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Tank Watch: Could this week be Toronto’s so-called last stand?

The Raptors deserve a last stand and playoff run, but that doesn’t mean we’re abandoning our lust for tanking, as the difficulty slider goes up this week.

Toronto Raptors v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Raptors sit one game behind the Wizards for the 10th spot in the East. They’re also a game behind the Sacramento Kings for the 7th lottery spot. A well-executed tank could seal that lottery position for the Raptors, as the Kings are likely to get at least four wins in the rest of their season. However, we don’t want the Raptors to do what the OKC Thunder and the Orlando Magic are doing — and it’s clear they don’t plan on steering into a full skid.

The Toronto Raptors have had an unforgiving season, and no one would have really held it against them if they’d decided to just pack it in. Few should be disappointed if Toronto fails to make the play-in games either, given the outside adversity they’ve faced. However, this team, and particularly the core group of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby, deserve to have one last chance to go all-out for the playoffs. If nothing else, we can squint and imagine how this season could have gone with better health luck (and perhaps at least one functional centre since the beginning).

With stiff competition coming up, coach Nick Nurse’s team should be allowed to compete and give their best for the rest of the season — and the next six games in particular. Sure, Nurse talked about the team’s development, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should sit all of their starters. If nothing else, Toronto’s bench needs to get involved with competitive, winning basketball on a nightly basis.

While Toronto has a few younger players we’d like to see growth from (Malachi Flynn and Gary Trent Jr., to name two), Anunoby’s development is perhaps the most important. Even if it’s just over the next week or so, it would be good to see him continue to expand his offense while also defending the opposing team’s key players in meaningful games. Just look at the tear that Anunoby’s been on these past few games: nights of 22, 25, 27, and 20 points while averaging around 15 shots per game.

I mean, look at his new confidence handling the ball in transition — this is stuff Toronto needs for today and the future:

Now, don’t get me wrong — wins will still be hard to come by even if the Raptors go into playoff mode. The team is still building chemistry, hasn’t fared well against quality playoff teams, and has performed poorly in the second game of their back-to-backs. But at the very least now, the Raptors can play highly competitive games and still support the development of the team’s key players.

The Last Week and the Next Week

The new-look Raptors trotted out a lineup with a functional traditional big in Khem Birch against the Brooklyn Nets, and oh boy, did that look good (even with some chemistry kinks throughout the game). The Nets were short-handed, missing Kevin Durant and James Harden, but they’re still a capable team. The Raptors then left their New York trip with a split, as the New York Knicks snapped the Raptors’ four-game winning streak. And last night, Toronto bounced back against the Cleveland Cavaliers, their fifth win in six games.

Elsewhere, the Washington Wizards took advantage of their soft schedule with an eight-game win streak that propelled them to the 10th spot, overtaking the Chicago Bulls. Unfortunately for the Wizards, they dropped an OT thriller against the San Antonio Spurs last night. That loss brought them within reach of the Bulls and the Raptors, who are both one game behind them. Meanwhile, Chicago had to dig deep last night to beat the Heat, but they did so and they too are keeping up with the Raptors and the Wizards.

Looking forward to this week, the Raptors just started a tough stretch of five games in seven nights, with a murderer’s row of opponents in Nets, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, and Los Angeles Clippers. The Raptors have two back-to-backs this week, so — as much as I hate to say it — that’s almost a guaranteed two losses.

Elsewhere, the Bulls have a rough schedule this week during which they could potentially go 1-3. The Wizards could have a 2-2 or better week, with a crucial game against the Indiana Pacers next Monday. In all, the Raptors are still in the play-in mix — but it will be tight.

Suspicious Tank Moves of the Week

Bench Slob

The warning signs were there against the Nets when the starters returned and Toronto’s bench struggled to find its role. Against the Knicks, the Raptors’ bench was horrible, putting up 11 points on 13 shots. Their Knicks counterparts thoroughly outplayed them, outscoring them 43-11 for the game. The Raptors have a slim margin of error against playoff teams, and that disparity could easily cost them more games. Worse still, it was recent fan-favourites Trent Jr (-33), Watanabe (-22), and Freddie Gillespie (-24) who played particularly poorly on both ends of the court.

Last night, the Cavs got back in the game in the second quarter, thanks to an all-bench lineup. As Josh Kern mused on his Five Thoughts, why is Nurse fielding an all-reserves lineup now? Could the intention be... tanking? Perish the thought!

Gary Trent Jr.’s Blackhole

Passing is just not on Gary Trent Jr. right now. Yes, he’s averaging a career-high 1.4 assists per game this season, but it doesn’t seem like that when watching him play sometimes. I didn’t think that passing less than Norman Powell was possible, yet here we are, with Trent Jr. averaging two passes (never mind assists) per game less than Norm at 19.2 per game.

Against the Nets and Knicks, Trent Jr. only managed to average 11 passes in less than 17 minutes per game. To put that into context, Chris Boucher, also not a known passer, averaged 14 passes per game in 10.6 minutes during that stretch. If you take away the passes made from their set-play actions, those numbers would be lower. Being a blackhole is fine if a player is, like, peak Melo who produced consistent buckets, but Trent Jr shot 24 percent (4-of-17) this past week and produced 0 assists.

The worst part is that the Raptors are losing every time Trent Jr. is on the floor, despite the historical +54 he had a few weeks ago. He’s been racking up double-figure negative +/- for the last few games, with -33 against the Knicks. Maybe he’s just banged up, but his performance is contributing to the tanking effort of the Raptors — even if unintentionally.

DeAndre’ Bembry, Tank Commander

DeAndre’ Bembry had a very Aron Baynes-esque stint in the second quarter against the Cavaliers last night. During one stretch, he bricked two shots and turned it over a couple of times. He also looked lost and uncoordinated — basically, the worst version of his sometimes chaotic style — and his minutes along were enough to get the Cavs back in the game.

NBA Draft Tidbits

I’ll just leave this here — see you all next week!

Mock Draft Selections

Draft site Pick Prospect Age Height Position
Draft site Pick Prospect Age Height Position
CBS - Boone 8 Kai Jones 20 6'11" PF/C
CBS - Parrish 8 James Bouknight 20 6'5" SG
NBA Draft Room 9 Jalen Johnson 19 6'8" Wing
SB Nation 7 Keon Johnson 18 6'5" Wing
NBADraft.Net 8 Keon Johnson 18 6'5" Wing
ESPN 11 Isaiah Jackson 19 6'10" C
Tankathon 9 Davion Mitchell 22 6'2" Combo Guard
Bleacher Report 9 Davion Mitchell 22 6'2" Combo Guard
RookieWire 8 Jalen Johnson 19 6'8" Wing
The Athletic* 8 Kai Jones 20 6'11" PF/C
BasketballNews* 8 James Bouknight 20 6'5" SG
NBC Sports 8 Keon Johnson 18 6'5" Wing
* = prospect rank based on last night’s Raptors draft position