Some Thoughts on the Raptors, Tanking, and Mediocrity

Julian Finney

Yesterday we took a look at the perils of mediocrity here at the HQ. Today, the newest member of the HQ team, Zach Salzmann, flips the coin and wonders if sneaking into the playoffs, isn't so bad after all...

If we can project one thing about next season with certainty it's that there are going to be some really bad teams in the NBA. As well as the usual suspects of ineptitude-the Bobcats (even with Big Al) and Kings-you can add the Celtics, Magic, Jazz, Suns, Sixers, and Lakers (if they're smart) into the mix of general awfulness.

Of course, every NBA season features its fair share of teams that are going to lose a lot of games, but in 2013/14, mostly because the 2014 draft is projected to be the most stacked since 2003, there appears to be more teams than usual content to gut their core, let expensive free-agents walk, and retool with a high draft pick in the summer.

As Braedon Clark recently pointed out, however, the Raptors, as currently constructed, won't be one of those rebuilding/tanking teams. They won't be a good team either-again, as currently constructed, their ceiling might be 35 or so wins, and potentially not bad enough to end up in the draft lottery. Whatever your opinion is on Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan, in that duo the Raptors possess enough scoring in a weak Eastern Conference to fight for the seventh or eighth seed.

For many people, fans and executives alike, the thought of their team being stuck in basketball no-man's land - not good enough to seriously challenge for a title, or even get out of the first round of the playoffs - and not bad enough to improve through the draft, is extremely frustrating. In theory you'd much rather be the Bobcats - acquiring high drafts picks and with tons of cap room-than the consistently mediocre Milwaukee Bucks. (Well, maybe you don't quite want to be the Bobcats, but you get the point).

This viewpoint makes a lot sense. I'm very partial to the idea of avoiding mediocrity, particularly when it comes to teams like the Celtics and Lakers-teams that have had success in the past, are big, secure players in their respective markets, and to whom finishing eighth and getting swept by the first seed is an exercise in futility.

But what about a team like the Raptors, a team that has only made the playoffs 5 times in 19 seasons, the last time being the 2007-08 season? If, for example, the Lakers decide to gut their team and miss the playoffs for a couple seasons, their fans (if the plan is articulated clearly) probably won't mind too much. But for the Raptors, is another two or three seasons of not making the post-season something that everyone's completely cool with? That question isn't rhetorical. I'm genuinely asking.

On a recent CBS Eye on Basketball podcast Zach Harper, a long-suffering Timberwolves fan, said that he'd be happy if his team just scraped into the playoffs next season. He was just plain of sick tanking and following the draft lottery standings every year. Being able to cheer for his team during relevant games in April, and in the playoffs - however fleeting that experience turned out to be - would be satisfactory for Harper.

Granted, from the perspective of the Raptors' long-term strategy, which should be to win a championship (if it isn't, then why bother with this basketball stuff?) just scraping into the playoffs isn't the best thing. But there are other things to consider here. The Raptors don't dominate the sporting landscape of Toronto - everyone knows that - and it's rare that they capture the imagination of a hockey-obsessed populace.

While it's easy to sell a rebuild/tank to the hardcore, basketball-obsessed fans that will stay loyal no matter what, it's a lot harder to attract the attention of the casual fan during a rebuild: a casual fan that may go to a Raptors game, or buy merchandise when the team is competitive. That exposure and those fans are important too.

Related to this is, of course, the financial bottom line. In sports there will always be clashes between ownership and management given the financial consequences at stake when a team doesn't make the post-season. Even for teams that are swept in the first round, particularly small-market teams, those two home playoff games are immensely valuable. Bucks owner Herb Kohl, to the frustration of many, is adamant that his team should at least try to scrape into the playoffs every year. General Managers may prefer to pass on those potential first-round drubbings, but they aren't the ones cutting the cheques.

Even though their current status as a playoff bubble team isn't ideal, tanking is a dangerous game for the Raptors. As we found out in 2006, having a high draft pick is no guarantee of success, and losing year after year can breed a fan base that moves from angry, to cynical, to the extremely dangerous, franchise-killing emotion of indifference.

Sure, I'd love to see the Raptors try to snare Andrew Wiggins and slowly build a contender-I realize that, technically, it's the sensible way to go about things. But I also know that I'm sick of not seeing playoff basketball at the ACC, and sick of watching meaningless games in March and April. And even knowing what we all know about teams that fight for the 8th seed year after year, when the Raptors are gearing up for that Game 3 in Toronto against an Eastern Conference powerhouse, everything else will fade into the background-at least for a couple of hours.

Scraping into the playoffs may be the sporting equivalent of reckless, instant gratification, but it isn't without its benefits.

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