-steam ahead with tanking.
The Raptors are already light-years behind the Thunder and Pelicans, who have hoarded first-round picks for the foreseeable future, but with a historical draft class and a lack of talent, Toronto needs to do whatever it takes to lose as many games as possible.
Why They Should Tank
The Raptors have been a shell of their former selves this season. The move to Tampa, combined with the losses of Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Norman Powell over the past few years have left Toronto bereft of talent.
Their center signings this offseason — Alex Len and Aron Baynes — have not worked out at all, leaving the thin Chris Boucher or Pascal Siakam to man the five spot on most nights, which has led to a bottom-five rebounding percentage this season.
Past departures have torpedoed their depth, leading Toronto to stretch their players’ minutes to the breaking point. The Raptors are one of only two teams (Kings) with three players in the top 21 in minutes played this season. Sitting last in the Atlantic Division hasn't been easy for the Raptors. Siakam was recently fined $50,000 for a verbal altercation with coach Nick Nurse. Things aren't exactly sunny in Florida.
What’s crazy is the Raptors still had an ace in their sleeve: the vaunted line up of Kyle Lowry-Fred VanVleet-Powell-OG Anunoby-Siakam had been pounding opponents by over 14 points per 100 possessions over the last 15 games, but they blew that group up after trading Powell for the younger Gary Trent Jr.
What was so perplexing was Toronto refused to trade Lowry at the trade deadline, which would have been the final piece of the tanking puzzle. They already gave away fringe rotational players in Terence Davis and Matt Thomas for second-round picks, but ultimately decided to hold onto their franchise stalwart.
Whether the Raptors claw their way to a play-in game and somehow make the playoff field, Toronto, as currently constructed, does not appear to have enough firepower to make a meaningful playoff run — and things look even worse for their future prospects.
The Reward for Tanking
If the Raptors swallow their pride and decide to lose out this season, then there's a bright light at the end of the tunnel. There are a plethora of promising players in the upcoming NBA Draft, and the Raptors are in striking distance of a top-five pick. It’s very conceivable they can nudge their way into a top-five selection, especially considering the league’s new lottery odds.
If Toronto is able to have a chance at Evan Mobley, Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga or Jalen Suggs, they could be in for a San Antonio Spurs-style one-year rebuild and return to their winning ways.
If the Raptors draft a future star, their current roster composition is already set up to surround that player with the perfect set of complementary guys. While no one on the Raptors is up for the task of being the leading man, they’ve proven they can prop up a superstar and win a title.
This is not saying that the next Raptors star has to be as good as Leonard (although wouldn’t that be nice?) But if Ujiri hits the jackpot, the Raptors have everything you would want in a ready-made title team.
If the Raptors decide to take more drastic measures in tearing down the roster, they have players — like Siakam and VanVleet — who could fetch some young talent and picks in return.
If the Raptors foolishly go on a winning streak and make the playoffs, they will severely damage their long-term future. With the trade deadline long gone, there’s no meaningful way to drastically improve this roster, which is too thin and doesn’t have enough firepower to win a ring.
By taking themselves out of the running for a potentially franchise altering player, they’d be walking into a dangerous trap of higher-level mediocrity. Sure, Ujiri can never be counted out for another surprise, such as trading for Bradley Beal or developing the next Siakam or Anunoby, but the odds for future success increase tenfold if the Raptors continue losing for the rest of this abbreviated season.
The best move for the Raptors is to embrace the tank and look to the future.
Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration