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Let’s pump the brakes on blowing up the Raptors

Things are bad! But the Raptors deserve an opportunity to get healthy and turn it around.

Brooklyn Nets v Toronto Raptors Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NBAE via Getty Images

If you’ve been following Toronto Raptors Twitter, and not watching the team’s recent games, you’d think the sky was falling. Trade the players, tank, fire Nick Nurse — according to Toronto’s very online fanbase, everything is on the table.

And that was before a listless and embarrassing loss to the road-weary Golden State Warriors, who were missing Stephen Curry and Andrew Wiggins.

Last night and this morning, the calls for heads to roll and for Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster to do something have only intensified. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kevin “Blow it Up” O’Connor had to chime in:

If you’re new around here, and unfamiliar with the extreme “it’s fine” energy that former Raptors HQ editors like Daniel Reynolds and Sean Woodley brought to HQ, I’m here to tell you: that same energy persists today!

Yes, even with the team mired in a five-game losing streak and teetering on the very edge of the last play-in spot… it’s fine.

OK, it’s not totally fine. The team definitely has some issues that need to be addressed, which we’ll do below. Some changes should indeed happen, including trades. Some should not, including firing the head coach.

Overall, though, the long view is that, yes, it’s fine.

Let’s start with the obvious issue.

When will the Raptors get healthy?

I know no one wants to hear the injuries excuse, especially in a season where pretty much every team has dealt with injuries to top rotation players.

And if there are valid criticisms to be laid at management’s feet, it’s that A) ‘’Vision 6’9” has left the team with gaping holes should the centre-by-forward committee not be at its best, and B) the team watched Fred VanVleet break down under an extreme minutes load last season, and didn’t acquire a backup for him in the offseason.

But that’s the past and the team is what it is. Except is isn’t “what it is,” because they best players can’t stay on the floor.

I’d give you three guesses how many games Toronto’s top eight rotation players have played together, but you’re only gonna need one. Because it’s zero!

Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, and Otto Porter Jr. have yet to all be healthy and on the active roster in the same game. Porter, of course, has only played in eight total games, where’s averaged just 5.5 points in 18 minutes a night — though his 35% rate from 3-point range would make him second on the team, behind only Malachi Flynn.

I also don’t want to oversell Precious Achiuwa’s role — he wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire before he got hurt — but the team has gone 6-12 since he left the lineup.

I’d like to see that core group play 8-10 games together before I pass any judgment on whether the team and roster are completely broken and can’t be fixed.

Tanking is better

No, it really isn’t. There’s been exactly one “successful” tank job in recent memory, and that’s tonight’s opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers — and that success is highly debatable. Did “The Process” net the team an MVP candidate in Joel Embiid? And — eventually — a former MVP in James Harden? Sure did! But how many titles have they won? How many times have they been to the conference finals? Was nine years of pain, of all that losing, and all that drama, worth it?

Maybe the Sixers win it this year and it will be. I’m not putting money on it, though.

As far as I’m aware, only once since the draft lottery was instituted in 1985 has tanking ever led to a championship: when the San Antonio Spurs tanked to get Tim Duncan. And even that is an exception because injuries, not trades, led to that tank. When Duncan arrived the team still had David Robinson, Avery Johnson and Sean Elliott — the core of the team that would win the championship two years later.

So, what is tanking going to do? Lead a 50-win team seven years down the road? Thanks, I’ll stick with what we’ve got:

Build around Barnes

This is a subset of the tank approach, which seems to suggest that Scottie Barnes is on a different timeline than Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby and that, since youth is apparently better, the team should focus on Barnes, and trade their veterans for players that complement Barnes.

There are multiple problems with this approach. First is that young teams rarely win championships (or even contend); you need veterans too (see: 2019). And it’s not like Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby are ancient.

Second is that Barnes is far from a finished product. Sure, he’s got tons of potential. But I don’t think he or the Raptors fully know what he is yet. How do you build around a player so unformed? It’s not by bringing in other young projects — it’s by surrounding him with veterans!

Also, here’s my hottest take — I’m not sure that Barnes, whether three or five or 10 years from now, will ever be as good as Pascal Siakam is. I’m not saying that definitively — again, it’s too early to tell what Barnes is going to be — but he hasn’t shown me enough yet to say with certainty that he’s going to be an All-NBA player.

So I’m not sure it even makes sense to trade your top-15 guy away to build around a guy who may never be that good, and the opportunity to draft other guys who will likely never be that good.

We need a new coach

OK, this seems almost as insane as tanking to me. In fact it’s so nutty I’m gonna leave it alone and write about it later this week. (Please, Nick, don’t do anything dumb tonight to screw up those plans!)

Let’s leave the kid alone, eh?

A lot of blame seems pointed at Christian Koloko for not being ready, for being too raw, for being a net-negative on the floor. But that just tells me Raptors fans have a skewed perception of expectations. Koloko was a second round pick, a project expected to develop in the G League. The injuries have pressed him into service — he’s started 17 games, which surely is 17 more than the Raptors leadership expected. He’s also played the 14th-most minutes among all rookies; the only second-round pick with more minutes under his belt is Andrew Nembhard. It’s completely unreasonable to place any blame on the shoulders of someone who, in the immortal words of Dante Hicks, isn’t even supposed to be here today.

Besides, early in the season — when the Raptors were healthy (sans Porter) — Koloko brought an exciting new dimension in his limited minutes as a rim protector and roll threat. Now that he’s playing a bigger role, one that he’s not ready for, his flaws are fully on display.

None of this is Koloko’s fault. Nor is it the coaching staff’s fault or management’s fault. This is how player progression works — i.e, generally, it’s slow for second round picks — and this is what happens when teams are banged up — players are forced into larger roles, and sometimes, they’re just not ready.

And fans of this team should know this better than most. If they were here in 2016-17, which it seems they weren’t, they’d remember Pascal Siakam on a similar trajectory — forced into service as a starter before he was ready, looking lost and clueless at times, finally sent to the G League — where oh yeah, he won a title and a Finals MVP. And he’s been pretty good since, wouldn’t you say?

All of which is to say — give Koloko a break.

Trade some picks! Get help!!

OK, now we’re talking. The Raptors have all their draft picks and some very tradeable contracts. I’m not ditching VanVleet, Anunoby, or Siakam, and although I’m not as enamoured with Barnes as others yet, I’m certainly not trading him anytime soon.

But everyone else is on the table, right? Injuries, of course, limit Toronto’s options. No one is trading for an injured Precious Achiuwa or Otto Porter. But maybe in February?

For now, I’m sure there are teams that could use Chris Boucher, Thad Young or Gary Trent. Package them with a future protected first, and maybe you can get a backup point guard who can shoot?

Trent of course is the most interesting piece; he’s got a player option after this season, and although his play so far tells me teams would be wise not to pay more than his current salary, the cap is going up and teams will have money to spend. So he’s clearly going to opt out. And if he’s not starting here in Toronto (to be clear, I think he should be, given the current roster) he’s not going to want to stick around.

So it would behoove Toronto to get something for him now. I’ll leave it up to others to start playing with the trade machine, but the team’s needs (backup point guard, shooting, size up front) are clear.

And that’s really the crux of my argument here: Making moves to build around your “core four” seems to me to be the way to go. When healthy, with the right supporting cast, that group can win you 50 games.

50 games isn’t a title, but from there you’re one step away from having the assets to trade for a superstar when one becomes available — just like in 2018.

Build a winning culture, win as many games as you can, be ready when the opportunity to get better arrives. That approach worked for Masai Ujiri and the Raptors once already, and that’s the approach I’m going to stick with for now.