Everyone around the NBA knows that if there were ever a year to have Ping Pong balls, this is it, because this year’s incoming class just might offer the chance to select a truly transcendent, once-in-a-generation talent.
If you’re the Toronto Raptors, one of those potential superstars—Andrew Wiggins—grew up 30 minutes from your arena and has already let the world know that he would love to play for his hometown team. You’re not a genuine contender and don’t look like you’ll turn into one any time soon. So, should you pass up a shot at a playoff berth this season and cross your fingers?
I have never been in the camp that says you should purposely lose for a draft pick. I’m not sure how you teach winning by losing, and there are no guarantees when it comes to a lottery. You can count on one hand the number of times the team with the worst record has landed the No. 1 pick, and I’ve been purchasing lottery tickets my whole life and have yet to win the big money.
Long-time Duke University coach Mike Kyzyewski has said that no NBA team should be purposely losing. And Syracuse bench boss Jim Boheim has taken things a step further, remarking that there is nobody in this draft worth “tanking” for.
Still, following the trade that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento, it was widely assumed that the Raptors were trying to back their way down the Eastern Conference playoff ladder. Not so fast, though.
I noted a few weeks ago that Toronto could see more success avoiding lineups that paired Gay and DeMar DeRozan and leaning more heavily on role players with skills that mesh. With that in mind, the Gay trade doesn’t have to be seen as a sign that the tank is on.
True, there will probably be more deals coming, but GM Masai Ujiri has said that any future moves will “make the team better.” While that improvement could definitely mean taking a couple of steps back in the short term to move forward in the future, the Raptors have won three of four games since the Gay trade.
What if a funny thing—like winning—happens on the way to the lottery? With everyone in basketball seemingly trying to tank and the “Leastern Conference” boasting some of the worst perpetrators, it might be harder to lose.
Still, let’s imagine “tank nation’s” best-case scenario: Toronto throws the season away and nets a pick that lands Wiggins.
It’s not impossible. During a casual chat on the floor before the start of game two of the Finals last June, a reporter asked outgoing commissioner David Stern whether he had “a frozen envelope for Toronto on [his] way out?” The comment elicited nothing more than a smile from Stern, but let’s imagine one of the biggest conspiracy theories in basketball is true and that Stern chooses to re-enact it for the Raptors.
There would still be at least another two years of development for Wiggins before Toronto sniffed a playoff berth, and even then they likely wouldn’t be contenders. The pressure on the youngster through the rebuild would be astronomical—not exactly improved by a seven- or eight-season absence from the playoffs—and who’s to say that he wouldn’t want to leave like other stars before him?
So, what’s plan B?
If the Raptors—ignoring the wishes of “tank nation”—manage to make the playoffs, they are going to have to try to build another way.
What if Toronto mimics the Atlanta Hawks for four seasons—making the playoffs again and again without turning in a genuine run at the Finals—while Andrew Wiggins is learning how to play the NBA game and growing somewhere else? The Raptors will have been through a Drake-fronted rebranding and, coupled with a few playoff appearances, the perception of the franchise may just change for the better.
True, you would run the risk of Wiggins enjoying life wherever he was drafted and having the allure of playing in Toronto wear off. But what if he still wants to be a Raptor. If that comes to pass, it could be that Andrew Wiggins is one of the last pieces to fall into place, rather than one of the first.
It’s all speculation, folks. But, if the Raptors keep winning, Toronto fans might have to think about plan B. It would be a killer for “tank nation,” but even if moves are made to weaken the team this season, it may not be enough to lose. It’s worth keeping in mind that a prize piece can be added at the end of the rebuilding process and not just at the beginning.