This is a guest post from Alex Wong. Alex is better known as @steven_lebron on Twitter and is publishing a book which you can pre-order now (the details are here). If you own a Michael Dickerson Vancouver Grizzlies jersey, please contact him. 

This Raptors season was suppose to play out one of two ways:

In the first scenario, after trading the former first overall pick turned burden named Andrea Bargnani in the summer, the Raptors would say all the right things heading into the regular season (see: Masai Ujiri at the team’s town hall meeting) about being competitive and giving the roster a fair shake, and then watch as the new general manager methodically tear down the roster piece-by-piece in order to begin a comprehensive and lengthy rebuild.

In the second scenario, the team would turn out to be just good enough that it would compete and end up being stuck in the dreaded middle, putting the franchise in a position of being somewhat successful in the short-term with no future to build towards.

When the Raptors traded Rudy Gay in early December, it was supposed to be the start of the first scenario. Just days later, Kyle Lowry seemed close to being the next to go, and probably would have if James Dolan had not stepped in and killed a potential trade. Instead, a team that was 6-12 at the time of the Gay trade has put together several weeks of inspired basketball and now find themselves in scenario two, where they are now obviously too good to be among the league’s worst, and, well, are they in the dreaded land of mediocrity with scant hopes of upward mobility?

Just a few weeks ago, I felt the same resignation that they had found themselves winning when they weren’t suppose to again. But then, strange things started to happen. The team went to Dallas and Oklahoma City and came out winners. The more I watched, the more encouraged I was. This was a team that was starting to develop an identity, players slotted into the roles and minutes that were appropriate given the talent level and need for development. A five-man squad on the court that played with poise late in games on the road, and shared the ball on the offensive end not out of necessity but an actual desire to play a brand of basketball that was both effective and fun to watch.

And to think, just a month ago, this was a team that had 10 assists in a double overtime game and on another night blew a 27-point second half lead on the road.

And then came an inspired home win on New Years Day over the Indiana Pacers, backed by a sold-out home crowd, almost confirming the city’s renewed interest in the team. In a league where playoff games are ‘appointment television’ and regular season games were ‘do I have an appointment’ television, and for a match-up that just last year was dubbed “A Fate Worst Than Death” by Grantland, plans were moved around to make sure I didn’t miss Raptors-Wizards on a Friday night. We won handily by double digits. The third quarter was one of the most delightful moments derived from following the Raptors in recent years.

It’s not just the general excitement of the city, which speaks more to the lack of accomplishments of the franchise as a whole, and how we’ve only achieved a modicum of success since the peak years with Vince Carter, which is now over a decade ago. I mean, it may be easiest to put it like this: this is a team with two banners in the rafters; one for a division title we won in 2007, and another that celebrates our inaugural season in the NBA. So in the big picture sense for the franchise, these last few weeks ranks up there. I know, slim pickings.

Of course, the more current success this team attains, the further it removes itself from tanking itself into the top of the draft. Which is a sore subject, but one that must be discussed because it is a real thing. And perhaps this is just a fan who is desperate for a team that matters in this city speaking, but I think we can be more open-minded about this team, and appreciate its present run without driving a stake through all the hopes we had for the future, much of that attached to the upcoming draft.

Tanking is rebuilding, but rebuilding isn’t tanking. The method of accumulating high draft picks and making the correct choices has worked in the past, but it is one of several methods of going about returning a team to contender status. It is also a method that does not necessarily guarantee that you can get from point A (a terrible team) to point B (a really good team that can picture themselves having a meaningful banner in the rafters).

The tanking or else mentality has swept through the league, and perhaps especially to this team’s fanbase, given that we just saw our outgoing general manager flame out and set the franchise back with a series of win-now-at-all-cost moves; with none of them panning out.

But our current general manager has come as advertised. Ujiri has moved Bargnani and Gay for both assets and flexibility, and already has the team in a better position going forward than before he arrived. Given the expectation of how difficult it would be to a) move those two players and b) extract any kind of valuable return, both trades were home runs and well ahead of anyone’s schedule.

As the current team continues to develop, players like Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are legitimate assets. Some of them have raised their value in the current trade market, others have now worked themselves into a previously-non-existent conversation of “well, we could move forward with him.” The draft cupboard is full, and depending on the direction Masai Ujiri chooses to go, there is cap space available going forward.

All of this, players, the cap, picks, all follow the more important buzzword aside from tanking: accumulation of assets. Sure, losing in the present would raise the value of a potential future asset at the next draft. But in the same vein, winning has raised the value of the assets the team currently has. To me, the current situation can become a win-win.

No, these are not the Oklahoma City Thunder in terms of top level talent, or the Houston Rockets before they acquired James Harden and Dwight Howard in terms of assets and ability to acquire a superstar via trade or free agency, but it would be wrong to say this team is sacrificing its entire future by winning now.

