Wiggins, Parker make tanking tantalizing

Toronto Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri has a tough decision in front of him. (Photo: CP/Nathan Denette)

Everyone was watching.

At Rudy Gay’s house in Memphis, the Toronto Raptors’ players, coaches and staff had a party, and the State Farm Classic college games were on as a prelude to their game against the Grizzlies Wednesday night.

How many more will that group have together? The clock has to be ticking.

An eight-hour drive straight north in Chicago, meanwhile, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri and right-hand man Jeff Weltmen were among a contingent of NBA talent evaluators so large that insiders were calling it “the convention.”

Across Canada Raptors fans, basketball fans and sports fans curious to see what the commotion was about were tuning in for an event that had Final Four hype in mid-November—unheard of previously. What they saw was amazing: two well-played basketball games featuring a dozen and perhaps more potential first-round picks in this coming June’s NBA draft—one of them Canadian star Andrew Wiggins. In all, proof of a freshman class so deep that even the likes of Magic Johnson was wowed.

“We haven’t seen this type of class come out in a long time with this many guys,” the NBA legend told reporters in Chicago. “Normally, you might have a LeBron, you might have one… I think if they all come out to the NBA, it’s going to be awesome.”

That was the power of Tuesday night’s showcase in which Wiggins led Kansas past Jabari Parker and Duke, and Julius Randle of Kentucky dominated in a failed comeback against top-ranked Michigan State.

“Last night wasn’t about seeing good players,” said one NBA executive in Chicago Tuesday. “You know you’re going to get a good player in this draft, but there’s a chance to get a great one with a top pick.”

Which brings us to the Raptors, a franchise on the horns of a dilemma if there ever was one. In Memphis were gathered the coaching staff and core of a team that is 3-5 through eight games—it’s early, but that’s hardly the kind of emphatic statement about their playoff potential you’d like to see from a group that returned essentially intact from last season. In Chicago Ujiri and his staff were getting a first-hand glance at the quality of talent available in the draft.

Were the players and coaches watching the end of their time together before their very eyes? Were Ujiri and his staff watching the Raptors’ future?

Complicating matters is that while in most years fans and media don’t start tracking the progress of top prospects until the NCAA Tournament in March, the presence of Wiggins and the overall quality and hype of the class means it will be a constant thrumming theme for the entire season:

To tank or not to tank?

The question’s so prevalent that it’s worth clarifying what tanking really means. It doesn’t mean throwing games. It doesn’t mean losing intentionally. What it means is honestly evaluating the talent you have and the prospects they hold for playoff success in the near term, and then deciding whether to load up for a post-season run or scatter assets to improve your chances at the draft.

It’s short-term pain for long-term gain, even if purists might be offended by the notion of a strategic retreat.

“If that is happening, shame on whoever is doing it,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said last night. “I can’t even fathom. I can’t go there. I can’t believe that that would happen. Maybe I’m naive and I’m going to go read a fairytale after this.”

He probably should; he’ll find it on the shelf beside the bedtime story where Parker and Wiggins stay all four years at college and get their degrees.

The NBA’s draft lottery system is weighted so that even the team with the worst record has just a one-in-four shot of picking first; but in a draft as deep as the 2014 class the temptation is that there are potential all-stars throughout the lottery—the key is getting in it.

Tanking—whether the perception of it or the reality—has become such a concern in the NBA commissioner’s office that further measures are being considered to introduce even more randomness to the draft process. But in the meantime it is too appealing an option to not consider. In no other team sport does a single player have as big an impact on the outcome as in basketball. It’s simple math.

And in the NBA the correlation between draft position and professional success is very strong.

In the past 10 years the only four players on the all-NBA first team not taken in the top five of the draft were Kobe Bryant (13th in 1996), Amar’e Stoudemire (ninth in 2002), Dirk Nowitzki (ninth in 1998) and Steve Nash (15th in 1996). And in each case there were specific circumstances that explained why they were outliers: Bryant was among the first wave of the preps-to-pros trend, when it was still deemed a risk to take a high school player; Stoudemire was a high schooler picked during the backlash of that trend; Nowitzki was drafted when taking Europeans so high was a bit novel; and Nash was a small-college star who emerged from the “hinterlands” of Vancouver Island.

Of the 150 spots on all-NBA first, second or third teams in the past decade, only 12 players have earned one who weren’t lottery picks.

The Raptors know this all too well. The franchise has only had five playoff teams in 18 seasons, and each of them was built around an All-NBA performer—either Vince Carter or Chris Bosh, both of whom were taken in the top five of the draft.

Needless to say the Raptors as built don’t have a serious candidate for an all-star selection, let alone players capable of earning All-NBA recognition.

So is the great dismantling at hand? How many more team parties can the current edition of the Raptors have together?

As their bosses were watching the spectacle Tuesday night in Chicago the real question is what the Raptors should do to have a chance to add the kind of elite talent that was on display as a foundation piece for their troubled franchise.

The answer was likely obvious to anyone watching: Whatever it takes.

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