I hate the term “tanking.”
I hate the idea of a team wasting a year (or more) of a professional athlete’s life committed to losing. I hate that paying customers are robbed of their hard-earned dollars to attend home games of their favourite team, only for the star player to be benched with a phantom injury. I hate the losing mentality it teaches the participating players and possibly harms progression in their respective games.
So why does the idea of the Raptors playing for a lottery position... not a horrible one?
For one, the mental strain this season has had on the team is (even putting my bias aside) far worse than any other team has endured. They’re the only displaced team in the NBA. The Raptors have lost more players and coaches to COVID than any team (and only one postponed game, thanks for nothing, Adam Silver). They haven’t played in front of a home crowd in 74 straight games and counting! (No, Tampa has never felt like a home game.)
We all just led a “We want Curry!!” chant here in Tampa. Sorry, Andrew Wiggins. It’s not your fault.— Mike Mekus (@MMekus18) April 3, 2021
In other words, this was a lost season before it even started. The Raptors were at a disadvantage when they moved to Tampa and misfortune followed just as they were hitting their stride.
What about the fans who paid to see the Raptors? Oh, you mean the handful of Raptors fans sprinkled among the visiting team’s fans whenever they play at Amalie Arena? The real, die-hard fans are still in Canada, watching and tweeting our frustration, but thankfully, not spending a dime to attend games at Scotiabank Arena to watch a disjointed team.
The aforementioned losing mentality should be curtailed by the Nick Nurse’s coaching decisions. He’ll never tell his guys to throw a game or purposely play poorly. He will, however, give more minutes to players who need to develop — Malachi Flynn, Jalen Harris, Gary Trent Jr. — as well as players who can... umm... ”help” with the losing (hey, look at that, Aron Baynes is playing 20+ minutes again!).
Was this soliloquy a long-winded way of justifying tanking? No, it was my attempt to bury the lede and introduce a new term for what Toronto should attempt: Vulturing.
Vultures, buzzards, eagles, and hawks are all birds of prey that swoop down and attack with their claws. Like the San Antonio Spurs were able to do in ‘96-’97 — sandwich a tanked season (and drafting Tim Duncan as a prize) between 56+ win seasons — the Raptors have an opportunity to swoop down and pluck a franchise-altering pick in this year’s stacked draft.
Tanking implies — both in the term and in recent NBA history — that a slow ascent will be required. Vulturing implies this can be a quick-hitter for the franchise. A quick dip into the plentiful draft waters and coming up with the big fish. There’s already a solid, young core in Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Gary Trent Jr. They’re just one huge piece from regaining their championship footing!
For this week’s picks, I’ve replaced the Fun Fact with a Vulture Index Rating. The lower the number, the less likely Toronto needs to vulture (or tank, if you prefer), since the opponent or game situation can take care of that (i.e. playing the Lakers on the back-end of a back-to-back). The higher the number, the more creative Toronto will have to get in losing (i.e. last week’s games against Detroit and Oklahoma City).
One more point before getting to the picks. Do you know what another term for birds of prey is? Raptors! (Seriously, it is)
April 5 vs Washington Wizards
38 games is all it took for Russell Westbrook to set a Washington Wizards record for triple-doubles (16)... in a career! The old record of 15 was amassed over 283 games by Darrell Walker (yes, former Raptors head coach, Darrell Walker).
Russell Westbrook gave a 2-and-a-half minute answer in response to a question about @stephenasmith’s comments on First Take: “A championship don't change my life. I'm happy. I was a champion once I made it to the NBA. I grew up in the streets. I'm a champion.”— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) March 31, 2021
Full quote here: pic.twitter.com/wcceIzqQlg
Bradley Beal continues to lead the league in scoring with 31.3 points per game. He’s on track to be the first player since Tracy McGrady in 2003-04 to lead the league in scoring while playing for a sub-.500 team, and the first since Michael Jordan in 1986-87 to lead the league in scoring while averaging at least 30 for a sub-.500 team.
Vulture Index Rating: 8
In mid-February, the Wizards won 5 games in a row over solid competition (Nuggets, Blazers, and Lakers — no, Boston, you no longer qualify as solid) and appeared to be making a push for the playoffs. They’ve fallen back to Earth recently, losing 11 of their last 14 and trailing Toronto in the standings. Considering how easily the Raptors handled Washington in their lone matchup this season (137-115, with both teams relatively healthy), this has a high rating because Toronto should be able to handle them.
Beal has missed the last 4 games with a hip contusion and is questionable. Rui Hachimura is questionable with right shoulder tightness (and also his Gonzaga Bulldogs are playing in the NCAA Championship game). There’s a lot of Alex Len revenge game vibes or Deni Avdija hitting 4 first half triples. If VanVleet’s strained hip flexor keeps him out, welcome to the NBA, Flynn, and good luck staying in front of Westbrook! Washington downs the under-manned Raptors, 121-110.
April 6 vs Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are reeling. They’re 10-12 since Anthony Davis went down with an achilles injury and 3-5 since Lebron James has missed time due to an ankle injury. Newly acquired, Andre Drummond, played one game before suffering a toe injury, yet still managed to cause a stir in the locker room.
How does this Marc Gasol news make you feel? Do you feel spiteful because he spurned the Raptors only to be benched by Andre freakin’ Drummond? Or do you feel sorry for him, hope he gets bought out, and rides out the season with Toronto?
Talen Horton-Tucker could drop 50 points on the Raptors and I still wouldn’t have wanted him in any Lowry trade. THT being the centrepiece in any of the Lakers trade rumours is hilarious when you consider the names floating around from Miami and Philadelphia.
