The Toronto Raptors abysmal start to the 2020-2021 NBA season is beginning to bring back memories of 2013. Shortly after the season had begun on the eve of Halloween, the Raptors were playing horribly despite assembling a new big three comprised of Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, and Kyle Lowry. They were off to a 6-12 start, and had dropped five games straight as they headed into Los Angeles to face the Lakers.
Just before that night’s contest, the team’s newly named General Manager, Masai Ujiri, was busy hitting the phones. Then… out came the news.
The Toronto Raptors made a blockbuster deal, sending Gay to the Sacramento Kings in a seven player trade, which brought back the likes of Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons, and Chuck Hayes. On paper, it was unequivocally a move that made the Raptors worse. Surely, it was all a part of Ujiri’s masterplan to tank. He wanted to lose games on purpose and earn a high lottery pick in the 2014 Draft to snag the highly touted Andrew Wiggins, as many rumours circulated that he might.
These intentions were further evidenced by Ujiri’s failed attempt to subsequently trade Lowry to the New York Knicks for a package centered around Raymond Felton. The deal had been agreed upon by the two sides and was about to be finalized with the league head offices before James Dolan – the Knicks notoriously foolish owner – vetoed it at the last minute.
Alas, Lowry remained a Raptor. Toronto had four new rotation players that they needed to work into the lineup during the middle of the season, and a spot in the starting lineup devoid of the departing Rudy Gay that needed to be filled.
In what turned out to be serendipitous for the team, the Raptors newfound depth would bolster them to a 42-22 record over the final 64 games of the season, and land them as the third seed in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors made The Playoffs for the first time in half a decade, and went right to the wire in Game 7 with a stacked Brooklyn Nets team featuring several Hall-of-Fame caliber players.
This was ultimately the birth of the Raptors most successful era in franchise history, and the beginning of Lowry’s legacy as the greatest Raptor of all-time. All of that came out of what was meant to be a tank for Andrew Wiggins.
Now, the Raptors find themselves in a similar position. Draft experts such as Mike Schmitz and Jonathan Givony are dubbing the 2021 class as one of the strongest in recent history. Highlighted by exciting young talent such as Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, and Evan Mobley, the question as to whether the Raptors should start throwing their games on purpose is completely legitimate.
The case for tanking
The roster as currently constructed stands no chance of competing with the powerhouses of the NBA, and mortgaging the future to trade for James Harden simply doesn’t make sense. Arguably, making a lower-scale trade for a small-ball centre, such as PJ Tucker, or even John Collins, would do more to help this Raptors team than throwing a plethora of picks plus Pascal Siakam at the Rockets for the 2018 MVP.
Rather than going either of those routes though, it may be time to look at the writing on the wall. Kyle Lowry turns 35-years-old in two months, and becomes a free agent in six. At this point in his career, it’s understandable that he may want to compete for another championship. While there is no doubt that he would give Toronto the opportunity to build a contender around him, there aren’t any feasible routes that they could take to do so with the assets on hand.
Pascal Siakam – as good of a player as he is – can’t be the number one option on a championship level team at this point in his career. The team’s halfcourt offense ranks 26th in the league through seven games, and while a big part of that is due to makeable shots not falling, Toronto surely won’t find themselves with a contending offense even as the law of averages plays out. As the team stands right now, they are facing purgatory. They can be a perennial six seed and get bounced in the first, or occasionally the second round, for the next several years, or they can take a step back now to take multiple steps forward in the future.
By trading Lowry to a contender in need of a point guard, be it the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, or Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors would likely be able to rack up a haul of young assets and picks to kickstart the rebuilding process. Simultaneously, Lowry would be gifted the opportunity to shine on a good team with a need for him, and hopefully chase after his second championship. In a best-case scenario, the Raptors could move forward with a core of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, a top-5 pick from the 2021 Draft, and whichever other young players and picks the team can get from a Lowry deal.
The case against tanking
Every reality has two sides to it, and here’s the optimistic perspective: the Raptors are not as bad as their early season record suggests. In five of their six losses, they’ve blown a ten-plus point lead. Obviously, it’s hard to look at a stat like that through a positive lens, however here’s my attempt: the Raptors have had stretches of basketball where they’ve played well enough to get up on each of their opponents – minus the Phoenix Suns – by double digits. Ultimately, they just aren’t playing with enough swagger or passion for the game, and they’re struggling to close out contests like they once could.
Despite dropping to 1-6, Wednesday night’s loss provided some hope. Siakam had his first thirty point game in ten months, he was getting good looks inside, he worked his way to the free-throw line fourteen times, and he did it all on 52.4% shooting. Fred VanVleet is playing like he’s on a mission to be named an All-Star, and Kyle Lowry – despite aging according to his birth certificate – is not showing any signs of it on the basketball court.
As alluded to earlier, the Raptors’ greatest concern is their centre position. They are getting very little out of Aron Baynes, and Chris Boucher’s productivity is very matchup driven due to his feather-like frame. However, another glimmer of sunshine poked through the clouds in the fourth quarter against the Suns when Nick Nurse resorted to his extremely small-ball lineup, headlining Lowry and VanVleet in the backcourt, and Powell, Anunoby, and Siakam in the frontcourt. Through almost 11 minutes of play together this season, that lineup is outscoring opponents by nearly a point per minute.
All of this points to brighter days ahead and a higher figure in the wins column, however the aforementioned remains true: this roster as currently constructed cannot contend with the powerhouses of the league. Visit best online casino in Canada to see how they stand by that narrative as well.
But tanking isn’t as simple as it appears to be when playing NBA 2K. Video games fail to account for the team culture that takes a hit with losing so many games. As Alex Len said last week, there is already some seriousness in the Raptors locker room due to the rough start that they are facing. With more losses comes lower morale, unhappy players, distraught employees, and coaches fearful of losing their jobs. When you get used to losing as a franchise, it’s hard to remember how to win, regardless of how many talented lottery picks you bring onto the basketball court. For proof, look no further than the Kings, or Knicks.
This is compounded by the fact that uber-skilled and promising young prospects don’t always pan out as they are projected to. I’d like to coin this situation the Andrew Wiggins dilemma. What if Masai Ujiri’s plan to tank in 2013 worked out just as he had planned? Kyle Lowry would be a Knick, and Andrew Wiggins would be a Raptor. Wiggins never became the Kobe Bryant 2.0 that he was pegged to be, and hardly grew into a skeleton of that. Lowry went on to co-lead the Raptors to a championship, and became one of the most profound athletes that Canada has ever had. If the Raptors plan to tank in 2013 had come to fruition, the franchise would look very different from what it is today. Despite not being in immediate title contention from 2013-2017, there’s something to be said for building a winning culture, and remaining competitive.
Ultimately, while Raptors fans’ patience is probably waring thin, it’s important to understand that tanking has costly and long-term effects unbeknownst to those outside of the organization. Further accounting for the possibility that Cunningham, Suggs, Mobley, or any other top prospect in the upcoming draft may not live up to their pre-draft hype, it may be in the Raptors best interest to just stay put for now.