The Toronto Raptors – who made it pretty obvious that their goal for the last quarter of the season was to lose as many games as possible – have now won four games in a row, and six of their last ten. With the entire roster back to full health, they sit just half a game out of the play-in tournament, and four games out of the eighth seed, with 13 games still remaining to be played.
Continuing to rest starters and try to get the tank back on track is certainly not out of the question for this group. The 2021 NBA Draft class is quoted by experts to be one of the best in recent years, and teams lucky enough to land a top-five pick will have an opportunity to add a 20-year-old franchise cornerstone to their roster, free of any risk.
For a while, it looked as though the Raptors would be securing one of those picks – a massive advantage to have in a season where there are no financial repercussions to missing out on the playoffs, and where the team looks better than their record suggests, but still couldn’t contend for a championship at their peak.
That was until Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster shored up the team’s two greatest weaknesses, and turned the Raptors into a team that nobody wants to meet in the first round. By bringing in Khem Birch immediately after he was bought out by the Orlando Magic, and re-signing both Freddie Gillespie and Yuta Watanabe, Nick Nurse’s days of being forced to play Aron Baynes had vanished. The Raptors looked like they were having fun again, and everybody who got minutes on the court took accountability for their actions. The defensive miscommunications went from being a common occurrence, to becoming a rarity. Even without their best players in the lineup, they started winning games.
Even in a tank, there are a few things that you hope to get out of losing games: small wins, despite the overarching loss, if you will. Right at the top of that grocery list is the development of young players on the roster. It’s certainly a box that the Raptors can check off this season.
In a more consistent role, where he was often the only true point guard available to Nurse, Malachi Flynn has finally gotten his shot to start falling. Freddie Gillespie came in and found himself a role coming off the bench, where he was only expected to rebound, block some shots, and play a little bit of defense, all of which he has done exceptionally for a player just getting his first taste of NBA basketball. Gary Trent Jr. has been nothing short of tremendous either, proving that he’s capable of scoring in ways that he was never able to showcase in Portland.
The three of them, paired next to the likes of DeAndre’ Bembry, and Yuta Watanabe certainly doesn’t sound like a tantalizing team capable of trudging their way into the playoffs, and it’s hard to make an argument against that no matter which way you spin the stats.
As a bench lineup, however? All of a sudden, they’re a formidable unit capable of outplaying any other bench in the league when their shots are falling, and they’ve sparked optimism that the Raptors could be looking at a bench mob 2.0.
Without overreacting – because we’ve only seen one game of what the Raptors are capable of when they’re at full health – this team looks like they’ll be able to make some noise in the playoffs. Might they be able to even win a series if they were a higher seed, and matched up against the New York Knicks, or Charlotte Hornets? Probably, but it’s far too late in the game for them to climb that high.
It’s probable that if the Raptors find themselves in the playoff picture, they’ll be going toe-to-toe with either the Philadelphia 76ers, or the Brooklyn Nets – two stacked rosters, each featuring MVP caliber players, and each with their sights set on winning an NBA Championship this year. Even with their frontcourt and depth issues seemingly solved, it’s unlikely that Toronto would be able to find an answer for Joel Embiid inside the paint – who Marc Gasol has historically been in charge of stopping, or Kevin Durant on the perimeter – who the Raptors got lucky not to play against in the NBA Finals after he ruptured his achilles tendon in Game 5.
The Nets simply have too much offensive firepower, and despite being untested with their big three only playing seven games together, their talent is simply too overpowering for the Raptors. In the past, Nick Nurse has found answers for James Harden by double-teaming him as soon as he crosses the halfcourt line, but when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are on the floor next to him, that’s simply not an option. Furthermore, while the Raptors’ defense could probably last a full series without embarrassing themselves, they still lack a formidable halfcourt offense. As much of an upgrade as Birch is over Baynes, he still doesn’t space the floor well enough for Siakam to comfortably drive the ball.
The Sixers, on the other hand, only hold the 14th best offensive rating in the NBA right now. At the trade deadline, they decided that their roster was good enough to win a championship already, and that they did not need to make a trade for Kyle Lowry to put themselves over the top. Surely, he would have made a deadly pick-and-roll combo with Embiid, however even without him, it’s likely that the Sixers’ will be too much for the Raptors to handle around the rim. Their second ranked defense seems poised to fare quite well against the Raptors subpar offense, too.
All in all, it still probably makes more sense for the Raptors to try and lose more games. If you’re of that perspective, you’re in luck, as the Raptors have games against the Nets, Nuggets, Jazz, Lakers, and Clippers coming up. If you’re interested in blackjack odds and betting odds, the Raptors are expected to lose each of those games. Even if they win though, a majority of this team projects to be part of the core going forward, and racking up some wins together before hopefully coming back to play in Toronto next season is not a bad thing either.