In recent weeks, as Dwane Casey struggled to find workable rotations, Rudy Gay struggled to find his shot and the Raptors as a whole struggled to find wins, the popular assumption was that it was only a matter of if – not when – Masai Ujiri would hit the self-destruct button and blow this roster up in the name of tanking for the 2014 draft. After all, this roster looked like a mess. There was no flow to the offence, the pieces didn’t mesh, and the rumours were abundant that Ujiri was willing to deal just about anyone on the roster not named Jonas Valanciunas.
Perception has a funny way of distorting reality, however.
First of all, the Raptors have never been all that bad this season. Their ugly-as-sin offence has been floating around the middle-of-the-pack in terms of efficiency all season (currently ranked 14th in the NBA) while their seldom-discussed defence has actually been ranked in the top-ten for weeks (currently their defensive efficiency sits at sixth-best in the league). Plus, with the Eastern Conference floundering as a whole and the Atlantic Division struggling even more so, the Raptors currently possess the East’s seventh-best record and the lead in their division. While that’s hardly an achievement to write home about right now given the competition, life in the NBA is as much about the teams that surround you as you yourself.
With all that said, you have to wonder not only about the likelihood of Ujiri choosing to tank, but the advisability of it. After all, the Raptors have exceed their preseason expectations (at least as it pertains to their place in the standings) because so many teams have failed to live up to theirs. Washington looks as bad as ever and Cleveland, somehow, looks worse. Milwaukee is nowhere near where they hoped they’d be after some ill-advised summer spending and the less said about New York and Brooklyn the better.
Now, not all of these teams will continue to struggle, but you have to imagine that at least a couple of their front office staffs have to be considering refocusing after seeing their squads actually play together these last few weeks. If they are going to lose more than they anticipated anyway, they may as well go for broke and throw their hat into the tanking pool and try their luck in next June’s draft. The problem is that the more teams that choose to go the tanking route, the more it dilutes the chances for everyone else when it comes to actually securing a top-tier pick. As strong and deep as this draft is believed to be, not every player is worth tanking for. If you get to a point where seven or eight organizations are either actively tanking or allowing for a cavalcade of losses (and you could argue that point pretty strongly for Philadelphia, Boston, Utah and Phoenix, already, with Milwaukee, Sacramento and Denver healthy bets to join them) then how much sense does it make to become the ninth or tenth club to play for draft picks? At what point are you letting a trendy – and unproven – strategy dictate policy at the expense of a less destructive mode of operation?
More specifically, if you’re Masai Ujiri, how badly do you want to work to pull apart this club (a club that has some workable pieces mixed in with some less desirable ones) when you may never be able to make yourself worse than the fifth- or sixth-worst team? Think about it: the teams that are going all-in on taking have gone in in a way that is nearly unprecedented in terms of it’s transparency. Does Ujiri really want to give away everything he has for pennies on the dollar in order to compete with the Philly’s and Phoenix’s of the NBA basement?
For instance, after four years invested in his development, DeMar DeRozan finally looks like he’s turned a corner in his career, and he’s done so at a position of increasing shallowness in the league, but if you wanna tank he’d have to go. Here you have a shooting guard posting the best scoring numbers of his career after finally implementing a three-point shot into his game, and he’s getting to the free throw line (ranking 16th in the league in FTA per game) at a career-best rate. Is he perfect? No. He’s still lacking on defense, he has zero court vision when it comes to playmaking and he’s generally not as versatile as some of the guys in his price range, but what he can do as a scorer nowadays is a legit skill, and one that shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.
Remember, this isn’t a question of just trading DeRozan. One can make a great case for trading him now while he’s on an upswing to protect against the possibility that his recent effectiveness is just a mirage (we’ve seen bouts of effectiveness before). However, if the Raptors want to tank, they have to trade DeRozan for someone who is simply not as good. He’s not talented – or cheap – enough to return great picks or young gems; trading DeRozan in the name of tanking simply means giving away a guy of a certain talent level for someone at a lesser talent level. I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: that’s not a good team-building strategy.
The Raptors aren’t likely to make any deals until December 15th at the earliest, since that’s when players signed to new deals this summer are allowed to be traded, and a lot can happen between now and then. Over the next twenty-three days they’ll play ten more games, six at home, and several of those contests could be considered winnable. If in that time the Raptors begin to bottom-out then this becomes a different conversation. However, if they maintain the kind of pace that they’re on while several other teams continue to flounder, that will have to have an impact on what Ujiri looks to do when the time finally comes to start juggling pieces on this roster.
None of this should be interpreted as advocation either way. While in principle I’m not a fan of tanking, I certainly understand the merits behind the strategy given the way the NBA system is designed. What I am saying, though, is that regardless of what strategy Ujiri came into the season with as it pertains to his roster and trading strategy, the realities of how the season has played out thus far, both for the Raptors and for the teams that sit below them, now has play a part in whatever direction Ujiri chooses to take this team. The fact of the matter is, it might be easier now for the Raptors to secure at top-six seed in the East than to secure a top-six slot in the draft. If Ujiri could shuffle the deck a bit, unload Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry for pieces that will better compliment Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and DeRozan, he may see that as the smarter play over stripping the team bare and rolling the dice in the draft lottery. This whole thing could still play out a number of different ways, so all I’m saying is at this point don’t assume that Ujiri has his mind made up to throw the season into the toilet.