Some thoughts this morning before we preview this evening's New Years' Eve match-up between the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls.
The Raptors enter the match having won seven of their last 10 games since sending Rudy Gay packing, including five straight road wins and victories against some very tough foes such as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks. A win tonight and not only does the club move to within a game of .500, but also likely puts another nail in the "tanking coffin."
Or do they.
As I watched the Dinos beat up on the Knicks over the Christmas break, I began to wonder about the whole subject of tanking and where Toronto, in light of their newfound playoff aspirations, now fit. Raptors' GM Masai Ujiri desperately wanted to avoid the "middle" and most of us took that to mean the tank would begin to roll! However the combination of an improved Raptors' squad post-Rudy, and a historically awful division/conference of foes has meant that Toronto suddenly is locked into a playoff seed, and potentially could climb as high as third overall when all is said and done.
As presently composed, this Toronto team is going to find it hard to bottom out. As one of my friends put it so eloquently, "it's hard to drive a tank through the Atlantic Division."
So perhaps Masai Ujiri now avoids the middle by heading for the high ground, the NBA playoffs, which at face value makes a lot of sense. If we believe the recent sample set of games, the club indeed looks like a playoff team (yes, in the East at least) and considering the lack of playoff appearances in this franchise's history, let alone success therein, a spot on the post-season dance card would be a sight for sore eyes for most Toronto fans. Tim Chisholm penned a great piece at Raptors Republic that discusses this in full detail so I won't go through this whole thing again. To me though, there's one solitary issue with the playoff course the Dinos are currently headed, and why I still believe shooting for the top of the draft is the team's best course of action long term:
If Kyle Lowry had three, even two, maybe even one season left on his contract, I could get behind a playoff run. As Chisholm mentions in his piece, the team's core rotation is playing extremely well, the vets like DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson are having career-best stretches, and the youngsters like Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas look to be progressing nicely. These pieces along with Lowry make up a fairly solid squad and with some offseason tinkering to shore up the bench a bit more and further development from said youngsters, that's not a bad ball club. Under this scenario the team would likely be a playoff factor in the East for at least the next year or two, something this franchise hasn't been able to claim in...maybe ever.
Now store that version in the back of your mind for a minute as we'll return to it a bit later.
The other side of the coin is a club minus Lowry with those other pieces still around. To me Lowry is still the engine that makes this thing go and minus Rudy Gay, he's showing the true value he represents for the team. Without him, I expect things would return to the Raptors in the latter years of the Brian Colangelo era, aka, not very pretty.
And the main problem I have with heading for the playoffs, is that I can't get this "not very pretty picture," out of my head. The Raptors need to re-sign Lowry to avoid this near-future ugliness and considering his recent play, that may be easier said than done, or may prove to be very expensive.
Don't get me wrong, Kyle Lowry is no slouch. He's at the very least an average NBA starting point guard and as he's shown of late, perhaps in the league's top eight or so.
But is he Chris Paul? No, but Tony Parker? Jrue Holiday?
These are some of the questions Ujiri is going to have to contemplate over the coming weeks as Lowry to me holds the key for the direction this team takes. If Ujiri believes he can re-sign Lowry and not blow up the bank, than it may make a lot of sense to stay the course and forget names like Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins. As he proved during his time in Denver, Ujiri could make smart decisions in terms of moving his current chess pieces around, and yet still add to his core via money-ballish draft selections that weren't top five picks. Drafting Kenneth Faried and trading for Ty Lawson would be examples of this so keeping the current Raptors team together and adding to it here and there -Toronto will have at least one pick in the upcoming draft, even if it's not in the lottery- certainly is an option.
In fact, if you now pull back the situation we discussed earlier and think about that club in the context of the rest of the current Eastern Conference, it may make even more sense. Even if the East's top two clubs, Indiana and Miami, seem positioned to stay where they are for the coming years, couldn't one make the argument that Toronto could stick in that next tier? The clubs that were supposed to occupy that spot - Chicago, New York, Brooklyn - look to be miles away from there now or in the next few years (depending on your views of Derrick Rose's future I suppose) and others that were supposed to be turning the corner - Cleveland, Washington - aren't exactly inspiring a ton of confidence.
Even if a few of the East's dogs like Milwaukee and Philadelphia, secure top picks in the coming draft, it's hard to see them suddenly making a leap into the East's top 5, regardless of how awful the landscape is. And forget clubs like New York and Brooklyn. With so many of their future picks earmarked for other destinations, they seem to be stuck in reverse for the next three seasons at the very least.
So I can indeed see why abandoning the tank movement has suddenly become a more logical option.
Again, to me this whole thing comes down to Lowry as if he goes and the club has only a first-round playoff exit to show for it, the results could be catastrophic. The team likely falls back to a 30 win bunch, and risks losing some of its better players like DeMar DeRozan, all without a blue chip prospect to fall back on.
That's not exactly an appealing situation and would equate to one step forward to two, or maybe three back.
And despite Toronto's recent winning ways, I don't think bottoming out is impossible. Given the current roster yes, but moving Kyle Lowry for future returns would likely yank the chair out from under things pretty quickly.
And considering the Raptors have 13 wins while most of the league's worst records have only three or four fewer losses (Sacramento, Philadelphia, New York, Brooklyn, Cleveland and Orlando all have between 9 and 10 wins), it's not as if the team would need to lose every game from here on out just to make it interesting.
So to me both options are in play, and it really comes down to what Masai Ujiri thinks about the Kyle Lowry situation, and how good his crystal ball is regarding the future of the conference wherein his club resides. Ujiri seems like a man who makes decisions based on the opportunities that present themselves so we may not know which way he's leaning for a while.
And that's fine by me.
As my colleague Zach Salzmann pointed out on Sunday, this current iteration of the Toronto Raptors is the most watchable one in years so for now, I'm simply going to buckle up and enjoy the ride.