IS Tanking the Right Word for the Raptors Situation?
Quick Note: this article was written before the Toronto Raptors-Brooklyn Nets game on Wednesday April 21st.
Google Toronto Raptors Tank and numerous articles will come up regarding the subject matter. As any good article should do, the headlines tell you almost all you need to know: The Raptors are failing at tanking. Teams that are trying to tank aren't supposed to win games! But who ever said that that was the plan all along?
Tanking is considered a team doing everything within its control to lose games in order to obtain higher draft odds. Or as some Raptor fans have put it: Fade for Cade (a clever play on words in which the team is fading away to obtain Cade Cunningham, whom many draft analysts expect to be the first overall pick in the 2021 entry draft). After March, in which the Raptors were without Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Malachi Flynn and Patrick McCaw for half of the month due to COVID-19 protocols, and the team finished the month with a record of 1-13. Not only this, but they traded away the red-hot Normal Powell (and his expiring contract) to the Portland Trail Blazers for Gary Trent Jr and Rodney Hood. To many fans, the fade was in full motion. However, I think we might be getting the idea mixed up in our minds. While it may look as though the Raptors are tanking for higher draft odds, I believe that the moves recently made by the Raptors are rather for player development and analysis of the current roster rather than simply to obtain a better lottery pick.
As it is not news to anyone, the world in the middle of a pandemic whether we like it or not. Basketball players are not exempt from this, as most teams have dealt with players missing games due to health and safety protocols. The Raptors were one of the few teams who had gone unscathed by COVID-19 until February 26th, when Pascal missed his first of 19 games. Shortly after, VanVleet, Anunoby, Flynn and McCaw followed. When asked about the virus, VanVleet said per Josh Lewenberg of TSN: "the symptoms came shortly after and were pretty rough for a couple days (fever, headaches, back soreness, body aches)." Pascal Siakam admitted in a post-game interview that he had lost between 10 to 15 pounds due to the virus. Other players around the league have mentioned that they struggled since overcoming the virus, such as Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum who admitted to be struggling with his breathing and conditioning a month after the virus. And yet both Fred and Pascal soldiered on for the month of March, playing in nine games in fifteen days, six of which Fred played 35+ minutes and Pascal five. There return, along with OG to the starting lineup, did little to help the Raptors as they fell to 1-13.
The schedule did not get better from there either. The Raptors played ten games in seventeen days, including three back-to-back games. Going into April 2nd game against the Golden State Warriors, Lowry had already missed two games due to a foot infection. During this game, VanVleet left with a left hip flexor. In what many may have called throwing in the towel, the Raptors gave the reigns over to rookie point guard Malachi Flynn, first off the bench, then as the starting point guard. He played his first meaningful NBA minutes and looked good in the process. At the beginning of the year Flynn looked lost and nervous whenever he stepped onto the court. Now that he did not have to worry about looking over his shoulder, he was able to get more comfortable and is averaging 13.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.9 assists and only 1.7 turnovers in 33.1 minutes. The mistakes are still there, but his confidence has grown over these ten games and looks more and more like a point guard for the future.
Another factor that many fans called as the reason the team was tanking was the fact that both OG and Pascal sat the last two games against the Orlando Magic and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The reasoning behind both players being out is questionable, and caused the team to be fined by the NBA for what was deemed resting players that were otherwise healthy. While the report may have indicated they were fine, a deeper dive may prove otherwise. As already mentioned, the side effects of COVID-19 for some do not go away on their own. Pascal showed in several games upon his return that he was fading by the fourth quarter. Even still, both players only missed three of the ten games in April. They split nights off on a back-to-back, and then followed with the most recent games. In the games in which they played, Siakam averaged 37 minutes a night, and OG 34 (not including the game against the Lakers when he did his best Hulk Hogan impression body slamming Dennis Schroder.) With injuries ramping up across the entire league, I do not blame the Raptors for sitting both players for two games against opponents who, all things considered, are in complete rebuilds and tanking in their own right. If the Raptors do make the post-season, the rest their four most important players got during the most grueling part of the schedule may benefit them in the long run.
