Like many Raptor fans, witnessing the first 10 games of the season (Raptors play tonight against Portland in the 10th game) and seeing the team at best a 3-7 record has been tough to swallow. I mean the team finished second in a protracted "bubble" season, and are less than two seasons removed from a Larry O.B.
Coming into the season, I was hopeful that the addition of Baynes and to a lesser degree, Len would at best be a bandaid solution to keep the Raptors in the upper tier of the Eastern Conference as Siakam bounced back from his bubble experience and OG continued to show growth from his performance in Orlando.
Having watched the Raptors play through 1/8th of this regular season, it's obvious that I may have been too optimistic. I don't know if Masai and Webster could have expected how much we would miss Serge and Gasol. In fact, I'm extremely surprised at the drop off we've seen in the team's start. But getting almost nothing from the centre position has really hurt the team's ability to play the stout defense that has been the Raptor's calling card for the past several years.
So, let's assume that Raptors record after 10 games this season ends up being 2-8. What to do?
For minute, let's assume the Raptors compete and can climb up the standings. However, given the current construct of the Raptors roster, would you make the argument that the Raptors are a top-4 or 5 team in the East? I realize during such a protracted season full of postponed games and matches where on any given night an NBA star can be sat out of a game due to Covid, but I have a hard time assessing this year's Raptors as anything better than a 5th (at best) or 6th seed team.
Bucks, Celtics, Nets: I think with little argument, these are the East's most likely top three.
76ers, Pacers: Perhaps a little more iffy, I believe both teams at the very least are marginally better than the Raptors.
So, if these five teams are ahead of the Raptors, then does it really make sense to try and win games to finish as the conference's 5th or 6th seed?
You can probably see where I'm heading with this. Now, let's not call it "tanking" but perhaps it might be better sold to the fanbase as "strategic draft positioning".
Look at what Golden State got in the 2020 draft. With their stars injured, in a season with fewer than the regular 82 full season games, they were able to land a very promising pick in Wiseman. Could the Raptors do worse with a 2021 draft class that's projecting better than last season? There's already a name on the board I'm interested in: Evan Mobley. Check out Ricky O'Donnell's piece on the 2021 draft class. I know it's a little dated (from February 2020) but from what I can tell, everything written then has held into the start of this NBA season.
To help stomach a season where the Raptors are playing for strategic draft positioning it sure does help that the season is only 72 games long (small comfort given it's only 10 games less than normal). Which is something I keep pointing out to my fellow Raptor fans. I mean, if you're going to "tank" (okay I'll call a spade, a spade) why not do so in a shortened season?
However, just letting the Raptors go out and play the way they've been playing might not be enough. Unfortunately, we'll need to trade Kyle for what I hope can be a decent haul in the form of a prospect and a package of picks though it'll depend on which playoff team desires his services for the right price. Ideally, I'm sure Kawhi would love to try and win another Larry O.B with Kyle leading the backcourt over their current roster of guards but OKC has already laid waste to the Clippers available draft picks, but I digress.
But, let's say that the Raptors go this route and manage to find a trading partner willing to give up the right package for Kyle. I love Kyle. Met him back when MLSE used to actually care for fans at a meet and greet event. I suspect his number will be retired and I hope they build a statue of him. I can't stop imagining him agreeing to a trade as his final service to HIS team. Nevermind how he might benefit getting another crack at an NBA Championship. If we can at the very worst add picks and a prospect, that's more trade capital we can use to perhaps make another Kawhi-like trade down the road. Let's face it, with Giannis signing his super-max and staying put in Milwaukee, I can't foresee us being able to sign a true superstar or an alpha to lead us to the NBA Finals. Say what you will about Pascal. But I think he's hit his ceiling. As good as he is, there are problems with his game that I feel can be attributed to his late start in basketball. I mean have you ever heard anyone talk about his basketball IQ the way people talk about Kyle's?
Another benefit of trading Kyle: more playing time for Flynn, Thomas and Davis to develop. I really like what Thomas and Davis bring. I'm hopeful about Flynn. Perhaps he turns into Kyle 2.0 (or at worst - a poor man's Kyle?). But with Kyle on the roster it really is hard to get this trio the minutes they need to develop into reliable bench weapons.
So, with a lottery pick (earned through our strategic draft positioning), plus what we're able to get from any Kyle Lowry trade, I really think that's a lot to be optimistic about looking ahead to a season where Covid will be in the rearview mirror (please 2022!).
Wait, with Kyle gone and a lot of cash to spend this upcoming summer, what else might the Raptors be able to do?
I think with this season we've seen how important having a legit (serviceable) centre is. And although I wish I had a better solution, assuming for a moment that our strategic draft positioning plan doesn't go according to plan, perhaps signing Andre Drummond would work out? Not sure if he'll command the money he may have wanted as he doesn't fit the prototype of the modern big man, but a starting 5 with Fred, Norm, OG, Pascal and Andre I think moves us up the Eastern Conference rankings. But again signing Andre Drummond only happens if the Raptors can't draft an Evan Mobley or better at the position.
If the Raptors return Fred, Pascal, OG, Norm (player option), Boucher, Flynn, Thomas and Davis, we'll have only committed to 50% of our cap space for 2021-22. And with control of our first round picks for the foreseeable (up to 2027), any return we're able to get by trading Kyle and vying for a top lottery draft in 2021, I really think it makes sense for us to "tank" and look positively at the seasons to come after this year.