The future of the Toronto Raptors now likely rests more in the hands of DeMar DeRozan than next year's lottery pick...
With their recent win streak the HQ is forced to look at silver linings on the season outside of potentially drafting one of the NCAA's top prospects...
With their win over the Philadelphia 76ers last night, the Toronto Raptors have 20 wins on the season.
Last season, the team won only 22 games total, and had an additional 16 games with which to get those wins.
We all know the story therefore.
At face value, Raptors' fans should be excited to see improvement in the club from an overall wins perspective. A 16th ranked defence as of this AM, is also a big win compared to previous seasons, even if the club is sacrificing its offence to a certain extent to do this.
However in a season where the goal was indeed to improve, but presumably grab another high lottery pick thanks to one of the league's worst records, this all feels rather disappointing doesn't it? For once it looked like Toronto was going to get one of the NBA draft's marquee names and now...
Add in the fact that the recent wins haven't exactly been of the spectacular variety and you're left with a bit of a "punched in the stomach" feeling. Hell, even the Sixers entering last night's game had lost 11 of their last 14 matches.
Which puts us fans in a curious position.
After the match I had many "pro-tank" twitter followers send me messages noting how tough it was to keep the faith in the tank when it was indeed nice to see the club put on a dominant performance and actually show up in the W column in consistent fashion. After all, the Raps since early March are actually playing .500 basketball, and that's minus Leandro Barbosa and guys like James Johnson and Jerryd Bayless for key stretches. We as a fanbase have been starved for wins so in some ways, it's a breath of fresh air to see the club taking it to their opponents.
On the other side of the fence though we know that getting at least a shot at another top draft pick is paramount to improving this club and at the team's current pace, that seems less and less likely. As Raptorblog's Scott Carefoot put it so eloquently postgame:
This Raptors winning streak is like bingeing on junk food. It's enjoyable in the moment, but we'll probably regret it later.
Sure there are cases in NBA history where the seventh, eighth or even ninth-worst team leap-frogged the competitors to grab the top pick in the draft. The Nets were the seventh-worst club and grabbed Kenyon Martin in the 2000 NBA Draft, the Bulls grabbed Derrick Rose with the ninth-worst record in 2008, and last year it was the Clippers' first-round pick that got the Cavs' Kyrie Irving. The Clippers had the eighth-worst record so again, stranger things have happened.
But historically having the third or fifth-worst record seems to be the ticket to lottery success and really, this whole thing wasn't about simply nabbing Anthony Davis either. It's likely that by the time the Toronto Raptors are on the clock, names like Kidd-Gilchrist and Beal will be gone too.
Everyone excited for the John Henson or Tyler Zeller era?
No one likes tanking but the reality is that this again, is a Raptors' team without the cache or track record of grabbing free agents so even with the bit of cash they'll likely have to spend this off-season, overpaying a mediocre player, hoping he lives up to his contract. Trades are certainly an option but Toronto doesn't exactly have a lot of moveable pieces. Even their upside guys like Ed Davis have relatively small contracts so to make things work, Toronto is likely going to have to absorb a larger deal.
So the draft really is key in terms of this franchise's future success, and the more young star talent the club can get to grow together, the better. Right now, the club is stuck in a bit of a quandary as its top performers are on the older side (Jose Calderon, even Andrea Bargnani conceivably in terms of trade value) while its youngsters have more questions associated with their respective games, than answers.
Which brings me back to last night's game.
Andrea Bargnani, Ed Davis and DeMar DeRozan were all very good in the win over Philly. Over the past five games in fact, Bargnani's averaging 25 points on over 50 per cent shooting from the field, 42 per cent shooting from 3, and getting to the line 6 times a match hitting essentially all of those six attempts.
DeRozan's percentages aren't as good, but 20 points, four rebounds, three assists a match over that span is solid, and more importantly, he's suddenly getting to the free-throw line nearly eight times a match, a number that I think most of us expected him to hit with ease upon being drafted.
And while Ed still seems out of place on this team, something TSN.ca's Tim Chisholm recently noted in a great piece on the UNC alum, pulling in double digit rebounds on a nightly basis certainly isn't going to hurt his trade value.
With prospects like Davis and Kidd-Gilchrest looking further and further away in the rear-view mirror, as fans we have no choice but to now hope that players on the current roster take the club to the next level as that's essentially what we'll be looking at next season. Even with the addition of Jonas Valanciunas, the burden for improvement will have to fall on the Bargnani's and DeRozan's of this group and therefore it's crucial that the duo and others like Davis and even Amir Johnson, close out the year with authority. Forget tanking, if this club is going to start winning games, it might as well win out here.
Sort of tanking doesn't work.
It's like being engaged for five years.
Either the club looks to start building a winning mentality now that it's got healthy pieces back, or it pulls a Washington and sits guys out for murky reasons.
It can't be both.
I would have preferred the latter but I also understand that "tanking" is essentially something created by fans and that it's extremely unreasonable to think that Casey and his players are going to roll over at any point. Casey in particular was brought in to win games and it's hard to fault him for doing so.
So bring on the W's.
The argument against tanking has always been that losing is never good for a team's culture, regardless of long-term goals, so maybe indeed Toronto wins eight of its last 11 games and goes into next season with a lot of confidence.
Would that be enough for this club, plus a few draft picks and whatever free agent help BC can acquire, to jump into the East's playoff race?
Because right now, that's the only choice we have as fans.