Not convinced that fatigue is the reason the Raptors rested their stars? Even if that is not convincing enough for you, there is another reason to consider that the four key players rested: roster analysis. Even before the season began there were questions in regard to the roster structure. Coach Nick Nurse said as much during the teams 2-8 run at the beginning of the season, when he mentioned that roster was full of guards and he did not have enough big bodies. The Aaron Baynes/Alex Len experiment was a disaster, with the latter released after just seven appearances. Statically, Baynes has been the worst center in the NBA, with his rebounding skills making fans wish they had Bargnani back (yeah, he's been that bad). With no other options, Nurse had to play Baynes as he had no other true Centers on the team. The Raptors also struggled to score for much of the season and kept turning to 2019-20 All-Rookie Second Team Terrance Davis in hopes that he would provide a spark off the bench the way he had the season before. Both Baynes and Davis failed in their roles and seemed to struggle whenever on the court. With the team already running four guards (Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, and Davis), minutes were hard to come by for many of the players. For example, as mentioned above, over this ten game stretch, Malachi Flynn has played an average of 33 minutes a night. Yet Flynn has only appeared in 30 games this season and averaging 17 minutes a game. The Forward position was no better. Boucher was forced into playing Center, which left Siakam as the teams only true Power Forward. To get minutes for all four guards, Powell and Davis both logged time as the backup Small Forward, along with DeAndre Bembry. Minutes were hard to come by for players like Paul Watson and Yuta Watanabe.
Whether the season was considered lost or not, the Raptors were running out of time. According to basketball-reference.com the roster breaks down as follows for next year:
1. Kyle Lowry
2. Stanley Johnson
3. Gary Trent Jr (restricted)
4. Khem Birch
1. Pascal Siakam
2. Fred VanVleet
3. Chris Boucher
4. OG Anunoby
5. Malachi Flynn
1. Rodney Hood
2. Aaron Baynes (Team Option)
3. DeAndre Bembry
4. Paul Watson Jr.
5. Yuta Watanabe
10 DAY/2-WAY CONTRACTS
1. Freddie Gillespie
2. Jalen Harris
The Raptors only have five players that are, barring a trade, going to be on the team next year. Outside of four of those players and Kyle Lowry, everyone else on the team has something to prove. They are all competing for jobs next season whether its in a Raptor uniform or somewhere else. And given with how the season has gone up until the COVID-19 situation, the Raptors starters dominated the minutes played.
The idea makes sense. Rather than through the sheep to the wolves, the Raptors gave these guys minutes with two of the cornerstone pieces in Siakam and Anunoby. Once the schedule lightened, they allowed the reserves a chance to step up and shine against weaker opponents. The additions of Freddie Gillespie and Khem Birch have given the team competent minutes at the center position from true centers (I dared to say great minutes, but that may be a bit far). The pair have also allowed for Chris Boucher to not have to play the 5. When asked about Boucher in the post game interview following the victory over the Thunder, Nurse said "I've talked a lot about him playing the 4 and not at the 5. He's learning a lot but were seeing more from his game and this will suit him better not having to play against bigger players at the 5." Boucher has always been classified as more of a Power Forward due to his slim stature, and the switch has fit him. He looks more comfortable in all aspects of the game when he is on the court with a true center. He can run and block shots at the three point line, and not have to try and muscle his way to the basket.
Other players have stepped up as well. Paul Watson Jr, who has missed numerous games himself, recently put up a 30-point night on 8-11 from 3 point range. Yuta Watanabe impressed the team enough to convert his contract from a two-way deal to a standard NBA contract for the remainder of this year as well as next year. Mainly known for his hustle and rebounding skills, Watanabe took the minutes increase over the last ten games to show he listened to Nick Nurse about being more aggressive with his shots. Before Yuta always looked to make the pass rather than go up with his shot. In the last ten games, Yuta has shot under 50% just twice.
During the post-game interview on the 18th, Josh Lewenberg of TSN asked Nick Nurse, "you are always saying one of the toughest things for young players to do is string together consistency" when asking about Paul Watson's performance. And that is even harder for players to do when they play limited minutes. At the beginning of the year, guys never knew when they would get to play. One night they might get ten minutes only to sit on the bench for the next week. When not having to look over their shoulders and worry if the main core was going to check into the game, the reserves were able to be comfortable and show the front office what they are capable of doing night in and night out. Rather than resting players to try and lose, they rested players to try and win in the long run. With extended minutes comes an extended look at guys who may or may not be on the roster at the start of the season next year. This small sample size allowed the Raptors to see what the bench truly has to offer.
Two final notes on why I don't think the team is trying to tank and evaluate is a better word to describe the recent game plan for the Raptors. First, I have a hard time believing that a team led by Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse would ever consider throwing a season away and losing on purpose. Both are immensely proud men who want to win at all costs. The same goes with Kyle Lowry. In the years that he has been with the team, never once did he seem like a man who would accept just sitting on the bench and allowing his team to lose. Is that out of his control? Sure, but at the same time he could demand to be bought out and join a contender. Kyle is also a voice within the organization and in the locker room who expects to win and compete.
Lastly, if the Toronto Raptors were truly tanking, then would Aaron Baynes be playing?