Vulture Index Rating: 9
If you were paying attention when I was describing the Vulture Index Rating, I hinted that this game would have a low rating. Upon further review, it certainly does not.
With James and AD out, who exactly is going to take down the Raptors (that was rhetorical, Lakers fans, I realize Toronto just lost to the Oklahoma City
Blue Thunder)? This definitely could have been a game where Drummond grabs 30+ rebounds. Maybe Siakam’s still recovering from being away due to health and safety protocols, thus, evening the playing field with Kyle Kuzma? As you’re about to read, the Raptors have owned this matchup for over six years.
The Raptors have won the last 11 straight games against the Lakers. However, Los Angeles should be hungry after suffering a lopsided loss to the Clippers on Sunday. They’re missing some serious offensive firepower, but the defending champs hang their hat on their defense (sound familiar?). The Lakers are #1 in points per possession allowed and own one of the few defenses that can slow down Toronto’s transition attack. The stat you’ll hear all day is that Toronto is 1-9 in the second game of a back-to-back. Until they can show the required focus/energy to battle for 48 minutes on consecutive nights, the results will stay the same. Toronto falls to the Lakers, 104-98.
April 8 vs Chicago Bulls
One of the surprising teams to emerge from the NBA Trade Deadline was the Chicago Bulls. They were toiling at 19-24 but in a playoff position. Arturas Karnisovas took the plunge and landed Nikola Vucevic and Daniel Theis.
The Vooch trade definitely helps a Bulls squad solidify the Center position and provides an offensive spark that the departed Wendell Carter Jr. couldn’t. But does it really move the needle for Chicago? Is fighting for the chance to get bounced in the first round by Philadelphia or Brooklyn worth giving up a young, promising prospect? Or am I just bitter the Raptors couldn’t snag Carter at the deadline?
The acquisition of Theis is great for Raptors fans because it further depletes the Celtics’ front court. Theis, who had great success terrorizing the Raptors last season, will also be buried behind Vucevic, Thad Young, Patrick Williams, and Lauri Markkanen.
Vulture Index Rating: 7
If Toronto plays anything similar to the previous game against the Bulls, this rating would be a 2. The Raptors have had their fair share of ugly games, but the listless effort in a 118-95 loss on March 14th was one of the worst of the season. The boys probably won’t have a repeat performance of that magnitude, but Chicago’s coming off an inspiring win over the Brooklyn Nets and have a little history on their side.
I’ve chronicled the truly odd history of the Bulls-Raptors series before, but essentially, expect long winning streaks. Toronto had their 12-game win streak against Chicago halted. Does that mean the Bulls have the start of their own double-digit win streak? It says here, no! He’s definitely not Gasol, but Baynes has had success guarding Vucevic throughout his career. Chicago doesn’t have the offensive rebounding rate (#18) or free throw rate (#29) that typically disrupts the Raptors. Toronto wins the makeup game, defeating the Bulls, 112-109.
April 10 @ Cleveland Cavaliers
When these teams last faced, Collin Sexton ran his mouth at VanVleet and Powell before halftime, prompting us all to indicate the poking of bears.
Unfortunately, this was another example of the Raptors losing their will to win. It was another one of those surprising outcomes where you’re expecting Toronto to make a run but it never happens. This season has been filled with those moments.
Remember Kevin Love? He’s finally back! How do I know? Because I’m the schmuck who’s had him stashed on my fantasy team.
Vulture Index Rating: 9
Since the Cavaliers embarrassed the Raptors 116-105 on March 21st, Cleveland has only won one of the last seven games. They haven’t topped 105 points in any of those games (including 75 against the Jazz and 86 against the Lakers). The Cavs have also traded away Javale McGee and bought out Drummond. Larry Nance Jr. and Jarrett Allen have missed games recently due to illness and concussion, respectively. With all those big men missing, Cleveland can still win the rebounding battle, but losing to this team may be difficult.
This is one of those games that previous iterations of this column would have predicted a blowout victory. Have I learned my lesson? Nope! Toronto’s 3-point offense should be able to exploit the 27th-ranked 3-point defense. Cleveland’s offense is really lacking in firepower. I’d expect Nurse to devise a better defensive gameplan to slow down Sexton. Toronto beats Cleveland, 110-99.
April 11 @ New York Knicks
Tom Thibodeau has the Knicks playing some outstanding defense. They’re #1 in opponents points per game, #1 in opponents FG%, #1 in opponents 3-point FG%, and #3 in defensive rating.
Julius Randle is one of only four players to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists this season. Two of the other three are MVP candidates, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The third is Westbrook who, I failed to mention in the Wizards preview, is once again averaging a triple-double (21.8/10.5/10.4).
Nerlens Noel has been a revelation in New York. He’s among the league leaders in blocks (#4), offensive rebound % (#16), block % (#2), defensive rating (#2), defensive win shares (#10), and defensive BPM (#1). While Anunoby will likely be worrying about Randle, Noel will feast on the offensive glass.
Vulture Index Rating: 5
It’s extremely depressing that the lowest VIR this week goes to New York. Like they could legitimately defeat a fully healthy Raptors squad and it wouldn’t be an Earth-shattering event. This number should be lower but Toronto’s won 17 of the last 18 against New York for a reason.
New York had to shoot historically bad (36 three point attempts is the most in history for a team that made three or less) for Toronto to nab their first win of the season. The Raptors will again force me to turn to the SEGABABA stat (1-9). I’ve doubled my typical word count and don’t want to gas my one Knicks friend any more. Knicks beat the Raptors, 105-96.