Quitting is a dirty word in sports. Call a player a quitter and get prepared to fight.
It’s a stain that can’t be removed.
But a team that quits? In the NBA it’s just good business, and if you don’t like it, call NBA commissioner David Stern and ask why he has fostered a system—the NBA draft lottery—that rewards the most incompetent franchises with the league’s lifeblood: cheap players with star potential.
So we won’t say the Raptors are quitting on the 2013–14 season. We won’t even say they’re tanking.
From now on the term is “strategic retreat.”
And in one of life’s great coincidences the Raptors' first game after their trade of Rudy Gay on Monday—the one that signaled the team will be coming into the NBA draft hot next June—was against the San Antonio Spurs.
If there’s a figure in the NBA who understands the value of a strategic retreat, it’s Gregg Popovich, the head coach and major domo of the Spurs, who rolled into the Air Canada Centre Tuesday night and predictably—and helpfully—blew out the Toronto Raptors, 116–103.
The Spurs improved to 16-4; they have an eye on one last NBA title before Tim Duncan retires. The Raptors fell to 7-13 and they have an eye on Julius Randle or Andrew Wiggins or Marcus Smart or any number of elite prospects in a loaded 2014 draft that could emerge as a franchise cornerstone.
It’s an alluring concept, and anyone who embraces it can blame the Spurs and Duncan, who benefited more from one bad year than any team in NBA history, arguably—it’s not so much they won the lottery as they found water on Mars.
“Anybody who goes through a difficult season hopes something good comes around,” says Popovich. “That’s the only way to think. So we went through some tough seasons and we got lucky.”
The last time the Spurs missed the playoffs was in 1996–97, or when the Raptors were playing in the SkyDome. Ravaged by injury—Hall of Fame–bound David Robinson played just six games—they finished 20-62, and won the first overall pick in the draft lottery,
Waiting there was Duncan. Paired with a healthy Robinson (himself the first overall pick in the 1987 draft) the next season the Spurs went 56-26. In 1999 they won their first of four NBA championships. In their worse season since they won 53 games.
The former member of the US Air Force, Popovich knows his military history. He knows that winning “wars” doesn’t mean winning every battle. It was only last year that Popovich sent Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker home to save their legs at the end of a long road trip rather than have them face the Miami Heat on a national broadcast.
He effectively threw the game and was fined $250,000 for offending the league’s competitive sensibility. But it was a long-term play.
And that doesn’t mean he wants to talk about the NBA’s dirtiest open secret—that every year franchises make decisions that hurt their chances to win in any given season with an aim toward improving their draft position. It’s a gamble—some seasons you get LeBron James at the top of the lottery; others you get Andrea Bargnani—but the rewards outweigh the risks, especially if you’re going to be bad in any case.
“I don’t know what Toronto’s plan is,” said Popovich. “I’m not really interested in fueling whatever it is you want to write.”
But the presence of the Spurs almost begs it.
The Spurs are the NBA’s gold standard because they seem to have managed the impossible: consistently bringing together professional basketball players whose first and only priority is to play as hard as they possibly can and do everything possible to contribute to team success.
It’s like a junior high team except everyone is rich.
“It’s the program that should be the model for all of us to go after,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was saying wistfully before the game.
The Spurs are plug and play. The magic of their jersey turns Aron Baynes, an undrafted free agent from Australia, into Karl Malone—or at least he played like that against the Raptors.
Tuesday night the Spurs dressed six second-round picks, two players taken No. 28 overall and the No. 30 pick in the first round—Toronto’s Cory Joseph. They are a triumph of talent evaluation, finding gems like Ginobili and Parker overseas when NBA teams weren’t working very hard at that, and turning retreads like Boris Diaw and Danny Green into essential cogs.
But at the centre of it lies Duncan, the certain Hall of Famer and the best franchise player in NBA history, if not the best player.
“It’s been a blessing,” says Popovich, who has coached Duncan for his entire career. “Tim’s given us a rock and a point from which to build. It’s given us consistency, dependability. It’s made everything work, having Tim there. He’s a very special individual in a lot of ways. He makes everyone better—coaches, too. You win a whole lot more games with Tim Duncan than without him.”
The problem is getting a player like Duncan, or even one good enough to be called a franchise player.
They come in the draft and getting them changes everything.
The Raptors are a franchise desperately in need of change in a faithful basketball market where fans have been waiting for the real thing for nearly 20 years.
Positioning a franchise to have the best chance to get a player that could make the Raptors relevant again isn’t quitting. It’s not even tanking.
It’s playing the long game. Franchises like the Spurs have done it and are the envy of the league because of it.
It’s about time the Raptors played the game and played it to win.