TORONTO – The end doesn’t always justify the means, but in this case, there probably aren’t many Raptors fans complaining about the team’s laissez-faire approach to the final month of last season.
Instead of trying to salvage a seemingly lost campaign and squeeze into the postseason via the play-in tournament, Toronto opted to prioritize rest for its veteran players, development for its young players, and yes, lottery balls.
“This is all about winning a championship again,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said after his club finished the season with a disappointing 27-45 record and missed the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
“You want to prepare yourself to win another one. Not play in the play-in game, not play in the playoffs, you want to win a championship. Everybody’s like, ‘Why don’t you get into the play-in?’ Play-in for what?”
It wasn’t a universally popular choice at the time, but there’s a reason why they made it, and on Tuesday it paid off.
The Raptors entered the NBA’s draft lottery with the seventh-best odds of landing the first pick and what was essentially a one-in-three (or 31.9 per cent, to be exact) shot of moving up into the top four. And that’s what they did. Thanks to some lottery luck, Toronto will select fourth overall in next month’s draft.
“It’s a silver lining on a tough season, but the work starts now,” said general manager Bobby Webster. “The jump from seven to four is meaningful for us. As far as franchise altering, obviously, it depends on the player and who gets selected and ultimately what the player becomes. But it does increase our odds.”
If you were going to move up in the draft, this was the year to do it. While it’s believed to be a deep class, the talent up top is undeniable.
Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham is the big prize and, barring something shocking, he’ll be the first player off the board. There’s a reason he’s the consensus top pick. He’s a generational talent, a superstar in the making. Detroit, who won the lottery, will be getting a good one.
But the other three players projected to go in the star-studded top four – USC big man Evan Mobley; athletic wing Jalen Green, who spent last season with G League Ignite; and Gonzaga point guard Jalen Suggs – are elite prospects in their own right. In another year, in a different class, any one of those guys could be the top pick.
They’re three very different players with different skill sets at different stages of their development.
Mobley is a versatile big that would immediately address some of Toronto’s frontcourt concerns, especially on the defensive end. He’s raw but with immense two-way potential he might have the highest upside of anybody in this draft.
It’s been a while since the Raptors had a player as explosive and athletically gifted as Green. He showed an improved ability to score and shoot the ball as the G League season went along and would fit in nicely with Toronto’s young core.
Suggs is the type of prospect Toronto has long gravitated to: Tough, competitive, hard working, high-IQ and mature beyond his years. He’s a natural leader and a winner, through and through. If the Raptors wind up moving on from Kyle Lowry this summer, he would be the perfect successor.
At No. 4, the Raptors won’t get to choose between them – that distinction will go to Houston and Cleveland, who drew the second and third picks, respectively – but they will have the right to select whoever is left on the board.
But not so fast. What if they like somebody else in this class? Jonathan Kuminga, also of G League Ignite, headlines the next tier. Florida St. forward Scottie Barnes is shooting up draft boards and looks the part of a Raptors prospect, with his length and defensive upside.
We’ve seen this front office go off the board before, or they could look to move down. What about trading out of the draft altogether? Considering they’ve set their sights on a return to the top of the Eastern Conference, would it make more sense to leverage the pick for a veteran player that better fits their timeline?
The Raptors knew that they would have flexibility going into this crucial offseason and the jump to pick No. 4 gives them even more of it. You can bet they’re planning to explore all of their options.
“The value from seven to four, even if you look at it historically, whether it’s a player or trade, it’s meaningful,” said Webster. “All of our options are open. As much as we would love the pick, we’re going to see what it yields outside of the draft.”
Webster, Ujiri and most of the team’s front office watched the lottery from a bar in Chicago, where they’re attending the draft combine. Fred VanVleet served as the team’s good luck charm, representing the team virtually on the broadcast from his home in nearby Rockford, Illinois.
It was only the second time that Toronto has been in the lottery during Ujiri and Webster’s eight-year tenure, with the first coming when they selected Jakob Poeltl ninth overall in 2016. This is not an experience they’re used to or want to relive any time soon. Webster described it as “incredibly stressful,” and Raptors fans can relate.
This is a front office that’s had plenty of success finding and developing talent late in the draft, or even outside of the draft. In 2016, they snagged Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and then signed VanVleet as an undrafted free agent. They got OG Anunoby at pick No. 23 a year later. They’ve never had an asset like the fourth-overall selection. Naturally, most people are excited to see what they can do with it.
“I think it's kind of a challenge and fun,” Webster said. “We haven't, fortunately, been in this position much in the past. And so, for us, it's a great challenge. It's a great project for us to really dive into. So, from that perspective, I think we feel less pressure and more challenge.”
The pre-draft process has already begun. The Raptors have started scheduling prospect workouts, which they’ll hold at their facilities in Tampa over the coming weeks. Now they’ll get to take a closer look at a few players they didn’t anticipate being able to audition and interview. It’s unlikely that guys like Mobley, Green or Suggs plan on visiting teams outside of the top four or five.
As for Ujiri, whose contractual status is still uncertain, his role in the decision-making process remains the same as seasons past, according to Webster. That’s reassuring when you consider how many big decisions the Raptors have to make this summer, beginning with the draft on July 29th.