NEW YORK – The best team in the NBA’s Atlantic Division has a losing record and a winning stride, a coach who is hell-bent on making the playoffs and a general manager determined to blow it all up.
The Toronto Raptors are simultaneously winning and losing, contending and tanking, conflicted by the present, day-dreaming about their future. They are a bundle of contradictions, the dizziest team in the NBA, presiding over the league’s most feeble division.
The Raptors, who have won six of their last nine games (Matt52: now seven of ten), are still trying to sort out their goals.
They opened the season as a dark horse playoff contender, with just enough talent to be intriguing. Then they lost 12 of their first 18 games, and the intrigue suddenly shifted to the front office.
But the Gay deal, according to front-office sources, also signaled a shift in philosophy. The Raptors had been on the fence about tanking—i.e., losing for the sake of getting a higher pick in the 2014 draft—but the poor start pushed them over the edge.
Every player on the Raptors’ roster—including leading scorer guard DeMar DeRozan and possibly even Jonas Valanciunas, the highly promising young center—could be available in a trade, according to those same front-office sources.
“We don’t know what they’re going to do,” DeRozan said, before asking a reporter, “You know something I don’t know?”
Point guard Kyle Lowry was nearly dealt to New York two weeks ago. But Knicks owner James L. Dolan, in a rare show of restraint, vetoed the trade rather than send Toronto another first-round draft pick. (The Knicks previously surrendered a first-rounder in the Bargnani deal – a decision that flew in the face of rational thought, since Toronto was desperate to unload Bargnani.)
This is not entirely true, of course. Team executives dictate a franchise’s agenda, but players and coaches dictate wins and losses, and most of them prefer the joy of the occasional victory.
In Casey’s case, that preference borders on defiance, if not insubordination.
“I’m not even going to talk about tanking,” Casey said, cutting off a reporter’s question about the draft. “I’m not going to answer that question. The goal is to win, period.”
Nor did Casey care to ponder where his players might land in the next month or two.
“I tell our staff all the time: We got to coach these guys like they're going to be here for five years
,” he said. “Whatever happens from a front office standpoint, we have to do our job, be professional and work with the players and coach and teach.”
If trading Gay was intended as a first step toward tanking, it has backfired spectacularly.
The Raptors have gone 6-3 (Matt52: now 7-3) without Gay, with five wins on the road, including victories over Chicago, Dallas and Oklahoma City. They get another shot at the lifeless Knicks on Saturday, in Toronto.
Over the last nine games, the Raptors have posted an offensive rating of 104.5 (a 3-point improvement) and a defensive rating of 100.5 (a 1.2-point improvement). Gay’s departure most certainly helped.
Even Raptors fans are divided,
some enjoying the team’s sudden resurgence and others bemoaning it, preferring short-term pain for the chance to get an elite talent, perhaps the Canadian-born Andrew Wiggins, next June.
Another conundrum: Winning enhances every player’s value for an eventual trade, but the more the Raptors win, the worse it looks to break up the roster, the more transparent the agenda becomes.
Adjusting to the idea of a division winner with a losing record is something else entirely.
“I mean, you’re just happy to be on top, man,” DeRozan said.
The dizziest, most conflicted team in the NBA can at least take solace in that.