The Masai Ujiri era in Toronto has been littered with examples of going against the grain, especially with Nick Nurse as the head coach. When most teams zig, the Toronto Raptors zag.
When the franchise was stuck in the middle of being too good for the lottery and not good enough to compete for a championship, Masai tiptoed the line between player development and getting the most out of his proven veterans.
While the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets ushered in the three-ball as the great differentiator, the Raptors allowed the 2nd-most three-point attempts... and finished with the 2nd-best record overall.
When it looked like Kyle Lowry would be heading out of Toronto — and a promising two-way point guard in Jalen Suggs available at the 4th pick — the Raptors zagged again and selected Scottie Barnes.
With Toronto’s recent history of being unconventional, who's to say they aren’t doing the same with tanking?
Ujiri has been very vocal about building towards one goal: winning a championship. He’s not interested in the play-in. He’s not interested in tanking. Yes, the Tampa Tank happened. But the circumstances dictated that unique path. They were not playing at home — so they weren’t wasting the time/money of Scotiabank Arena goers. COVID regularly stripped the team of players throughout the season — so they weren’t purposely benching players. The impending draft had established 5 top prospects — a “quick fix” was readily available for the team’s return to Canada.
This is an all-time Masai Ujiri quote.— Libaan Osman (@libaanstar1) May 3, 2022
“Last year, the Tampa tank year, we won. You know why we won? Scottie Barnes.” pic.twitter.com/brdP07rMvT
Alright, I’ve buried the lede. Let’s cut to the chase: what if the Raptors are Quiet Tanking?
When thinking about teams that tank, it typically encompasses two actions: benching your stars and actively losing games. The Raptors are doing neither. In fact, the Raptors are doing neither so well, that you could argue they’ve found a new way of tanking! Let’s dig deeper!
Starters as the anti-heroes
Nick Nurse promised before the season that he would re-distribute the minutes so that his starters wouldn’t be overworked by the end of the season. Last year, Toronto had three players in the top 10 in minutes per game: Pascal Siakam (1st), Fred VanVleet (2nd), and Scottie Barnes (9th). This year, Toronto has... three players in the top 10 in minutes per game: Siakam (1st), VanVleet (5th), and O.G. Anunoby (7th).
Last week, the Raptors squeaked out an overtime win in New York where four of five starters played at least 41 minutes (Anunoby “only” played 39:45). The following night, Nurse rolled out an 8-man rotation(!)... in Milwaukee... in January... in the second game of a back-to-back. Over those two games, Siakam played over 86 minutes, GTJ played 84+, Fred played 82, and Barnes played 81+ minutes. If Nicholas Nurse was a doctor, his license would be stripped for malpractice!
That example was just from last week, but a deeper dive should easily show that Nurse cares not for minutes restrictions.
But what if Nurse’s neglect of workload is by design? What if overworking his starters serves an ulterior motive? First, it ensures his core gets all the playing time which a) strokes their egos and b) gives the fans what they pay to see. Second, they’re more likely to wear down by the end of the game, thus, feeding into the second part of the Quiet Tank.
The Raptors are playing well enough to win most games but finding more and more creative ways to lose!
Check out the top 10 net ratings in the clutch (margin w/in 5 points with 5 or fewer minutes remaining)— Jay Rosales (@Rosalesaurus) January 25, 2023
The Raptors have the 3rd-best net rating and 4th-best defense.....but are the only team with a sub-.500 record. pic.twitter.com/M0Am1pQ0sJ
As the clever individual above points out, Toronto is actually very good in the clutch, ranking 3rd in net rating, 4th in defense, and 10th in offense. The poor half-court offense transforms into a watchable product as they rank 8th in the percentage of field goals assisted in the clutch. Teams that perform well in the clutch should be doing well in the standings. Take another glance at that list and you’re basically looking at the teams favoured to hoist the Larry OB... except for Toronto. How could that be?
The starters’ fatigue definitely plays a factor — intended or not. However, the manner in which some of these games are lost is approaching the Tyson Zone.
Losses masquerading as moral victories
In November, the Raptors lost in Atlanta when (of all people) Anunoby let AJ Griffin slip behind him for a game-winning, buzzer-beating breakaway layup.
Toronto kicked off an integral six-game homestand by losing to the Bucks. The Raptors’ incredible from a 16-point deficit in under 75 seconds was overshadowed in overtime when VanVleet egregiously left Grayson Allen wide open for the game-winning three.
A couple of weeks later, Toronto let a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter disappear when D’Angelo Russell his four threes in a span of five possessions. VanVleet’s fatigue may have been a factor as Russell caught him with a rip-through foul that led to his game-winning free throws.
Despite all of those head-scratching losses, nothing was as mind-numbing as the loss a couple of nights later against Boston. The Raptors were down two with 20 seconds remaining. Trent Jr. missed a wide-open layup (which, in hindsight, was also tank-like behaviour). As the Celtics played hot potato to kill more clock, Trent Jr. managed to steal Payton Pritchard’s pass. With Grant Williams on the ground and Pritchard falling out of bounds after the errant pass, the Raptors essentially had a 4-on-1 fastbreak with 14 seconds left.....but Nurse called timeout.
Who says you have to finish in the bottom three?
One final aspect we haven’t looked at is the desired outcome of tanking. Obviously, the desired outcome is winning the lottery, but is there a pre-lottery position that yields better results?
Since the NBA changed the lottery odds so that the top-3 (bottom-3?) would each have an equal opportunity for the top pick, there have been four lotteries. Only two pre-lottery positions have landed a top-4 pick in each of the last four drafts: #1 (obviously) and #7 (Toronto was #7 before the 2021 lottery).
The worst four teams have established themselves already this season: Detroit, Charlotte, Houston, and San Antonio. They are followed by Orlando, whose Vision 6’11 is starting to make waves. Toronto is right behind Orlando in the race for more lottery balls. The Raptors have one of the easier schedules remaining, so active tanking may be too obvious.
Quiet Tanking, however, seems to be working just fine. The starters are getting the bulk of the playing time (injuries and fatigue be damned!). Fake comebacks keep the folks in their seats (or glued to their screens) and hopeful that brighter days are ahead. The Raptors can continue playing as is with better-than-expected offense and mediocre-at-best defense.
While the Pistons, Hornets, Rockets, and Spurs zig their way toward more lottery balls, the Raptors find themselves zagging. A lot may happen over the next 7 days, but even if nothing happens, the Raptors are once again toeing the line — this time between playing entertaining basketball while maintaining good lottery odds!
Raptors tank full, but the Raptors gas tank empty pic.twitter.com/BUE8JSmwhe— Kevin Sacdalan (@KevSacdalan) February 2, 2023