TORONTO – The first rule of tank club is you do not talk about tank club.
Nick Nurse got the memo. Speaking to the media prior to Sunday’s game against Oklahoma City, a contest in which four of his five starters were unavailable, the Raptors coach addressed the elephant in the room. Sort of.
Why wasn’t Pascal Siakam playing?
“He hurt his shoulder,” Nurse responded.
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask him.”
Why was Kyle Lowry listed as out for rest instead of with the nagging foot ailment he had been battling?
“Well, I guess his toe’s better and he’s able to play but he’s resting,” said Nurse.
What else can he say?
Siakam and OG Anunoby were each missing their second straight game. Initially, the team ruled them both out of Friday’s meeting with Orlando for the purpose of rest. They amended Anunoby’s status just before tip-off, saying that he was actually sidelined with some lingering knee soreness. On Sunday, he was out with a hip issue.
The hip injury that recently kept Fred VanVleet out of seven games, prior to his return on Friday, flared up again so he wouldn’t be in uniform on Sunday either. Then there’s Lowry, who missed seven of eight games with a reoccurring toe infection earlier this month, returned and played 37 minutes against the Knicks last week, said he was “pretty much” healed afterwards, and has sat out four straight contests since – all of them for “rest.”
On Saturday, the NBA fined the Raptors $25,000, not for the act of sitting guys out, necessarily, but for “failing to comply with league policies governing player rest and injury reporting.” In other words, the league wants them to be more transparent. But not too transparent.
It’s a thin line, evidently. Toronto’s most recent opponent, the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder, are one of the most egregious tankers the association has ever seen. After moving most of their veteran players for draft picks, they recently sent Al Horford home for the season, citing the team’s desire to go younger in its rotation. They were not fined. Neither were the Pistons or Cavaliers, who shut down Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond for weeks at a time before waiving them last month.
“I don't get into why other teams do certain things and why we got fined,” Nurse said. “I've been told we kind of screwed it up administratively in the way we got it to the league or whatever. So that's a mistake we made, and [we] pay for it.”
The NBA knows that tanking goes on towards the bottom of the standings. They incentivize it with a draft lottery system that rewards losing, even if the odds of landing the top pick were flattened slightly a few years back. Their message to the Raptors: if you’re going to do it, at least get your stories straight.
By now, it’s become abundantly clear that Toronto has shifted its focus to something other than winning in the short term. Most understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, but that doesn’t mean everybody has to agree with it or feel good about it. You can include the head coach and his players in that group, which should continue to make for an awkward working environment over this final month of the season.
The front office would prefer not to win games. They’re content to play it safe with the vets, pepper the young guys with reps and opportunities to develop, and collect lottery balls along the way.
The guys on the court are playing for something different, though, and they’re not going to lie down. With Sunday’s 112-106 victory over Oklahoma City, the Raptors have now won three games in a row. Despite being 10 games under .500 with 14 contests left, they’re three percentage points ahead of Chicago and Washington, who both have a couple games in hand, for 10th place in the East and the final spot in the play-in tournament.
With two fewer games and a tougher remaining schedule than either the Bulls or Wizards, their path to the play-in, and potentially the playoffs, is anything but easy. But they aren’t out of it either, in spite of the team’s intentions. The reality, and the irony within it, is that they can continue to sit guys out, and they likely will, but somebody has to play and those guys have their own agendas.
For the most part, they’re playing for their next contract, their next job, and they couldn’t care less what pick the Raptors have in a few months from now. Paul Watson, whose deal isn’t guaranteed for 2021-22, scored a career-high 30 points in the win over Orlando. Yuta Watanabe, who’s on a two-way contract and will be a restricted free agent in the summer, also had a personal-best with 21 points in that game. Chris Boucher went off for 31 points and hit the dagger, a three-pointer with 11 seconds to go, against the Thunder. The Raptors will almost certainly pick up his option for next season, but as of now, his future is also out of his hands.
Even the players that have guaranteed deals for next season, they’re competitors, they want to be on the court, not resting on the bench.
“It's tough,” VanVleet said on Saturday. “I would like to play when I'm able to but I understand the other side of things. It's just one of those things where we've gotta come together as a team and as an organization, and have that open line of communication. But yeah, I'm open to everything. Doesn't necessarily mean I agree with it or believe in it, but I'm certainly not gonna cause any disruption. So that's a tough question to answer publicly, for sure. I think that I'm on board with this franchise in whatever direction that we're going.”
As for Nurse, it shouldn’t be hard to sympathize with the third-year head coach in this situation. On a game day, he’ll wake up and check in with president Masai Ujiri or general manager Bobby Webster, as well as the team’s medical staff. They tell him who’s available and who’s not, and then his job is to go out there and find a way to win with the players he’s got at his disposal.
He’s nothing if not adaptable. He prides himself on his ability and willingness to roll with the punches. He’s made a three-decades long career of it. This is a different challenge, though, and it comes with its moments of frustration. On Friday, and then again two days later, he had to make do without 80 per cent of his starting lineup.
How many more players could use a rest night or two, or six? Who else is nursing a sore hip, or shoulder, or knee? If the Raptors continue to win, in spite of themselves, we may find out.