Remember when everyone assumed that the Raptors would be horrible this year, perhaps even the worst team in the NBA? I do. I remember the talk that they were so talent-starved without Chris Bosh, and so poorly coached by Jay Triano, that they'd be in the running to set records with their futility this season.
Well, that hasn't exactly happened. While the team is certainly not good, Triano has done a highly underappreciated job at getting a “talent-starved” roster to compete harder than they did for most of last season, and he's got their defensive rating up from last year when everyone assumed it would drop further (even if it's only gone from worst to third-worst, it's an improvement).
Though he's still routinely criticized outside of Toronto, he's got his team sitting above Charlotte, New Jersey, Washington and the Clippers in the standings, teams many felt might challenge for a playoff spot this season, and he's done it without the benefit of the All-Star talents those teams possess. While their “success” in the standings can be attributed as much to the wretched play of most of the Eastern Conference as anything, that they aren't scrapping the bottom of the NBA two months into the season is both noteworthy and remarkable.
Oh, and it's also undesirable.
The spot the Raptors find themselves in right now is just about the worst spot they could hope to be in, and that puts a lot of pressure on Bryan Colangelo to make some hard choices as we wind into the lead-up to the trade deadline.
The problem is that, with an 11-20 record, the team is not good enough to make a serious run at the post-season, but they are also not bad enough to ensure a quality draft pick (an essential rebuilding tool) in June. They are trapped in the same cage of mediocrity that they found themselves in with Bosh in toe; good enough to beat the truly awful teams – and thus buoy their record – but not good enough to challenge the serious teams. Indiana, for example, has spent many years in this spot and they are no closer to fleeing today it than they were four years ago. It's a very hard trap to escape if you sit in it for too long.
Which winds us back to Colangelo's tough choice: break it down or build it up.
Before we delve into the merits and demerits of both strategies, allow me to say that I am never, ever in favor of outright tanking. I think it sets a terrible precedent in the locker room that is far harder to eradicate than most fans assume. Losing is a habit and it's never one that an organization should willingly invite on their watch (even though many do anyway).
But back to the ‘break it down, build it up debate'. To break it down would be to jettison the useful veteran players in trades (Jose Calderon, Leandro Barbosa, Reggie Evans and Peja Stojakovic) with an eye towards clearing cap space and acquiring young players, while also hoping that further diluting the talent pool results in fewer wins and a better draft pick.
Most would see this as the obvious route today. The Raptors aren't making any substantive noise right now, so why prop the team up so they can win 30 games and wind up with another low lottery pick? Going this route affords guys like DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, Linas Kleiza, Jerryd Bayless and Julian Wright more minutes to develop with, while also losing enough to perhaps add a meaningful piece to their ranks. With all of those positives, why not go that route?
Well, one reason why not is that it could stunt the development of those same young players. Young teams need skilled veterans to lean on for experience, to show them the way, to get on them when they aren't playing their best. They also need some good players around them to make the game a little easier for them, to prevent them from picking up bad habits by trying to (or having to) play above their abilities night after night after night.
It's easy to say that more minutes equates to faster development, but what about the discouragement that can come from being outplayed every single night, and the negative attention that can bring to a player? Also, how does a coach discipline a young player when a team doesn't have useful players to replace them with when they aren't satisfying the demands of the coaching staff? People cite Oklahoma City as an example of what can happen when youth is free to learn on the fly, but that team had key veteran pieces like Nick Collison, Kevin Ollie and Chucky Atkins to help prop up the youth both on the court and off. Plus, even if the Raptors strip the team down further, there is no guarantee that they'll become worse than Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota or Sacramento (they're that bad) to help guarantee a top-five or top-three draft pick.
The alternative would be to use the assortment of assets the team has at its disposal (their $12.5-million traded player exception, Stojakovic's $15-million expiring contract, Barbosa and/or Evans, redundant young players like Sonny Weems) to bring in serious roster upgrades to make a run at a playoff spot. Names like Stephen Jackson, Marcus Camby, Troy Murphy, Andre Iguodala, Anderson Varejao, Gerald Wallace, Andre Miller, Tayshaun Prince, Andray Blatche and J.R. Smith have already been casually tossed into trade conversations, and the right combination around key Raptor pieces could easily place the club into the post-season picture. They are only a game-and-a-half out of the eighth spot right now, and some aggressive moves could quickly move them into the top-eight.
However, to take on additional roster strength usually means taking on salary, which is not desirable on the eve of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that could dramatically reshape the salary cap and the restrictions that surround it. Taking on salary now, when the team doesn't have to, could cripple future flexibility, and it is unlikely the Raptors could make substantial enough moves to put them into the top of the Eastern Conference picture in the next six weeks. Colangelo has talked often about the team's financial flexibility going into next summer and it's not clear how eager he'd be to torpedo that flexibility to make a push for a post-season spot in 2011.
The distillation of all of this is basically that the roster as assembled today is actually doing the worst thing to the organization that they could do, but there is no obvious way to change course. They are winning more than expected, which is great in many respects, but they aren't winning enough to matter. Outside Andrea Bargnani, Jerryd Bayless and Ed Davis, one assumes that the bulk of the roster is available for the right price, but what that price is remains a mystery.
There is no one, single way to play this out, and that is why the team will be highly judicious in how they manage the roster over the next several weeks. Once January hits you're going to start seeing rumor mills heat up and players begin changing cities and the pressure on the Raptors to take a step into the future will be applied heavily during that time. Whether that step involves paring down or building up depends on the long-term goals (and options) available to Colangelo as the deadline approaches, but eventually he's going to have to choose one route or the other.
Winning 30-to-35 games per year is the most crippling trap an NBA team can find itself in and Colangelo is going to have to be proactive in assuring that the Raptors don't get caught it in this time around.
It's great that the Raptors aren't as bad as everyone figured they'd be but now they have to either make themselves that bad or get good enough to matter.