The Toronto Raptors sit with a record of 26 wins and 41 losses with 15 games left on the season.
The playoff dream has been dead for a couple of weeks, and now the team is again playing out another season that will see them end up in the NBA Draft Lottery.
Only the results this year likely won't matter.
The club traded away their lottery pick to the Houston Rockets in the Kyle Lowry acquisition, and that pick was then subsequently dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Unless the Toronto Raptors land a top three draft slot, the pick belongs to OKC, so this year, there likely isn't even a draft for Raptors' fans to look forward to.
Or is there?
As noted, the Raptors can still keep their draft pick if they end up with a top three selection via the lottery, this thanks to protection placed upon the pick when it was dealt. Therefore there is some incentive for Toronto to lose as many games from here on out as possible, hoping to maximize their shot at indeed, getting into a top three draft slot.
However should Toronto actively pursue this goal? (Or covertly pursue it?)
While I'm of the belief that it's the best option out there, not everyone agrees and Blake Murphy of ESPN's Raptors Republic, takes up the torch for those against tanking, discussing the topic with me today in our latest edition of Jump Ball:
Adam Francis: Ok Blake, 15 games left, all aboard the TANK once again no?
Blake Murphy: Absolutely not. I'm tired of tanking, for one thing, and counting ping pong balls (and the percentages of ping pong balls) has worn on me. Beyond that, there's just no incentive to this year - the Raptors only gets their pick if it's in the top three, the draft isn't a great class, and there's some value in transferring that owed pick now. I'm sure we'll touch on all those areas individually, but those are my initial thoughts on rebooting #TankNation or #LoseMoreForMcLemore or #HitTheCellarForCodyZeller or #ShabadForShabazz or anything like that.
AF: Love the hashtags.
I've got one more: #nothingtolose
I'm tired of tanking too (although arguably this team has never REALLY tanked), but I look at this team's roster and not sure how else they add top notch talent to really improve. They're capped out, have no All-Stars, and their best shots at big leaps in improvement, Ross and Valanciunas, aren't even getting consistent minutes. No one loves this draft class but I actually think it's more due to "marketing" than a lack of talent. Sure, there are no LeBron's or Shaq's etc, and as a result, the glamour of previous drafts isn't perhaps there, but there are a myriad of very good players available. So why not go for broke and try and secure a top 3 spot? At worst you don't get it, and yep, the pick goes to OKC so why not rest some players, lose out, and see where the chips fall?
BM: Because it's annoying. The Raptors are FIVE games up on the third-worst team right now, and they'll be "competing" with other tanking outfits. And even then, the odds aren't strongly in your favor of keeping a top-3 pick.
Regardless of the odds, I just don't think it makes a lot of sense. Dealing the pick now allows the team flexibility moving forward, both by adding certainty to the following offseason and re-introducing an asset (the ability to trade a 1st) that they don't have at the moment. Cringe if you will about Colangelo dealing another pick, but it's an appreciable piece of flexibility for a team that can't add talent via free agency anymore.
AF: I guess a lot of your view on tanking comes down to your future vision of the team. I don't believe the present composition of the club is good enough over a full season, to do anything but eke into the final playoff spot in the East. To really improve, I feel Toronto either needs to move contracts, or acquire blue chip talent and getting a draft pick this year, could server either purpose. It could be used to grease the skids of a deal to move Bargs or Fields for instance, or if they keep the pick, be used to add another quality talent for the future.
Next year I actually think the club will be more competitive and less likely to retain the pick, so why not go for broke this year in terms of trying to get a top 3 draft spot?
Plus by this time next year, a number of the more onerous contracts are much more movable; Fields, Bargs (on the odd chance he's still around), Gay, (potentially), all have contracts going into their final seasons. Even Amir Johnson would be in the final year of his deal so I don't think the need for the pick is as great in terms of using it for the reasons outlined above.
Plus, with the Wizards suddenly winning of late and about seven teams all within about a game or two of each other in the league's basement a bottom five record is certainly within the Raptors' reach and if they can secure that, who knows how things end up!
