Following yet another loss to a team with play-in hopes, the Toronto Raptors’ season is truly on the ropes.
After falling 131-129 to the Washington Wizards in overtime, the Raptors now sit at 27-40, four games out of the play-in with five games remaining. They sit 12th in the East and now own the seventh-worst record in the league.
It has been an incredibly trying year all around for the Raptors. After an off-season that saw several key players depart, the team struggled to find rhythm early in the season, and their signing to shore the big depth — Aron Baynes — just never quite fit. They finally found a bit of rhythm experimenting with a faster pace, then were hit with a wave of COVID-19 across the team and spiraled. By the time they reshaped their big man rotation with Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie, it was already late in the season.
With this latest loss, it appears the Raptors’ hole is too deep to dig themselves out of, and perhaps it is finally time for the team to pull the plug on the play-in dream and use the final week of the season to solidify their lottery odds.
The seventh-worst record in the league is actually the lowest the Raptors can finish in the league standings at this point; they are 5.5 games ahead of both Oklahoma City and Orlando with just five games left, and both are unlikely to win out as they are also vying for lottery standings. The real “tank competition” is between 7th and 10th, with the Pelicans, Kings, Bulls, and Raptors separated by just 3.5 games:
The Pelicans, Bulls, and Raptors are all in the top ten in terms of Remaining Strength of Schedule at sixth, ninth, and tenth respectively, while the Kings have the 20th-hardest schedule remaining. As far as this season goes, the play-in is virtually impossible, barring a miracle in which the Raptors win out and both the Wizards or Pacers lose out.
At this point, focusing on holding their position and getting as close to the first overall pick as possible is the logical approach.
Someone Always Falls
After the season the Raptors have had, it would be impossible to imagine their team morale could sink any lower. Yet, they’ve continued to fight, and there is something to be said for that. All this being said, with just nine days left in the season, there will be no long-term ramifications to the team’s morale or philosophy. In fact, from ensuring they have the best lottery percentages possible, they have much more to gain from it than a few meaningless wins.
While the 2021 NBA Draft class is considered to be quite loaded in terms of sheer talent, it has also been described as top-heavy. Specifically, there are lots of question marks and moving parts once you get past the top six, who appear to be definitively at the top of the boards at this point.
The thing with this is, somebody always slips out of the consensus top picks in the draft order. It happens every year, without fail. A team in the top five will reach on a guy they feel everybody else has been overlooking, and sometimes they turn out to be brilliant (Jaylen Brown), sometimes they look extremely foolish (Jan Vesely).
If the Raptors land as close to that top six as possible, and one of those teams ahead of them does indeed reach, it means a serious talent could slip to them that could change the franchise’s fortunes.
One of the most evident needs that has presented itself over the last two seasons is the need for a top-tier player who can get you buckets when the game slows down and defenders lock in. If there is a franchise-altering talent waiting in the wings, the Raptors need to be doing everything in their power to try to get one and salvage what has otherwise been a totally lost season.
A player such as Scottie Barnes or Jonathan Kuminga could potentially land at the seventh pick, and the Raptors should be positioning themselves to scoop up whichever player does fall into their laps. While the draft is always an uncertainty, the higher the pick means more options available for them to get their guy. The Raptors will have a lot of chances, but on the chance they could land one of these potential future stars, they need to go for it.
Revisiting The 2012 Tank Derailment
I’m about to get very carried away with this one, but hear me out.
What if I told you there is a parallel universe in which the Raptors managed to field a core of Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jonas Valanciunas?
For this, we need to rewind to April 26th, 2012. The Raptors are 22-43 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season; Dwane Casey’s first with the team. The Raptors and the then New Jersey Nets were tied for the sixth-worst record in the league, vying for some extra ping pong balls. With some franchise-altering talents sitting in this draft, surely securing the best lottery odds possible would benefit the Raptors, who were in a rebuild at the time.
They trounced the Nets by 31 points.
Ben Uzoh had a triple-double. Gary Forbes scored 23 off the bench. Solomon Alabi posted 11 points and 19 rebounds, all in the name of morale.
If you’re wondering why you don’t recognize any of those names, it’s because that was the final game in the NBA for all three of those players. Forbes was traded to Houston and waived, while Alabi and Uzoh were not retained as free agents due to not being in the team’s future plans. So, they won the game on the backs of guys who ultimately didn’t matter. What was the cost?
The Raptors fell into a tie for the seventh-best lottery odds with Golden State. Ties are decided by coin flips. The Warriors won that flip to secure the seventh-best odds, because of course they did, and the Raptors fell to eighth just like that.
Here’s the kicker of all this: the Nets didn’t even have their own pick. They tanked that final game of the season just to hand the pick over to the Portland Trail Blazers because they traded it for — wait for it — Gerald Wallace.
The lottery ended up placing the teams in that exact order. The sixth pick? Damian Lillard. The seventh pick? Harrison Barnes, who was then-GM Bryan Colangelo’s coveted target of the draft. The Raptors wound up selecting Terrence Ross with the eighth overall pick. That is how close the Raptors were to landing a franchise-altering talent, and they missed it so that Ben Uzoh, Solomon Alabi, and Gary Forbes could put up meaningless stats.
Now, in this revisionist history, it is also worth noting that the Raptors would never have traded their pick for Kyle Lowry, and the team never would have gotten the greatest Raptor of all time if that didn’t happen. That being said, assuming things played out, the Raptors could have landed sixth and gotten their franchise point guard in Lillard. Had they not needed to trade for Lowry, assuming that pick was kept, Masai Ujiri (who had taken over in June of 2013) would have presumably selected Antetokounmpo with the 13th overall pick.
Thus, you have a core of Lillard and Giannis to add to DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas. That’s how close the Raptors were to drastically altering their own history and raising their own ceiling for the years prior. It is no disrespect to Terrence Ross either, as he’s put together quite a solid career as a sixth man who can heat up in a hurry. Admittedly, however, he is no Damian Lillard.
Of course, the team won a championship, and there is nothing wrong with how things ultimately played out, but this serves as a cautionary tale for how the Raptors choose to approach the final week of this season. They should learn from the 2012 Raptors’ mistakes and do the smart thing, knowing how much it could benefit the franchise going forward. There are already so many solid foundational pieces in place, and adding yet another could seriously shape the team’s future.
For as difficult as this season has been, the Raptors have still seen a lot on the process side in terms of individual player development. If they can walk away with a serious talent in the draft, the struggle will have been for something, after all. The team has plenty of flexibility and options to plug their holes in the off-season, and by landing a premier player in the draft, it could drastically raise their ceiling going forward.
I never imagined this season would come to this. It pains me to say it, but I must. It’s time to strap on the camouflage gear, flick those flickers, push the buttons, and roll the tank out.