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Raptors Insider Roundtable: Operation Tank

The Toronto Raptors are in a peculiar situation – They are pretty much just as close to making the play-in tournament as they are to getting a solid lottery pick. Their remaining 14 games will determine what direction they are leaning towards.

The Toronto Raptors have made the playoffs for seven straight years, so we all know what that looks like, but a lottery pick?!

That’s foreign territory for Toronto, whose last lottery pick (originally owned by the Knicks) was Jokob Poeltl, and didn’t really do much for Toronto other than be a placeholder in the Kawhi Leonard trade but has since turned into a very good rim protector.

So, my point is that Toronto hasn’t even been in a situation to think about tanking for quite some time, this is new territory for Raptors fans.

In an effort to help us navigate through a potential tank as we head toward the end of the year, I enlisted the help of my cohorts, Shane Zilberberg and Max Ciarmela, to answer a few questions with me.

Shane: A high draft pick would certainly be ideal in terms of finding top-end talent to complement the Raptors’ current core, and give them flexibility going forward. While the Raptors have an abundance of elite roleplayers, they lack a true superstar, and finding one at the top of the draft could potentially be the answer. There is more value in finding that talent, especially with a deep draft this year, than for an early playoff exit. On the flipside, it would be a great feel-good story if they rallied through everything that happened this season to extend their playoff streak to eight consecutive years, and I certainly wouldn’t cheer against them if they manage to get there.

Max:  I don’t see the Raptors being able to get a top five pick in the upcoming draft, so ideally I would like to see them make the play-in spot. As inconsistent as the Raptors have been this season, they have still shown the ability to beat a good team on any given night. I would like to see the young players like Malachi Flynn, Gary Trent Jr., and OG Anunoby continue to get lots of minutes so they can develop their confidence and parts of their game that need some work. There’s no better way for the players I just mentioned to develop their game, then to play in high pressure situations like a do-or-die play-in situation. 

Hugh: I mean, in a perfect world the Raptors either win the championship or get the first overall pick, but obviously neither of those are likely. Ultimately, with the position the Raptors are in, I would much rather have them get a pick in the top ten this year. Both Max and Shane make good points, on one hand having Toronto’s young players play in some meaningful games would be great for them. We saw a young Raptors team struggle in the playoffs a few years ago because most of their team had zero experience playing in big games – to get some playoff experience early in your career is incredibly valuable. On the other hand, making the playoffs just to lose in the first round or even the play-in tournament isn’t worth dropping three or four spots in the draft.

Shane: The 2021 draft boasts an incredibly deep talented draft class, even outside of the top five. There is plenty of talent sitting even outside of big names, such as Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley or Jalen Suggs. While the top ten is generally guard-heavy outside of Mobley and Jonathan Kuminga, the Raptors need talent, and there is plenty in that range, such as Scottie Barnes, Moses Moody, and Keon Johnson, and even Kai Jones if they are closer to tenth. Given the Raptors’ knack for mining talent from virtually anywhere, there is a chance to land a serious impact player going forward.

Max: The 2021 NBA draft class doesn’t necessarily look top heavy, but it’s not very deep for the position the Raptors need the most. There are lots of versatile guards in this draft like Cunningham, Suggs and Davion Mitchell. But Toronto already has plenty of guards at the moment in Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Malachi Flynn, and Gary Trent Jr. The position they need the most is in the front court and there are only a handful of really talented big men in this class that are expected to go pretty early (Mobley and Jones). I wouldn’t justify a tank right now because I’m not sure the Raptors will get what they are in need of if their pick falls outside of the top 10. That being said, the Raptors front office have shown us time and again that they are very capable of finding diamonds in the rough with their late first round picks. A 15th overall pick could still end up being a very talented player.

Hugh: Shane says it’s deep, Max says it isn’t… who do I trust? I think the answer should be: I trust in Masai Ujiri. Look at what the Raptors have been able to do with their second rounders and undrafted players. Now, imagine what they could do with a top 10 selection? I don’t think the depth of this draft matters, at this point all the Raptors front office has to do is throw a dart at their draft board and boom, they have a future All-Star. I am very curious to see how long it takes for this organization to turn a 10th overall pick into the next Michael Jordan… I give it three months.

Shane: The Raptors are in need of top-end talent, and that is where the focus should be in the draft. Even if they end up selecting a wing and there is risk of overlap with Trent Jr., it is in their best interest to maximize their talent pool and make the pieces work later. The Raptors maintained their flexibility so that they could add talent in the off-season, and there will be plenty of time to do so, but talent should be the priority. If they land in range to draft Mobley, it would be addressing both simultaneously, which would be a nice bonus.

Max:  I believe that you should ALWAYS take the best available player when it comes time to make your pick. The Raptors currently do not have a superstar potential player on their roster, and there would be no reason for them to pass on a player that has that potential just because they need to fill a positional need. Imagine if the Golden State Warriors decided against taking Steph Curry just because they already had Monta Ellis? If you have a log jam at the position, deal with it later and make a trade, don’t pass up on the player with the most upside.

Hugh: I think it depends on the make up of your team. Obviously if Cade Cunningham is available you take him with no hesitation but take the Golden State Warriors for example. With the second overall pick last year they chose James Wiseman to fill their hole at centre. Using a tiny bit of hindsight, I think there’s no question that LaMelo Ball provides way more talent off the bat than Wiseman but the Warriors didn’t need a guard. They also weren’t exactly in a rebuild scenario, so they could afford to take a player with huge upside and work with him for a bit. I see the Raptors in a similar situation, where they are a lot closer to being a competitive team than the other lottery teams and arguably wouldn’t even be in the lottery if it weren’t for this mess of a year. Draft a player that fits their team – rather than look for an immediate impact guy – as I don’t think that’s what the Raptors need in this years draft.

Shane: While it would be tempting to draft Mobley in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone, Cunningham absolutely should be the first overall pick. His combination of size, athleticism, and scoring ability far exceeds everyone else in this draft, and if he develops his playmaking ability, he has the potential to be a player similar to Luka Dončić. Even if it means Anunoby and Pascal Siakam move up a position, or if Trent Jr. is moved back to sixth man, take the immense talent Cunningham offers and figure out the rest later.

Max: I would choose Cunningham first overall. His scoring ability, shooting touch, athleticism and point guard skills at six-foot-eight make him the most intriguing player in the 2021 NBA draft class. Mobley would of course fill the Raptors need for a big man, but I believe the best player in the draft is Cunningham and it would be foolish to pass up on such a talent just because they are in need of a centre.

Hugh: Like I mentioned earlier, you HAVE to draft Cunningham if you have the chance. Even if it contradicts everything I said about the Raptors prioritizing team needs over talent. You don’t see a guy like Cade everyday and further, you don’t see a guy like Cade in a Raptors jersey everyday either.

As you finish this article I want to make this very clear for Raptors fans.

We here at the Raptors Insider, by no means are rooting against Toronto. We will be very pleased to see these guys in the play-in tournament, we just would also be pleased if they got a really good player in the draft this year.

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