BM: I guess that's all fair, but just to be a jerk here are some numbers:
Finish - Games Ahead - Odds of a top-3 Pick
30 - 10.5 - .643
29 - 7 - .558
28 - 3 - .469
27 - 3 - .378
26 - 3 - .292
25 - 3 - .215
24 - 2.5 - .150
23 - 2.5 - .100
22 - 1.5 - .061
21 - 0.5 - .040
20 - 0 - .029
So right now the Raptors have the tenth-worst record in the league, and therefore have only a four per cent chance of getting a top three draft pick. (Thus, preventing them from turning it over to Oklahoma City.)
Is it really worth alienating season ticket holders, messing with team chemistry and risking damage to your coach and young players to try and drop to, say, 24th, where those odds would increase to 15%? Don't forget, too, that all of these teams will be trying to lose as well, so dropping isn't as easy as it seems.
I realize you could just as easily say "yeah, but there's no value in winning" but I'm not sure that's entirely true. This is the team we head into 2013-14 with, and I think there's something to be said for using these last 15 games as an extended training camp to iron out roles and PLEASE GOD, SOME PLAYS.
AF: To your point, I see the same Lowry-Gay-DeRozan-Johnson-Valanicunas core being in camp to start next season so if they can become more accustomed to playing together, maybe there's some benefit in playing to win.
But with so many other pieces in flux (especially with the back-up point guard spot) is it REALLY going to replicate training camp? And even if the team lost every game for the rest of the season, is that going to destroy confidence for 2013-14? Look at the Charlotte Bobcats. They had a horrendous season last year, and that didn't impact their start (incidentally the only good part of their season.) I just don't buy that any late season malaise will linger over nearly five months of off-season. Fans and players have short memories and every new season, a new hope seems to exist, regardless of how illogical that may be.
To summarize, I guess it comes down to your philosophy on tanking and such matters. In my books, sitting key guys, giving rookies extended minutes, all the while trying to gain lottery odds, no matter how small, outweighs any perceived benefit from winning the bulk of the remaining contests. This team isn't just playing for next season, but for the ones beyond that, so why not make moves right now to give yourself the best chance for long-term success? To me, winning games the rest of the way is akin to treading water, and this franchise has done far too much of that over its existence.
BM: Well, first thing's first - if the Bobcats are your justification for anything, I'm going to disagree. In seriousness though, I DO think it can impact the confidence heading into next year - the team's confidence in Gay as the go-to guy, Lowry's confidence running the team, Jonas' confidence in the post, and so on.
I'm not saying wins matter now and it should be the end goal - I don't want Anderson playing over Ross anymore, either. But I don't think calling off nearly a fifth of a season for the main guys does much of anything. Even if Gay were to be sat down and Ross went gangbusters, does it mean anything? He would have done it in a role he won't be in next year, against other teams that may be tanking.
I want to reiterate that I'm 100% on board with playing Ross and Jonas more and giving them more responsibility. But I don't think that has to come at the expense of Gay or strategies geared towards winning games. I'm probably in the minority, but such is life.
AF: Ok so a question of dogma here. When is it ok to tank, if at all?
BM: Several instances. Last year, for example, would have made more sense - the pieces in place largely didn't appear to be a part of the long-term future, the Raptors were already CLOSE to the bottom so it would have had a larger marginal effect, and there was value in moving up even one or two draft spots. This year these are the core pieces, there are a lot of teams to leapfrog (not a reason NOT to do it, but the marginal impact is lessened), and the value of doing so is a fraction of last year given the pick is owed 4-14.
It's a unique situation in terms of tanking right now. I don't think selling it to fans for the 100th time and getting your core guys to take their foot off the gas is worth it this year.
Of course, if the Raptors finish one game ahead of a team that ends up getting the 3rd pick, who turns out to be a stud...yes, I'll look stupid.
AF: And conversely, if I advocate "losing out," that indeed occurs, but it fails to result in Toronto retaining their pick and instead, results in an off-season of folks like Lowry and Gay wanting to be relocated...then yep...I'll have some egg on my face as well.
Last year was certainly the year to take a dive, no disagreement there. And while I still think the team is better served going for broke trying to catch up with the other "biggest losers," it's likely a moot point considering Coach Casey, and how last year turned out. I actually think Toronto wins nine of its final 15 to finish with 35 victories.
BM: Wow, you're friendlier than I am. I'm pegging it as 7-8 down the stretch, giving them a Hollinger-predicted 33 wins.