“I, admittedly, tried tanking.”

That was Bryan Colangelo on Friday at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

Quelle surprise, I know. It was fairly obvious then, but it warrants examination because it’s kind of a slap to the face of the fan base. It’s no secret I’m generally anti-tanking, and while I understand the other side of the argument, it still drives me nuts.

What’s worse is that in the 2011-12 season, I was a season ticket holder. I paid good money to see more games than the product warranted, and while season tickets bring a lot of benefits, one is the promise of “first dibs” on playoff tickets. Even if it’s just a round, that’s not nothing when a group of five bros is deciding how many seats to split and who wants how many games.

Now obviously Colangelo wouldn’t be so brash as to throw Dwane Casey, his coach at the time, under the bus. That was nice, at least, but he explained what we pretty much all knew was going on:

“I didn’t come out and say Coach, you’ve got to lose games. I never said that. I wanted to establish a winning tradition and a culture and all of that. But I wanted to do it in the framework of playing the young players, and with that comes losing. There’s just no way to avoid that.”

The basketball gods did not smile on Colangelo that season. It’s hard to say it was karmic punishment given the aggressive tank-job the Golden State Warriors undertook to keep a hold of their pick, which was only top-seven protected, but maybe he had some bad karma built up.

In any case, the final game of the season was The Ben Uzoh Triple-Double Game, where Uzoh played 46 minutes and had 12 points with 11 rebounds and 12 assists, leading the Raptors to a 98-67 victory over the New Jersey Nets, pushing the Raptors record one game ahead of the Nets.

How bad did each team want to lose? Consider the minutes played in this one:

Raptors MIN Nets MIN
Ben Uzoh 46 Jordan Williams 39
Alan Anderson 45 Johan Petro 39
Ed Davis 43 Armon Johnson 34
Gary Forbes 41 MarShon Brooks 31
Solomon Alabi 40 Anthony Morrow 29
James Johnson 19 Gerald Green 25
Jamaal Magloire 5 Sundiata Gaines 23
DeShawn Stevenson 20

Again, I paid money to watch this game. And Solomon Alabi played 40 minutes and then never played in the NBA again. Money better spent on liquor, to be sure.

So the Raptors won, finishing 23-43 and in a tie for seventh-last in the NBA with the Warriors. A lost coin flip later and the Raptors selected Terrence Ross instead of Harrison Barnes, who they reportedly would have taken seventh.

The bigger opportunity cost, however, is that losing that game to the Nets would have had them at 22-44, in a tie for the fifth-worst record in the league with Sacramento. The target was Damian Lillard, who would be drafted sixth overall by Portland with New Jersey’s pick.

Again: lose that game and this team has Lillard instead of Ross. Play your own game of The Butterfly Effect from there and see where the roster would be, but it wouldn’t include Kyle Lowry, it may never have included Rudy Gay and it could still have Bryan Colangelo shaping it.

Tanking didn’t pay off for Colangelo, but it very nearly did.

And the team did “develop” young players, as DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis and Amir Johnson were top-five on the team in minutes played. They trialed Uzoh, Gary Forbes and Justin Dentmon, too. Nothing really stuck – Johnson was good, anyway, Davis was flipped, and DeRozan’s development actually seemed to take a step back that he didn’t fully recover from until this season.

What’s frustrating in retrospect (and at the time), is that in 2011-12, Colangelo basically decided “we don’t have enough to compete.” Then he decided to go all-in, dealing a first round pick for Kyle Lowry and swinging for the fences with Rudy Gay. If he was rebuilding, he had the core of DeRozan, Davis and Johnson developing, joined by Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. Instead, he pulled the trigger on win-now moves to save his job. It’s hard to fault him as an individual actor trying to save his job, but it’s incredibly easy to fault him for doing a piss-poor job understanding where his team stood at various points in time (a Colangelo-Raptors staple).

Anyway, I know that quote floated around over the weekend but I felt the need to vent further because I spent money and drove to Toronto to see Solomon Alabi play 40 minutes and Ben Uzoh take 19 shots. I suppose Colangelo got his just desserts or whatever, but that probably doesn’t make the fanbase feel any better.

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