There are many promising signs from this core group, and whatever level of success it achieves this season is not in fact a detriment to the future, but instead a springboard to something better. A development process, a season of asset building.

At the end of the day, much of this excitement still needs to be framed against the context of the Eastern Conference this season. Despite all I’ve mentioned above, the Raptors are but a .500 team on the season, currently sitting at 17-17. But if you’ve watched this team play lately, and recognize that they’ve had the third hardest strength of schedule in the East so far, or if you believe these, this team as currently constructed is going to the playoffs, and probably as a top-four seed.

And sure, all of this might go away in a few weeks. There are still trade options out there from now until the deadline and we may go back to scenario one. But in a season that has been reborn with the trade of a talented player that never fit the construct of this team, a third scenario has been born: a team that is undergoing a permanent, sustainable makeover with a roster more talented than previously thought; with a general manager with a proven track record here and elsewhere of accumulating assets and playing the numbers game to his advantage.

All of this sounds great, for now and for later. None of it sounds like the Raptors I’ve known for the past few years. It’ll take some getting used to, but I’m starting to think it is a good time to be optimistic about this franchise.

This has been a guest post from Alex Wong. Alex is better known as @steven_lebron on Twitter and is publishing a book which you can pre-order now (the details are here). If you own a Michael Dickerson Vancouver Grizzlies jersey, please contact him. 

  • mike, prague

    I agree.

  • sleepz

    “it would be wrong to say this team is sacrificing its entire future by winning now.”

    Agreed, no one can make that claim because we don’t know what the future holds and there is no guarantee that a lottery pick would be the player to take your franchise to the next level. All that considered, how do you start going about adding that piece on a team with not much salary cap space and players that while good or improving, will most likely not yield something exponentially better than what you already have?

    And what do you have? You kept it in context as the raps while entertaining are a .500 team in a conference that has never looked more pitiful. Does that ‘development’ continue next year, or as comprised do they fall back into the 7-11 crowd?

    It’s nice to have division champs banners in the rafters but as a fan I’m more interested in Conference champs or NBA championship banners. No one cares anymore about the division the Raps won in 2007. Making the playoffs is good if its the first step in moving forward with a team you feel has the makings of something significant and can eventually compete with the leagues elite, but its not as good if they are simply taking advantage of a current opportunity and that the growth cannot be sustained or if the team is limited in what they can become. The NBA is still a talent first league. ‘Culture change’ vs. Talent, talent will win the majority of the time.

    • raptorstand

      We have an elite center , we have an elite shooting guard, we have an elite point guard, we have an elite coach , we have an elite gm , this word elite is making me puke . This team is starting to become a team that wins. Start enjoying it . We have two 21 year old starters …. we have talent son , wake up and quit following the crowd and running down our players. Lets all stop with last years comments.,

  • arsenalist

    Excellent piece, sir. This is the angle that I’ve been favoring the last few weeks:

    “…it would be wrong to say this team is sacrificing its entire future by winning now.”

    This binary view that somehow we’re doing damage by winning with the current crop is entirely unproven IMO.

    • SR

      ^^ This. The either/or narrative that pigeon-holes the development of this franchise into either “tank” or “become a treadmill team that has no chance of winning a championship” is a drastic oversimplification and, at this point in the season, is really killing any kind of chance at a nuanced discussion.

      My two-cents are that I’d love to see more actual game analysis and consideration for the ways the team and players are developing this season (some contributors have been continuing to do this). I’m all up for good team-building discussions, but there’ve been a ton of them already and it’s not even halfway through the season. I realize this is a free blog and the writers are putting in what they want/have to put in – I appreciate it all. Just sharing my thoughts as a reader.


    • MasaiUhearme

      Cant’t teach winning by losing. A playoff series or two would help in the development of the whole organization, not just the players. Playoffs can get the Raps to a place, as an organization, it has never been. People are also discounting the depth of talent in the ’14 daft – will be talent outside the lotto, unlike 03.

      • Bryan Colangelo

        I brought this up in the forums, but …

        You can’t evaluate players, develop them, or gauge their true ceiling by losing, either.

        Without a winning system, selfish player’s inflate their value for stats while inexperienced or more team-oriented players suffer or perform below their potential/value. Think of how radically the our perception of Amir and Ross’ value has changed since the beginning of the season.

        They’ve gone from expendable throw-ins in a trade to legitimate assets for a playoff/contending team.

      • Dr. Scooby

        why is it that people who are opposed to rebuilding this season say: “Can’t teach winning by losing” end up saying after losses “this loss will build character and they’ll be better for it”

        Does that mean Milwaukee is an unteachable team with tons of character? Is loosing good or not good…which is it?

