To Tank or Not To Tank: Raptors Jump Into NBA Free Agency With Major Decision to Make

USA TODAY Sports

Thursday's draft proved that some teams in the NBA want to win. It also proved that a lot of teams would rather lose. As the HQ's Braedon Clark notes, post Andrea Bargnani trade, we may find out which direction the Toronto Raptors intend to go.

The 2013 NBA Draft is behind us, and what a wild one it was. Anthony Bennett was the surprising first choice and there were so many twists and turns that Philly trading their 23-year-old All-Star point guard was but a footnote on the night.

More than in past years, though, this draft offered a fascinating look into a league that will be more divided than ever next season. That division will exist between teams serious about contending and those that want to lose as many games as possible. From the moment the Philly - New Orleans trade was announced, it was clear that the Tank for Wiggins campaign was in full swing. Boston jumped in with both feet by agreeing to trade Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to Brooklyn in exchange for the depressing Gerald Wallace, Kim Kardashian's ex-husband, Keith Bogans, Marshon Brooks, Kris Joseph and draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. With Rajon Rondo probably out for at least half the season, the Celtics will compete with the Sixers for the "most blatant tanking" award next season. They won't be alone, though; Charlotte, Phoenix, Orlando, Milwaukee and even Atlanta could join the party. That's half of the Eastern Conference, and credible arguments can be made that Cleveland, Detroit, Sacramento and possibly the Dwight-less Lakers will turn to tanking if their seasons start poorly.

What about our beloved Raptors? Well, unlike almost every other team in the league, the Raps don't fit neatly into either the "win-now" or "tank-now" camps. Thanks to Bryan Colangelo, the team is nowhere close to contending but not bad enough to realistically be one of the five or six worst teams next season. As Yahoo! Sports' Kelly Dwyer recently noted, that is a problem - a big, messy, difficult problem. It may not be possible, but Masai Ujiri has to do everything in his power to shed the poisonous contracts and middling players that litter this roster and join the parade of teams circling Andrew Wiggins like hungry vultures.

There are many who detest tanking. It represents the opposite of competitiveness and, in many cases, leads to nothing. There could be as many as 10 or 11 teams openly tanking by next April, leaving the Raptors with very little chance of snagging the top spot and a glorious reunion with Wiggins. It might be more sensible to take an incremental approach, making moves in free agency and via trade, than blowing it all up and placing your hopes in the randomness of the lottery.

There is a problem with that approach - it's a tough way to land a star player, the most surefire way to relevancy in the NBA. Since 1949-50, only three teams have won the championship without having a player on any of the All-NBA teams for that season: the 1989 Pistons, 1979 Sonics and 1978 Bullets. "Superstars win championships" is as close to an absolute law in the NBA as there is. With that in mind, consider that there are three ways to acquire a superstar:

1) via trade, 2) through free agency, or 3) in the draft. Of those three options, the first two are problematic for the Raptors. Superstar players are rarely traded and, when they are, they don't request trades to Toronto. The team's most significant free agent signing in its history is Hedo Turkoglu, a player whose tenure is best remembered by this. Or this. We're not covering ourselves in glory here. And while there are some big names at the top of this year's Free Agent class, it's hard to imagine any considering the Dinos, and that's without taking the team's salary cap situation into account.

That leaves the draft as the best option for acquiring a franchise player, the key to relevancy in the NBA.

There's another reason why I, for one, think tanking next season is not as big of a crapshoot as some. According to ESPN draft guru Chad Ford and almost everyone else, the 2014 draft could be one for the ages. Ford cited general managers who believe there are as many as eight potential All-Stars in next year's draft. This is not 1997, when Keith Van Horn was the consolation prize for missing out on Tim Duncan. Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon, Jabari Parker and Andrew Harrison are all special prospects that will be available once Wiggins is scooped up by whoever is so lucky to win that No. 1 pick.

If Raptors' management decides to tank next season, they won't have to hope for lightning in a bottle. So long as they are picking in the top eight, there is a good chance they could land a future All-Star. This year the Wizards were in the eight spot heading into the lottery and had an 83% chance of staying at eight or moving into the top three. While ideal, it's not essential to win next year's lottery to get a potentially great player. If the Raps finish with one of the eight worst records in the league, they have a very good chance at a second star to pair with Jonas Valanciunas. Think about it that way and it doesn't seem so far-fetched. Winning the lottery will always be a matter of luck, but the depth of next year's draft removes a great deal of the normal uncertainty.

Of course, the critical word is could. Nothing in the NBA is certain, and the Raptors could tank next season only to draft a player who turns out to be a bust. It's a calculated risk, but all decisions in the NBA must be judged on the balance of probabilities, not on some absolute right - wrong scale.

The trade of Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks (again, thanks Knicks!) looks like the first step in the rebuilding/tanking process. The Raps shed salary, acquired draft picks and the players involved (Camby, Novak, and now Quentin Richardson) will do little to help the team win next year. Masai Ujiri just executed a textbook rebuilding trade and Raps fans everywhere should be happy for it.

If Bargnani can be traded, the hope should be that anyone can be traded. However Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan don't carry the same trade appeal as Pierce or Garnett. Valanciunas is the team's only truly valuable asset, so including him to sweeten any deal is hopefully a non-starter. Landry Fields isn't going anywhere, but at least he won't help the team win. I have high hopes for Terrence Ross's future, but if he is the price for shedding long-term salary and diving into the tanking sweepstakes, so be it.

One of the great ironies of the NBA is that winning isn't always a good thing. A 17-win season can be more successful than a 33-win season, especially in years when a great draft class beckons on the horizon. That might be a system worth changing, but for now it's the one that NBA teams must operate within. Bryan Colangelo created a capped-out team with a ceiling of 40-45 wins, arguably the worst position to be in. Something has to change.

As a fan, it's also more fun to follow a team that is either great or on the way to becoming great. The Raps are neither right now; grinding out wins next season with the reward of being swept in the first or second round is, from my perspective, less exciting than watching a 24-win team that's clearly going to be special in a couple of years. Do you think Thunder fans were sad during the 2008-09 season, when the team went 23-59? They probably weren't thrilled about losing every night, but at least they got to watch Kevin Durant break out in his second season and Russell Westbrook show glimpses of greatness. The 2012-13 Bucks finished with 14 more wins than that Thunder team, and their fans were rewarded with an ass kicking at the hands of the Heat. Are Bucks fans more optimistic this off-season than Thunder fans were in the summer of 2009? In today's NBA you almost always have to bottom out before you can rise to the top.

Both Ujiri and Tim Leiweke have talked about establishing a "championship or bust" culture with the Raps. If they're serious about that, the first task should be to tear down the palace of mediocrity that their predecessor left them. It might not work, but that doesn't matter. Tanking is the option that gives the team the best chance at becoming a title contender sometime in the future. Muddling through more seasons in what Leiweke calls the dreaded "7-11 zone" is not an option.

When the team is 6-20 and in the middle of a west coast road trip in December, it might be hard to remember why all this losing was worth it - and again, it may turn out not to be. On those dark winter nights try to focus on Valanciunas and, well, probably nothing else. If that's not enough, cue up those Kansas games and start dreaming.

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