There is no risk inherent to the Raptors staying the course. If the Raptors re-sign Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka and make another run at home-court advantage in the playoffs, the future involves winning, even if it doesn’t include winning the highest prize. That is a good future, if not the one many fans crave. The team would amass much-needed respect from the American market. Furthermore, team ‘risk’ is pushed several years down the road, when all sorts of contingent factors (drafting well, retaining and developing guys like Norman Powell) can mitigate any future slippage to the team that comes with paying an aging Lowry league-leading money.
On the other hand, blowing the team up comes with a different iteration of risk and reward. The risk of tanking is inherent in the strategy: losing seasons. Teams lose not just games, but also fans, money, respect around the league, capital with agents, and more intangibles. The 76ers have been bitten by each of those plague-rats during The Process. The justification for tanking is a potential championship. However, the only recent example of a team that successfully tanked in the process of winning a championship is the 1999 San Antonio Spurs, who already had a league-defining talent in David Robinson when they threw away the 1997 season. Drafting Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili during non-tanking years didn’t hurt the team’s future, either. That was two decades ago.
More recent tank-jobs have been less successful. Orlando is a disaster, with its best asset not even on the roster yet. Sidebar: what would Aaron Gordon even fetch on the open market right now? Certainly not a lottery pick. Phoenix has talent, especially in Devin Booker, but it has a mismatch of talented but raw pieces and no clear path to future success. Philadelphia is currently heralded as a tanking success, without even a winning season to show for its troubles. What does it say about the Sixers if their franchise-defining talent in Joel Embiid can’t even define 35 games a season?
Don’t be so sure Philadelphia will turn into a league powerhouse. Amassing talent is no sure-fire prediction of entry to the playoffs, let alone a championship. Minnesota has collected incredible talent, with one of the league’s brightest future stars in Karl-Anthony Towns, but it has continually failed to make the playoffs. Tanking guarantees nothing, and Philadelphia has already had to shed assets for cents on the dollar (Nerlens Noel) due to impending financial gridlock for unproven yet talented players.
This brings us to the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors must base their offseason decisions around timelines. Do they continue to push for the present, knowing their current status as roadkill for the Cavaliers and Warriors? Even if the Cavaliers lose some role players due to financial realities, such as Deron Williams or Kyle Korver, who’s to say that they couldn’t just re-stock with more ring-chasers? Perhaps a David West shall the Cavs seek.
If the Raptors wait out the present and tank their upside into the future, the team’s timeline pushes 3-5 years down the road. The 2020s ought not to be the realm of Lebron James, and the Warriors certainly won’t be able to afford to keep their core together that long. Who knows which juggernauts will contend in the 2020s, which allows the imagination to thrive thinking of the potential stranglehold a re-charged Raptors can put on the league. But is that realistic? Let’s look at what would have to happen.
The Brightest Timeline
The Raps couldn’t re-sign any of their current free agents; all are for the present, not the future. Furthermore, DeMar DeRozan (Mr. 3rd team all-nba!!) is too good to allow a team to tank. He would have to be traded. Anyone thinking the Celtics would part with a Nets pick is dreaming; DeRozan could fetch a lottery pick, but it would have to be the right landing spot. Phoenix could offer 4th overall pick and Eric Bledsoe (plus cap filler in the form of Brandon Knight), but that is a best-case scenario that most likely wouldn’t happen. A more likely trade would involve Sacramento swinging for relevancy and offering one of their two lottery picks + cap filler (Rudy Gay (!) and Kosta Koufos would work).
If the Raptors renounced all of its free agents, the team would be left with a little over $20 million in cap space, which is enough to take a flier on a potential role player with upside. Maybe Masai Ujiri can overpay for an RFA to lure him to Toronto, but the key word there is overpay. Only one year after re-signing a star on a slight discount who – for the first time in the franchise’s history – chose to stay in Toronto on his first unrestricted dip into free agency, Toronto would be overpaying for guys with potential high upsides. In this scenario, 20 million might be able to afford one of Otto Porto Jr., Nerlens Noel, Kentavious Caldewell-Pope, or Tim Hardaway Jr. One those players might fit the tanking timeline and allow the team to lose for a few years while becoming a core player in a championship squad down the line. Then again, in a market in which Timofey Mozgov makes 16 million a year, would 20 million really steal away any of those players from their respective teams?
PG: Eric Bledsoe, Delon Wright
SG: Norman Powell
SF: Otto Porto Jr.
PF: Jonathan Isaac, Pascal Siakam
C: Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
This team would also be buoyed by their high picks in the 2018 and 2019 drafts (a result of tanking). This is a dream scenario; let’s also give the Raps Luka Doncic or Canadian-born RJ Barrett! Is that a championship team?
This is total fantasy (hey, it’s pre-draft offseason for me, I have nothing better to do…), but I don’t think that is the depth chart of a league powerhouse. At best, it has the same ceiling of the 2015-6 Raps: Eastern Conference Finals. Guys like Antetokounmpo and Markelle Fultz will rule the East in the future. No matter how the Raptors build their team, Boston will have more assets going into the 2020s. The Raps even reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in the future assumes high-end development for guys like Bledsoe, Isaac, and Doncic. But not everything will break right. Now let’s look at the flip-side.
The Darkest Timeline
The Raps trade DeRozan for the 10th pick and filler with Sacramento (more realistic than 4th and Bledsoe with Phoenix). Maybe Malik Monk is still available at 10. Washington matches the Raps’ offer for Porter Jr., but Toronto can pull a guy like Hardaway Jr. off the market for 20 million (again, more realistic). Finally, even if the Raps tank in 2017-8, they will most likely fail to haul in the #1 pick; they could achieve at most a 25% chance. The odds are unlikely that they would draft a franchise player. In this scenario, the shiniest prospect the Raptors would draft or sign could be Malik Monk. Could the next generation’s Eric Gordon (maaaybe CJ McCollum) lead the Raptors to the promised land?
Furthermore, by trading DeRozan, the Raps would throw away any momentum the team has gained since it failed to re-sign Vince Carter. In 2004, Alonzo Mourning refused to play for the Raptors after being traded to Toronto. Trading DeRozan would move the team closer to those days of disrespect from American-born NBA players. The darkest timeline would see the Raptors engaged in an extended, Tantalus-style rebuild, during which the glimmering championship mirage would continually slide a few years out of reach. Picture the corniest sign outside of your local bar: Free Beer Tomorrow. Coincidentally, this would be the most likely result of a Raptors rebuild.
Do you remember the Chris Bosh years? I do, and they were sad. They were sad, in part, because the team had a star surrounded by garbage. The Raps were never good enough with Bosh to win a playoff series. Charlie Villanueva + Mike James + Joey Graham = bad memories. The blockbuster additions to the team were always busts, including Jermaine O’Neal, Shawn Marion, and Hedo Turkoglu. I wanted my favourite sports team to win, and the rare game in which they prevailed was a treat. I didn’t want another high draft pick (Primo, Pasta, and Sauce…), but just a winning season. The Raptors are finally giving me good memories. The last thing I would have expected was that when the salad days finally came, the team would consider plunging back into the salad-less dark ages. Stay the course. Enjoy winning. Avoid the darkest timeline.