        • Just Like Sister Ray Said

          It seems to me that these constant comparisons between the present Raptors team and the stuck-in-the-middle Bucks of recent years is basically to compare Derozan/Lowry to Ellis/Jennings in terms of top talent.

          DD and KL play with the right kind of winning intensity, maturity, and yes, teachability. Derozan gets better every season, is finally seeing the floor clearly, giving up the ball when the time is right, and has started to become a vocal leader. One can say Lowry still plays a bit wild at his worst, but I feel that since the Calderon situation last season when he was benched, he’s really made great strides in becoming a responsible point guard, constantly making shrewd decisions, both offensively and defensively, while still bringing his customary bull-headed intensity, game in and game out.

          Ellis and Jennings, at least in a Bucks uniform, seemed like very talented, but volatile, selfish, inconsistent stat-padders with a questionable devotion to building a winning environment. Comparing our guys to, and projecting their peak development based on, a couple of glorified street-ballers seems way off base to me.

    • Asif Fershur

      This year’s strange climate of extensive tanking creates an opportunities for enterprising GMs. This org is in position to sit back and pick its spots.

    • Bryan Colangelo


      That one sentence summarizes the view of many intelligent, level-headed fans that realize that tanking is not the only pathway to success.

      I don’t understand how anyone can look at how our cap flexibility, player development and players’ trade value has improved since the summer and bitch and complain about the team’s trajectory.

  • JYFelony

    Great job on this. Loved the angle, loved the writing. Today shows the roller-coaster ride of a Raptors fan today with your piece and Tim’s.

  • ckh26

    Nice job Alex . Optimism is not a bad thing. For all the past years of futility now is the time for purple and black to get their due. The Maple Leafs are about to do a pratfall worthy of Charlie Chaplin and the city is looking for a winner.
    Tim “Kevorkian” W can instruct them on the art of tanking.for a high draft pick now that they have either quit on themselves or quit on their coach.

    It may be fleeting or it may be for the rest of the season but the raps are in now in a position to capture the minds and hearts of Toronto sports fans if they can continue this run. They have a collection of characters that you can’t help but like and cheer for. How can you not like the heart and guts of Amir Johnson. Kyle Lowry is like Wendel Clarke. Demar is a heart and soul guy and will do anything to win. It takes a lot of moral courage to keep slashing in the middle when you know your going to get pounded. But Demar keeps coming cuz thats where the points are. Got two rooks to watch as they develop in Ross and JV.

    Its a great story we are all ready for.

  • beezy

    masai ujiri, the rick rubin of basketball.

  • Tinman

    I’m super, super, super, super, super, super, super, super, super, super, super, super, super sorry.
    Tim W.

  • leftovercrack

    It was mentioned in the nice story, but while we are losing out on the tank our current players are now worth more in terms of trades. Kyle is looking like a legit starting PG, if we can extend him he could fetch a nice haul. People are talking about DeRozan as an all-star young wing and TRoss is looking like a keeper. This gives MU the flexibility in the future to find a team that wants to tank and shed its star, and perhaps offer them a young player and some picks. Alternative routes to success besides tanking have been strengthened!

    • Shadow Of Christ

      Toronto has become a No Tank zone

    • Bryan Colangelo

      I would love to extend or keep Lowry for another 3 years, but would totally understand from a management perspective why they would trade him before the deadline.

      If someone offers a future pick, I don’t think we can say no — just because he’s going to command a big contract we can’t match on the open market.

  • Shadow Of Christ

    Every project has to start somewhere. Ujiri was put into a seemingly impossible position: fix the Toronto Raptors. His motto: wait and see. We waited, we’re seeing so far that in spite of a horrible East, the Raptors are THANKFULLY not following suit. So if step one is wait and see, I’m guessing step two is reload and lets go again? #WinNowMode!

  • boxer1234

    Correction to the article – the Raptors have had the third hardest strength of schedule in the LEAGUE so far. Their SOS has been hardest, by a wide margin in the East so far.

  • Marshall

    Fantastic, fantastic piece. I’m on board with option three. Keep the positive articles coming!

  • cb

    “When the Raptors traded Rudy Gay in early December, it was supposed to be the start of the first scenario.”

    this is just a totally fallacious and lazily adopted point of view. only fools thought trading gay would make the team worse. pretty much any knowing observer would have anticipated the team improving with his removal. there’s utterly no merit to trumpeting this disingenous and unsupported interpretation of Masai’s intention.

    • Roarque

      totally fallacious, lazily adopted, fools, utterly no merit, disingenuous, and unsupported interpretation
      A troll seeking some company hurls infective.

