The Raptors probably want to be bad next year, too

On an improving league, and Toronto finding its own place.

The Boston Celtics are, in many ways, redefining success in the NBA. They have been head and shoulders above every team they’ve faced. Some of that is due to injury luck, of course. But most of it is simple talent. The Celtics were a historic regular-season NBA team, with the fifth-best margin of victory of any team in league history. And they’ve done just about the same in the playoffs so far, with the ninth-best margin of victory in league history. That’s what happens when your fifth-best player (sixth? Fourth?) was the second-best on a championship team in 2020-21. There is so much talent, so much skill and shooting and defense, on the Celtics that they are redefining Superteams.

Screw the Big Three. Now it’s the Big Six. And Sam Hauser.

All this to say: The NBA continues accelerating into a Brave(r) New League. Teams are not just getting better every year, they’re doing it fast. Giannis Antetokounmpo continues redefining his own greatness, and now he has Damian Lillard beside him. Nikola Jokic is one of the best and most unique players in history, and he’s not going away. Victor Wembanyama is going to be the best player in history (probably), and soon. And the Celtics. My goodness the Celtics. The Toronto Raptors could see every player on the roster get better next year and still not be a championship contender. The league is good, and getting better, and if you aren’t getting way better year over year, you’re getting worse.

Which puts teams like the Raptors in a tough spot. They are young and improving, certainly. But simple improvement isn’t enough.

Toronto needs: more shooting, more initiation, more driving, more finishing in the paint, more point-of-attack defense, more rim protection, and more isolation defense. So … a star. A superstar. A megastar. Jayson Tatum would fit the bill. Wembanyama. Players of that nature. Simply recreating those skills in the aggregate won’t allow Toronto to compete with teams that are getting better and better, year over year. That was one of the defining lessons of the end of the Nick Nurse era. (That and relearning Goodhart’s Law.)

There are three ways to acquire a star. Three ways to acquire any player, really. You can trade for him. (Kawhi Leonard!) You can sign him. (DeMarre Car — err.) And you can draft him. When the Raptors traded for Leonard, they were coming off the best season in franchise history. They were ready for another star and had the depth to lose DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl and still have the institutional memory to support a new contributor. These Raptors need every contributor they have, and more. Were they to trade for an unhappy star (Trae Young?), the outgoing assets would likely be too significant a loss for the Raptors to be a contender. Signing is, unfortunately, out of the question. Which means Toronto almost has to draft its new star. This is nothing new.

And this is why the Raptors sadly ought to have another losing season in 2024-25. They likely will in any case, simply because the team doesn’t have the top-end talent to compete for a strong playoff seed. But in all likelihood, given truth serum, Toronto’s brass would probably be happy about that.

The Raptors just lost this year’s draft pick to the San Antonio Spurs, and there are many fans and analysts who are happy about that fact. This year’s draft lacks surefire stars, while next year’s draft seems to be full of them. If Toronto can manage a high pick next year, perhaps Dylan Harper or VJ Edgecombe or another youngster dripping in talent is available. That’s likely a better outcome than whomever the Spurs pick this year select with Toronto’s pick. It’s even less likely that the Raptors find a draft at 19 or 31 this year.

It is possible Toronto is too good next year to earn a high draft pick. The core four had a positive net rating last year, and Gradey Dick is coming on strong. But the defense might be bad enough to sink the Raptors. If it’s not, that would be a great thing! Next year’s Raptors in that case might push for a .500 record, or just below it. Given improvement to Immanuel Quickley’s game in particular, and the maintenance of Scottie Barnes and RJ Barrett’s leaps, the Raptors could inch forward and forward year over year until they are ready to trade for a star and keep enough infrastructure to compete. That’s possible, but it’s a lot of ifs.

It would be easier for Toronto to simply strike gold in next year’s draft. Certainly not guaranteed to even have a high draft pick, let alone nail it, but a much easier path forward than incremental improvement in a league that is improving dramatically.

So what does that mean for next year? Expect the Raptors to give plenty of minutes to youngsters who may not get that time on contending teams. Perhaps Dick starts to juice the offense (and bleeding points on the other end, given the star conundrum, would be a feature, not a bug). Maybe Toronto even gives a boatload of minutes to whomever it selects at 19. Maybe losing lineups just so happen to keep playing their minutes, game after game. Perhaps small injuries to players like Poeltl or Barnes, the nicks and bumps that always happen, result in a few weeks missed here and there. Maybe Quickley is force-fed pick-and-roll possessions even though he was not particularly successful there last year. Maybe he and Barnes actually develop chemistry together, and the team doesn’t mind the muddy possessions thrown down the drain in pursuit of that goal.

I doubt Toronto actively tanks the season. Not with a roster so young and in need of in-game development. But don’t expect Toronto to take a huge leap forward in 2024-25. The playoffs are exciting, and it’s always fun to dream of your own team playing those high-leverage and high-intensity moments. It happened recently in Toronto, I know. But don’t expect the Raptors to rush things to get back there anytime soon. Toronto still needs so much on the roster to ensure success when that time finally comes. And the best way to acquire those skills is to have (at least) one more year of losing.