Tonight's the night.
While the Raptors' season has long since passed the point of being able to be called a ‘success', there is still a chance for the team to find some modicum of redemption tonight if the Chicago Bulls lose to the Charlotte Bobcats on the road and the Raptors beat the New York Knicks at home. The chances may not look good, but that's the position this team has put themselves in with a disastrous second-half collapse.
Over the last few days I've had several encounters, either in person, via email or on Twitter, with fans wondering if there is anything to be gained by making the Playoffs. Since the Raptors regain their first-round draft pick if they miss the post-season (it is a lottery-protected pick that was sacrificed in last year's deal to bring Shawn Marion to Toronto), some feel that the Raptors should aim to miss the Playoffs and expedite their inevitable rebuilding process. It's a controversial tactic, but does that mean it is without merit?
Let's first acknowledge that there is some sort of unquantifiable importance in the development of a player and a team when they make the Playoffs. It may not always alter the course of a franchise they way it did for Atlanta three years ago, when they went from laughingstock to powerhouse on the cusp after sneaking into the post-season, but Playoff experience is a real tool in a player's and team's toolbox. How that tool is wielded in subsequent years can't be predicted, but getting young players into the fire early and seeing how they fare can't be seen as a bad thing.
By that same token let's also acknowledge that in all but the rarest of cases, team's fortunes are decided in the NBA draft. As important as playing the free agency game is, it's nearly impossible to cement yourself as a relevant franchise by simply spending available money on imported talent. Of the sixteen teams currently seeded one-through-eight in each Conference, all of them are led one way or another by a draft pick (I'm counting Gerald Wallace as a draft pick for Charlotte since he was ‘drafted' by the team in the expansion draft, and thus he didn't carry with him the salary or expectations of a major free agent acquisition). While Atlanta and Phoenix may have imported their best players in free agency, both (Joe Johnson and Steve Nash) were acquired specifically to fit alongside sublime drafted talent (Josh Smith and Amaré Stoudemire). As important as free agency and trades are for teams, the draft is where futures are made in the NBA.
So, with that said it would seem like the route best taken for the Raptors is obvious: the Draft. If that is where rebuilding occurs, then that is where the Raptors should be. Well, hold on a second, bucko, because that supposition is taking a lot of facts for granted.
First, it clearly assumes that Chris Bosh is leaving Toronto. While not making the Playoffs probably won't help the team's matters much in that regard, launching an all-out assault on rebuilding would probably sour him on the city a lot quicker. It would be hard to think of anything that would send Bosh packing quicker than plans of using the next two or three years to reconstruct the roster. As much as one doesn't want to make too many plans assuming he's going to stay when he has the option to leave, one should also avoid painting themselves into a corner under the assumption that he is gone. Talent like Bosh is rare in professional basketball and the Raptors are better off fighting for his services until the last second and only then, if he opts to play elsewhere, should they launch into a full-scale roster reevaluation.
Another assumption at work in the 'Draft Pick' camp is that the draft is some sort of sure-fire path to golden bounty. While that is where future powers tend to be forged, it is no Golden Goose. There was a wonderful series over on ESPN.com last year on the realities of the Draft and how overblown people's expectations of the talent available there is. The ultimate conclusion that was reached by their D.R.A.F.T. Initiative, which compiled results from every draft since the NBA went to the two round format in 1989, was that “beyond the first five picks, the quality [of players] drops off rapidly. Beyond the first 10, the selection process is a proverbial crapshoot.” Just for clarification, if the Raptors did end up with their draft pick, they'd be selecting 12th without some major lottery luck pushing them into the top three. Here is a list of the number twelve picks since 1995 (the first year the 12th pick was a lottery selection):
Gerald Henderson (2009)
Jason Thompson (2008)
Thaddeus Young (2007)
Hilton Armstrong (2006)
Yaroslav Korolev (2005)
Robert Swift (2004)
Nick Collison (2003)
Melvin Ely (2002)
Vlad Radmonovic (2001)
Etan Thomas (2000)
Aleksandar Radojevic (1999)
Michael Doleac (1998)
Austin Croshere (1997)
Vitaly Potapenko (1996)
Cherokee Parks (1995)
If that isn't just about the saddest group of players you've ever seen then I don't know where you've been spending you basketball-watching hours. While there are some useful rotation players in there (Thaddeus Young, Nick Collison, Austin Croshere) and one potential talent (Jason Thompson), on the whole this is traditionally one of the worst slots to select in during the whole draft. The reason why is actually quite simple: When a team is in the lottery it means that all they have to sell their fans on is hope. When you have a lottery pick there is a tremendous amount of pressure to select a player with ‘upside', because with ‘upside' comes the hope that that player will actually reach their full (and often fictional) potential. Of course, by the time you get to the 12th pick you're usually running pretty low on upside guys and are steering into role player territory. The problem is that most pundits feel that the lottery is too early to target a role player, so teams and GMs almost always go with the guy that's left they feel has the most ‘upside', and that has historically means reaching for a player who is listed as a ‘big'. Fortunately that strategy didn't bite Philly or Sacramento in '07 and '08, but it hardly provided them with a franchise-altering star, either. The draft certainly can provide riches for rebuilding clubs, but rarely does it happen for teams picking between picks 10 and 14.
Along with this reality is the fact that Toronto's GM, Bryan Colangelo, has tended to find his best young talent WITHOUT the help of the draft. This is a guy who nabbed two All-Rookie Team members without a draft pick (Jorge Garbajosa and Jamario Moon) and also found two key youngsters via a trade last summer's with Milwaukee (Amir Johnson and Sonny Weems). While his two first-round picks, Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan, haven't been stinkers, his real talent with the Raptors has proven to be finding key young cogs outside of the draft process. While many fans lament Colangelo's willingness to part with draft picks in trades, they seem willfully blind to the fact that this team often scores better young talent than most drafters do without the benefit of using a pick.
Then one has to wonder: what if the Raptors make the post-season and some key guys really blossomed? What if Andrea Bargnani learned how to accept a more prominent role with the team in Bosh's absence? What if Jose Calderon or Hedo Turkoglu broke out of season-long doldrums with the increased pressure of the post-season? What if Johnson, Weems or DeRozan erupted as a force? Or, conversely, what if the opposite of any of these things happened? This Raptors team is starving for meaningful evaluation tools, and getting to see their guys go to battle for four games against one of the best teams in the NBA would be great tests of their mettle. It might help suss out the keepers in a post-Bosh organization. It might help sort out what roles and rotations should be preserved and augmented next year and which ones should be disbanded ASAP. For a team with lots of questions to answer this summer about what direction they are going in, the more information about the roster they have today the better. They need every evaluation tool available to them to help the front office feel certain that the players they keep are the ones worth keeping and that the ones that they ship away are not the right fit for this club.
It's always a dangerous game thinking that one should look to avoid the Playoffs in the hope that a better draft pick will be their salvation. It leads to yearnings that aren't related to winning and that fosters a very difficult environment to break out of, and it is one the Raptors themselves have had a hard time shaking since 2001. It says here that IF the Raptors make the Playoffs then it would be the better route for the organization to take, but of course, the Raptors sacrificed the option to control their own fate in this matter long ago and now must wait to see if Chicago will gift them with the opportunity to keep playing beyond tonight.