  • raptorstand

    Do you know what really irks me about these so called basketball writers, is they keep repeating the same old bull . The Toronto Raptors don’t have the talent of other teams? We have a set starting 5 that have 2, 21 year olds gelling into a cohesive unit and we really don’t know what we have in these players or this unit. It is amazing that they just keep harking up the same drivel which is a backhanded slap at a team that is improving and I don’t know what these guys have been watching but right now I wouldn’t trade Jonas for any center in this league, and I really don’t know about Tross but im rooting for him and I hope he surpasses all of these weak predictions. Amir has been our hardest working fan favourite Lowry should be signed. Can we get writers that watch the games instead of reading someone elses analysts and then rehashing and insulting our players. We are in at the beginning of something really special and these guys just don’t get it. Pisses me off.

    • raptorstand

      Forgot to mention Demar , young guy that likes the city , has been improving and becoming a leader. There is no going back , we are a good team that is playing lights out d, success is our future , maybe somebody should tell these American writers .

      • Dave

        Thanks for this post,

        I totally agree. Its nice to see success come from the work these guys have been doing.

        I noticed KL got a 10 spot on this weeks KIA MVP list. *(it is weekly but still awesome.

        Resigning him is the right direction.

        GV is not ready to lead (yet) great tag team though.

        Bigs are working together, a more dynamic back up center would juice things up.

  • raptorstand

    I;m watching the Brooklyn Nets play and thinking the Raptors are so much more fun to watch. All of our starters , the best games have been all with us. Every player on Brooklyn was bought from somebody else. This is our team , our talent , our players. What a great time to be a Raptor fan , trading any of our starting five would be wrong. Hell I don’t care what any player makes in this league, I don’t care how much we pay in taxes, just put a team out there that hustles , wants to play in this city , and is well coached. We have this right now, lets see what we got.

    • raptorstand

      The only player I would want from either the Nets or the Heat for the Raptors is Lebron. They look old and tired , our guys look young and hungry.

    • SDubbs

      The perspective I take on this current surge of teams in the @lantic division is this. As great as it is to see the Raps kicking ass and gelling on and off court, they are destined for mediocrity still. Think about Brooklyn. This team is also starting to put it together as well. Five wins in a row knocking of the Heat and GS in the process. One major difference, is that noone was giving the nets a chance (too old,slow, no chem etc…) But they got oodles of talent and starting to click
      Just ponder this…
      Our current raps go for 4th in the east and meet the nets in round 1 of the playoffs. Give any NBA coach, even a rook in Kidd a chance to gameplan for a series against this not very deep group overachieving and we win max 2 games. See Denver the last few years. This type of hype/chemistry is overrated. There is no unguardable talent here and if management keep this core with no major talent influx they are toast even if they can keep competitive with mass amounts of swag and confidence! Don’t get me wrong, Raps are my team, just need a lights out talent in the mix who can actually handle the rock in double/triple teams scenarios.

      • raptorstand

        I completely disagree, we don’t know what we have. 2 ,21 year olds and I think Jonas has enough to be Tim Duncan in this offense. Your just discounting his age and his ceiling , I don’t see a ceiling for Jonas or Tross, your judging on nothing valid I judge on growth of team this Denver crap is bogus, Denver didn’t have a solid big man with unlimited potential. Your missing the obvious out there , these players are ours and getting better every game, I would like to see where we go .

  • Dr. Scooby

    Beware of Brooklyn!

  • some random guy

    Anyone who says tank most likely doesn’t watch the Raptors from game to game. Especially since the trade, the Raptors have literally been a different team. Before the trade if the Raptors were down in the 2nd half by 10, I would think here we go again, and have no faith in a comeback. Now I just look at it as a flow of the game with no doubt the Raptors will make a push. However, the biggest difference has been the 3rd quarter, the Raptors use to waste it, now they are taking it as an opportunity to crush other teams. I will would like to resign Lowry (with hesitation, only because he has only broken out as an All-star calibre point guard for a month and a half). And Keep the young core. Perhaps in the off season, or next season use Fields, Hayes expiring contracts and through in Novak to obtain a great player who’s team is rebuilding.

  • Dave

    KLowry was given the #10 spot on this weeks NBA.coms KIA MVP list.

    Resign him now,

    We need this win over BKN. NY and BKN can still change the landscape of the Alantic Div

  • gradgrind101

    I love the comment ” winning has raised the value of the assets the team currently has”. I have been saying this since day one of the Masai era. You have assets that you want to buy low and sell high. Masai’s predecessor on the other hand practiced buy high and hope the asset continues to appreciate. The important thing to remember is the direction this team is moving.. UPWARD! I don’t think this is a blip on the screen but a clear indication of the start of a strong uptrend and for me that is what I have been looking for.

  • gradgrind101

    In either scenario (tanking or not tanking) you need a capable architect who can buy undervalued assets and construct a contending team. Wiggins or Parker or Randle won’t give you a contending team. You still need to surround them with talent. Either Masai is a capable GM or he is not. If he is in over his head then tanking or not tanking is a moot point. If he knows what he is doing then he can put together a contending team no matter what direction he takes.