With the pain of watching Pascal Siakam double dribble on the Toronto Raptors’ final offensive possession of a close game against the New York Knicks, it may be a consolation to dream of a high draft pick. The idea of tanking has become a popular means of coping with this lost Toronto season: there will be a karmic reward at the end of the season from hell. Unfortunately, like the season itself, that idea is a sham.
There is only one situation in which NBA teams can intentionally lose basketball games. They can do it with only young and unproven players on the roster plus a few in-the-know vets whose job it is to make sure those youngsters stay on the relative straight and narrow off the court. Such teams’ focuses can become discrete, allowing players to emphasize individual improvement in growing their games in new ways, which conveniently results in the growing pains of lost games. Rookies can learn the ins and outs of the NBA without the pressure of chasing the playoffs. Tanking can works for rookies (and their agents) in other ways, too. Rookies don’t earn future contracts based on winning or losing games; they earn them based on the amorphous and ill-conceived concept of potential. You can show plenty of potential when you’re losing games — just ask Tyreke Evans. That doesn’t work with older, established vets who know the league inside and out and whose future contracts are based on contribution to wins or losses. JaVale McGee keeps getting paid because he keeps playing vet roles on winning teams. Tanking works when your best players are on their rookie contracts, and in no other situation. It is possible, also, if your real best players aren’t on the court. Think the David Robinson Spurs that year they found Tim Duncan or last year’s Golden State Warriors with Steph Curry (and Klay Thompson) out for practically the full season.
But the Raptors can’t hang onto a six-time All-Star in Kyle Lowry at the trade deadline and then ask him to lose basketball games. They can’t tank with four established vets, none of whom have an injury that can feasibly keep them out for the remainder of the season. First and foremost, teams can’t ask such players to lose on purpose. They don’t ever ask players to lose on purpose. Perhaps management can ask a player to sit for a stretch of games. But asking an established starter in the early days of a huge contract, as in the case of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam, to sit games when healthy is not a simple conversation. Players and their agents can take that kind of thing the wrong way. Legacies are at stake.
Let’s say that the Raptors can convince its stars to sit out for the rest of the season. The Raptors would play Malachi Flynn 38 minutes a game at point guard, and the cards would land where they may. What, though, would be the likeliest destination to such a path?
Currently, there are six teams with worse records than the Raptors. Their collective rosters are so void of healthy talent that they could probably pool their rosters and still lose to the full-strength Raptors. Even if the Raptors manage to convince their stars to sit the rest of the season, in order to have the best chance at a high draft pick they would still have to lose more games going forward than teams whose best players are Jae’Sean Tate or Terrence Ross. And it’s not just the teams currently worse than the Raptors. The Oklahoma City Thunder are ahead of the Raptors in the standings but doing their best to fall further. The Raptors losing more games than such teams would be an improbable feat. Gary Trent Jr. has emerged as a core piece for Toronto, and he’s an upcoming free agent hitting everything he throws up at the rim. The Raptors are too good, too competitive, to lose more games than the worst teams in the league. Even if they politely ask their stars not to dress. Flynn and Trent are a legitimately good two-way backcourt, both of whom are on hot streaks; the Raptors are already winning some games without some of VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Anunoby, and Siakam on the court from night to night, and that should continue now that the team has a real center rotation. The Raptors could never win a race to the bottom.
In all statistical likelihood, Toronto intentionally playing its lesser players for more minutes would lead to something like the fifth pick in the draft rather than the eighth. Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley are not within reach for the Raptors without huge fortune in the draft — the type of fortune that is basically as accessible no matter what choices the Raptors make over the rest of the season. At best, losing games on purpose would give Toronto a few meager percentage points — 10.5 percent odds at the first overall pick for the fifth-worst team versus 6.0 percent chance for the eight-worst team — in the draft odds. That’s not a good bet. Not when the cost involves jeopardizing relationships with the team’s foundational stars.
The hypothetical of Toronto sitting its stars is not going to happen. Established teams don’t tank. Championship vets and coaches don’t tank. It may mathematically be the right choice for improving the roster in the long term, but it’s realistically impossible. There’s more to basketball than math, and there’s more to fandom than maximizing championship odds.
There are humans involved here. Losing has taken a massive toll on the collective Raptors, with VanVleet at times telling media he’s worried about the mental health of his teammates and saying he could describe how he feels, but why even bother. Acquiescing to losing is not something that players like VanVleet take well to. Right now, the focus needs to be surviving Tampa with the team’s collective psyche as undamaged as possible, and threatening the long-term relationship between the front office and the stars certainly would decidedly not accomplish that goal.
That doesn’t mean Toronto should jeopardize the health of its players. VanVleet currently has a hip injury that’s clear in the MRI yet continues to hold him out of games. The team should not rush him back until he’s fully healthy. The team held Siakam and then Anunoby out of consecutive games for rest, as they’ve played massive minutes since returning from health and safety protocols. Nothing is binary. There’s a balance to this, and Toronto can try to make the play-in game without pushing its players with nagging injuries. The Raptors can give their young players extra run, but it doesn’t help that their youngest core players in Flynn, Trent Jr., and Anunoby are all players who win games rather than lose them. Similarly, if the Raptors come up short in the chase for the play-in game because of VanVleet’s hip, so be it. Toronto can put a finger on the scales in the quiet moments between games. A variety of teams do that towards the end of the season.
That’s not what tanking is, though. So cheer for losses if that’s what you need to survive this season as a fan. Not to be too self-serious, but there’s a toll here for all of us, not just the players. Do what you have to do. But the team itself can’t and won’t tank. Don’t expect the Raptors to sit their stars, and don’t expect them to end up with the worst record in the league. Masai Ujiri isn’t Sam Hinkie, and Kyle Lowry isn’t Michael Carter-Williams. Adjust your expectations accordingly.