If Masai Ujiri is truly hell-bent on bottoming out this season to ensure the Toronto Raptors receive a shot at the top pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the last two games were perfect.
Not perfect in the sense that they were two big losses that helped the club continue to march towards the league's bottom, but perfect in that they provided first-hand examples of why this team as presently composed, is still too talented to be expected to dwell amongst the Utah's and Sacramento's of the league when all is said and done.
Sure, the Toronto Raptors lost to the Charlotte Bobcats in the first of the two games I'm using as evidence, but not without shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly during the final minutes. That was a game Toronto should have won and in most cases against the bulk of East foes, I believe it would have been a W.
And last night versus the Dallas Mavericks, it was the opposite story where the Dinos got behind big early, but staged a furious comeback and eventually got the win in the overtime session. Dallas is not Charlotte, they are a legitimately good club, not simply a product of their divisional foes.
And therein lies what we'll call the "tanking problem" for Ujiri; his club is good enough that they'll snatch the occasional win from solid clubs like Dallas, and the division and conference his club resides in is poor enough that they'll get their fare share of wins there too, nearly by default.
That's not a productive "tanking" combination.
Last night DeMar DeRozan hit only 6 of 18 shots but had an excellent all-around game filling the stat sheet with 9 assists and 7 rebounds, and Kyle Lowry (20 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds), Jonas Valanciunas (18 points, 13 rebounds) and Amir Johnson (15 points, team-high +11 on the night) also played big parts in the win. Lowry in particular set the tone for the game and it's pretty clear that if the club wants to bottom out, he probably needs to go. It's unfortunate as Lowry, post Rudy Gay trade, is looking almost exactly like the player Bryan Colangelo likely thought he was acquiring when he dealt a lottery pick for the former Villanova guard's services. But as the Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstat noted last night, Lowry has essentially been an "anti-tank missile."
It's more than Lowry though. Many of the new pieces like Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson have been net pluses to the point that they've supplanted guys like Landry Fields, Steve Novak and Tyler Hansbrough in the rotation.
And as many feared, another newcomer, John Salmons, is suddenly playing 30 minutes a game for the Raps. He had only 5 points, 3 rebounds, an assist and a steal in 32 minutes last night but it's obvious head coach Dwane Casey values his defence and veteran experience. We all joke about Salmons errant shooting stroke (he's hit only 9 of his 25 shots as a Toronto Raptor) but he did hit a few biggies last night and played some solid D on the likes of Monta Ellis. He also played all the crunch time minutes for Casey and I'd hazard a guess that we'll continue to see this pattern for the remainder of the season.
Which brings me to my main point this morning.
Watching the team fight and claw back into the game last night, and watching coach Casey do an excellent job (yes, you read that right) of optimizing his rotations to adjust to what the Mavericks were doing, it made me wonder if the next step in the tank might have to be to remove none other than Casey. As SB Nation's Jonathan Tjarks correctly pointed out to me last night on Twitter, it's hard to fault Casey for "Salmons over Ross" type decisions when they are leading to wins, something that's probably pretty important for a coach in the final year of his contract. Masai Ujiri can direct his bench bosses to pick "future development over immediate W's" all he wants, but as our Braedon Clark tweeted during the game, Casey is always going to pick outcome over process.
We've seen first-hand proof of it in the past in fact. Despite a team pretty much devoid of talent, Casey had the 2011-12 version of the Toronto Raptors overachieve, which resulted in a worse-than-predicted draft spot that season, culminating in the selection of Terrence Ross instead of players like Damian Lillard and Harrison Barnes. We may jest at Casey's clock management and personnel decisions at times, but his club always competes and if Ujiri truly wants this club to avoid the dreaded "middle," it's Casey who might have to be the next domino to fall. A new coach with a mandate to play the kids and optimize trade value - Landry Fields is never going to look good considering his contract but playing Salmons over him isn't helping - may be the way to go here.
Because from what we've seen the past two games, this club right now is headed again for that NBA middle ground, the exact spot Ujiri and MLSE said they would assure to avoid.