Uh oh. It’s happening. Quietly, in the depths of Toronto Raptors discourse, obscured by complex language and long threads, the worst kind of arguments are being made: tank arguments.
It’s last year’s fault, really. Due to a combination of bad offseason planning, injuries, COVID, and the team never fitting right, the key Raptors sat out the end of the horrid season in Tampa Bay, purposely playing their young players heavy minutes and losing games as they tanked to the bottom of the standings. Masai Ujiri said: “Play-In for what?” The Raptors ended up with the No. 4 overall pick. And the rest is history.
I have seen people ask aloud about why the 2021-22 Raptors shouldn’t do the same. I have read op-eds about Toronto being stuck in the middle, or “the worst place in pro sports.”
After all, this team is in a similar position in the standings that last year’s group was before COVID ravaged its season. The Raptors are clearly bunched up with six teams fighting for four spots in the play-in tournament spot, without any real chance at competing for a title. If only they stopped playing their starters such heavy minutes and deepened their rotation, sold off a few pieces at the deadline and got some extra picks, maybe they lose a few extra games and miss the play-in tournament altogether, thereby landing them a top-10 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Why not? Because that would be silly, that’s why.
Forget the fact that the Raptors pride themselves as a winning organization and have repeatedly said how last season was a fluke. Forget that Ujiri and the front office have repeatedly turned late first-round picks into gems, and that they don’t necessarily need a lottery pick to add to the future young core (recency bias is factoring in heavily here, I believe, with the Malachi Flynn pick obscuring peoples’ memory of Ujiri’s draft record).
The Raptors should make a strong, hard push for the postseason because the playoffs are valuable and tanking is more often harmful than good. The Raptors should aggressively seek reinforcements ahead of the Feb. 10 trade deadline because they should give their core players — who have by all accounts overperformed this season — an opportunity to see what they can do on the NBA’s biggest stage in the roles that they have grown into. And the Raptors should at the very least continue to fight for a play-in tournament spot because playing meaningful basketball down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs is an important experience for young players to get under their belts if they are ever going to have success and make a deep run in the playoffs.
“It really is valuable. Just because the playoffs are, as anybody that's been around here for the last 10 or 12 years knows that, it's different. And the experience that you gain there is, you can't gain it anywhere else. It's invaluable,” Nick Nurse tells Yahoo Sports Canada. “And I just think that just from the intensity, the physicality, the game-planning, the adjustments of going through it, you can't place a value on what it means for guys to go through it.”
Pascal Siakam got his first taste of the playoffs in 2016-17, playing spot minutes. Then he got to average 17.9 minutes a game over 10 contests as a key bench piece in 2017-18, when the Raptors beat the Washington Wizards in 6 games and were consequently swept by LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Those experiences prepared him for the 2018-19 championship run, when Siakam played second and third-fiddle to Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, averaging 19.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists as a starter in all 24 games, averaging 37.1 minutes.
“I think it's experience. Like just being in moments. That comes with even life in general. Once you go through something you kind of have that, not advantage, but you know what to expect,” Siakam says of his early-career playoff experience. “And I think that's really important because the regular season is really hard and it's tough, but the playoffs are another level. So, going through those battles and understanding what that's like, you just know. And it comes with experience and years in the league.”
It stands to reason that Nurse and Siakam, as head coach and veteran leader of the Raptors, would want to make an all-out push for the playoffs. But it ultimately comes down to how the front office sees things. Ujiri has until Feb. 10 to bring in reinforcements for the Raptors if he wants them to have a fair chance to make the playoffs. And he, too, has a strong reason to, as the playoffs are a sort of cheat code for front offices to get a real, probing look at the team they have constructed and to see what works and what doesn’t in a playoff setting.
But in order to make that push while preserving the legs of NBA minutes leader Fred VanVleet and fellow “put the team on my back” veteran Siakam, Ujiri would have to bring in external help. More to the point, he would have to solve (or alleviate) at least one of the team’s two glaring issues: the lack of outside shooting and on-ball creation coming off the bench, and the lack of a starting-calibre centre to protect the rim on one end and put pressure on it on the other.
The Raptors have reportedly been searching for frontcourt replacements in the form of Myles Turner, Jakob Poeltl, Daniel Theis, and even Domantas Sabonis. And that makes a lot of sense to me. While Precious Achiuwa has shown some impressive flashes, especially on the defensive end, and Khem Birch has been solid in the 23 games he has played this season, neither has been a reliable starting-calibre centre this season, and a lot of the Raptors' issues on both ends of the floor stem from their lack of one.
Defensively, bringing in a traditional rim protector would allow the Raptors to be less aggressive helping off the corners and sending multiple bodies to the paint, theoretically bringing down their foul rate, which ranks third-highest in the league. It would also reduce the amount of corner threes they surrender, which also ranks third highest. They could play a more traditional defence in addition to their current frenetic, switch-heavy, small-ball style, which I believe has utility but would probably work better in small, matchup-dependant doses.
Offensively, a good pick-and-roll centre who could catch lobs and finish at the rim and in the short mid-range area would put a lot of additional pressure on the rim, forcing the opposing defence to collapse off the corners and thereby free up space for the Raptors' perimeter players. If they could snag a centre like Turner or Richaun Holmes, who each provide their own form of floor-spacing in addition to being good pick-and-roll finishers, the Raptors would really be cooking with gas on offence.
Teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers have made a segment of NBA fans obsessed with the idea of tanking for high draft picks in hopes of landing that franchise-altering superstar that the Raptors haven’t had since Leonard. But the reality is that tanking rarely works out for the best, and even when it does, it comes after years and years of suffering.
What I recommend Raptors fans do instead of playing with the draft simulator is to relish in the very competitive and very young team that goes to battle every other night. Because they are going to scrap. With the exception of a couple porous showings, the Raptors have fought extremely hard this season, and they are always an interesting and weird and fun and most importantly different team than the other 29 around the NBA.
Relish in that, and if you do, I bet you’ll find yourself wanting to watch this Raptors team play more games down the stretch of the season as opposed to less.
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