Fans Must Imagine the Raptors Happy

When competing is the only viable alternative to basketball suicide (tanking).

When you google ‘Myth of Sisyphus,’ the Goodreads synopsis states, “There is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.”

Assuming the Raptors plan on competing, the next 22 games will be a case study in how a team gets their players to buy-in. To build on last week’s analogy, if the Raptors are a poor family, they weren’t letting their circumstances impact their self-perception. They kept competing as if they belonged on a rung they weren’t yet on, but it’s eldest son – the type that’ll walk the rest of its siblings to the bus stop, the type who’s a de facto parent – just got really sick. So who pushes the boulder up the hill load now? IQ? Barrett?

While basketball suicide – tanking – is an option, the Raptors should still compete as if they’re gunning for a play-in spot or Maker pizza, even if it means the basketball just tumbles down back into the dirt puddle where it was found. Competing, or going down swinging, makes sense from a purely developmental perspective. Developing the current group of players through 22 games probably outweighs the benefits of acquiring a top-six protected pick in a weak draft class (Es agreed on the podcast too).

Which begs the question, ‘Who, then, is part of the future?’ Barrett, Quickley, and Dick likely are. Maybe Poeltl, probably not Brown. And a team that fired Nurse to hire Rajakovic will likely keep the Serbian rookie head coach on. Rajakovic didn’t inherit much of a roster, but for someone who’s known for possessing inat, it would be uncharacteristic, un-Siberian to pack it in now. Though he was talking about the Serbs, Rajakovic’s burning desire “to prove everybody wrong, that we are going to overcome this and even when don’t have all of our players available, we’re still going to compete and do our best” should be equally applicable now.

Now that the Raptors’ primary initiator is gone, whether Barrett initiates inverted pick-and-rolls remains to be seen. What would that look like with Quickley screening? And will we see more Barrett-Olynyk pick-and-pops as they executed against Indiana – perhaps previews of what’s to come in Paris? 

Proper execution of the above also depends on Gradey Dick’s three-point shooting, as well as GTJ, Olynyk, Carton, Agbaji, or Nwora’s. Trent didn’t shoot well against Golden State, and he’s been shooting 31% behind the arc since the ASB, but he did shoot 38% in February and 50% in January. Agbaji is 6-for-20 (30%) behind the arc as a Raptor; Nwora, 36% on less than two attempts per game.

Unless you’re the Sixers, tanking is also harder to justify when you’re playing in front of your fanbase, and aren’t away from them for an entire season in Tampa Bay. There’s still 11 games left at Scotiabank Arena, and there’s hope for a .500 record in their four-game road trip against Phoenix, Portland, Denver, and Detroit. That comes before their four home-game stretch, playing against Brooklyn, New York, Philly, and Los Angeles. In the remaining 22 games, seven of them are very winnable against Charlotte, Portland, Detroit, Washington (2x), Brooklyn (2x).

There’s not one player or coach who enjoys the job security Scottie has. This team is full of players who need to prove themselves. Dick continues to ascend, JFL’s two-way got converted into a regular contract, DJ Carton got a two-way, Porter looks to come back into the roster as a third big, and Markquis Nowell is still waiting patiently to step back onto an NBA court. There’s also one more job opening.

Players maybe motivated to continue competing for contractual reasons or their national team obligations – or simply as competitors – but it’s harder for fans to justify watching a full game unfold on their screens, especially if they’re no longer objectively good. That’s why we turn to fantasy basketball, writing quick reactions (like myself), or betting on games to hedge against the inherent meaninglessness of it all.

For bettors turning to FanDuel to add more meaning to their fandom, I’ll state the obvious: expect more overall from Quickley, but not Barrett as he deals with knee issues. For the latter, expect the team to exercise prudence as his long-term health matters more than going balls-to-the-wall now. Scottie Barnes did not meet my baseline expectation of 15+ points and 1+ made 3s in all three games this past week – 21 points in a triple-double stat line but no made 3s vs. Indiana, 19 points but no 3s vs. Dallas, and 10 points and two made 3s vs. Golden State before an early exit.

But my recommendation for RJ Barrett and IQ came to fruition. RJ exceeded 15+ points in all three games (24, 26 and 23 points), and IQ made three, five, and three 3s against Indiana, Dallas, and Golden State.

For those betting on the team, based on their past two performances against Dallas and Golden State, focus on them winning a game within the game. Bet on an outcome for a quarter or the first half, rather than the entire game.

To echo Louis’ optimism, “2023-24 may be full of losing, but it is not lost.” The boulder may seem to have come crashing down after Scottie’s hand fracture, but there were many positives to keep building on. Barrett has exceeded – and continues to exceed – all expectations. Quickley is becoming an elite guard before our very eyes. Dick has emerged into a solid rookie. Poeltl and Olynyk are two dependable bigs.

And Rajakovic remains upbeat – let’s see if he can keep convincing his players to strive for another Maker pizza, to push the boulder up once again, as if it’s still attainable.