Skip to main content


Raptors in no-win situation at this weekend’s draft lottery


TORONTO – It’s up to the Ping-Pong balls now.

On the heels of a disappointing 25-57 season – the franchise’s worst record in more than a decade – the Raptors will go into this weekend’s NBA draft lottery with the sixth-best odds. They’ll have a nine per cent shot at landing the first-overall selection, a 37.2 per cent chance of moving into the top four and, crucially, a 45.8 per cent chance of keeping their top-six protected 2024 first-round pick.

In the likely event that the pick falls outside of the top six, it will go to San Antonio as part of the deal that sent centre Jakob Poeltl back to Toronto at the 2023 trade deadline.

What will the Raptors be rooting for when the league announces its draft order just after 3 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon? Publicly and privately, their top executives insist that they don’t have a strong preference one way or the other, understanding that there are pros and cons to both scenarios.

With the pick, they would have the opportunity to add another core piece to help push their rebuild forward, but finding the right player could be more challenging in a draft that’s widely believed to be one of the weakest in recent memory. The subsequent draft classes are expected to be stronger, and if the Spurs don’t get Toronto’s pick this summer, it rolls over to 2025 with the same top-six protection, and then again to 2026 before becoming two second rounders in 2027 if it still hasn’t conveyed by then.

As long as the pick is owed and the protections are in place, the Raptors are restricted in terms of the draft compensation they can send out in a trade. If you view the pick as a sunk cost and assume that they are likely to be lottery bound for the foreseeable future, one could argue that losing it now and having a full arsenal of first rounders moving forward – their own, as well as Indiana’s in 2026 – may be for the best.

It’s fair to say that the team has considered both sides. Even after moving most of their veteran players – including franchise cornerstones Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby – ahead of February’s trade deadline, their stated goal was to make a push for a spot in the play-in tournament. The implication was that they were willing to sacrifice a pick in the mid-teens for what probably would have been a short-lived postseason run.

Instead, Scottie Barnes and Poeltl underwent season-ending hand surgeries in early March, forcing the team to accept the reality of its circumstances and prioritize development over wins, while maximizing its lottery odds in the process. While they were never going to catch the league’s most aggressive tankers – Detroit, Washington, Charlotte, Portland and San Antonio – they did manage to hold off the injury-plagued Grizzlies, ensuring they’d have a nearly 46 per cent chance of keeping their pick, rather than 32 per cent had they finished ahead of Memphis.

If nothing else, this weekend’s lottery will bring the clarity that the Raptors need to move forward in the pre-draft process, which ramps up with next week’s combine in Chicago.

They already know they’ll have Indiana’s 19th-overall pick, via the Siakam trade (it could have landed as high as 16th, but the Pacers came fourth in a four-way tiebreaker to determine draft order). They also own Detroit’s second-round selection, 31st overall, which will kick off the latter half of the NBA’s new two-night draft format. The big question is where their own pick will end up.

As a refresher, in 2019 the NBA changed the lottery system – flattening out the odds and drawing for the top-four picks (instead of the top three). That means the Raptors will lose their pick if even one team with seventh or worse odds move up, something that’s happened in four of five years since the format change.

From 2019 to 2022, the team with the seventh-best odds moved into the top four, including Toronto in 2021 when it selected Barnes fourth overall. In 2020, Charlotte also moved up, going from ninth to third. In 2019, three teams moved up – New Orleans from seventh to first, Memphis from eighth to second, and the Lakers from 11th to fourth. The team with the sixth-best odds has yet to move up under the new format, so maybe it’s due?

“Any way it goes, we will be grateful, we will be happy,” team president Masai Ujiri said a few days after the season wrapped. “If we’re not in the top six, we have our pick next year. If we are in the top six, you go out and find the best guy or find whatever transaction there is to make the best use out of it. I don’t go into any situation in the NBA draft or free agency thinking [negatively].”

Despite the optimistic approach, Ujiri and the Raptors are in a no-win situation going into the lottery, and it’s one of their own making. They never expected to be in position to lose a high-lottery pick when they reacquired Poeltl, but that’s exactly where they find themselves 15 months later.

By adding a quality starting centre to a core group that already included an all-NBA forward (Siakam), an all-league defender (Anunoby), an all-star guard (Fred VanVleet) and the reigning Rookie of the Year (Barnes), they expected to be a playoff team through the 2023-24 season. As such, the pick they would send to San Antonio figured to be outside of the lottery, in the 15-18 range at best, or so they thought.

The price – Khem Birch, the top-six protected 2024 first-round pick, and two second rounders – was fair for a big man of Poeltl’s calibre, as Ujiri has pointed out repeatedly since. But if there was a blind spot it’s that Toronto’s now former core had been failing for reasons other than just its lack of size at the centre position. The miscalculation was doubling down on it at a point where they still had leverage. At the time, they had no plans to pivot towards a rebuild – one of the reasons why they were so willing to part with a future first rounder. That they ended up there a year later, with less to show for their best players and ahead of a draft class that pales in comparison to the one that came before it, was undoubtedly a misstep, and it could be costly.

Even if this summer’s draft – which will be held June 26-27 – is as bad as advertised, losing the seventh-overall pick would be a tough pill to swallow for a team in the very early stages of a rebuild, one that is desperate to add young talent around Barnes.

Keeping the pick, while useful in that regard, would just prolong this dilemma to next summer, when they’d be at risk of missing out on a much stronger 2025 class. Even in the so-called best-case scenario where the balls bounce their way on Sunday and they “win” the lottery, their prize would be the first pick in a draft without a consensus at the top.

Some view 7-foot-1 French big man Alexandre Sarr as the draft’s most intriguing prospect, with his physical tools and defensive upside, though you could make an argument for five or six different players in that spot. None of them figure to be at or near the same level as Sarr’s countryman and last year’s generational first pick Victor Wembanyama, or Duke freshman Cooper Flagg, the top prospect in the 2025 draft class.

“It doesn’t matter [how deep this draft is],” Ujiri said last month. “I think players are found everywhere. I can guarantee you there are going to be two or three all-stars that will come out of this draft. It happens every year. It’s on us. The responsibility is on us to find those players wherever we pick.”

This front office has had its misses in the draft, to be sure, but it’s also been able to find impact players and even stars from just about every range in both rounds. With the rebuild officially underway, there’s never been more pressure to hit on their picks.

First, they’ll need to know when and where those picks will come. They’ll find out soon enough.