“We’re a team of the future right now, and we’re waiting to find out how long the future will take to achieve, how long it will take us to get there. But we’ve got good young talent that we’re working very hard to develop; we’re investing time, effort and energy in them.” — Toronto Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo, Oct. 26, 2010.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Toronto Raptors aren’t very good. Oh, you have heard this before? Well, let’s rephrase. The Toronto Raptors are as bad as they have been in a decade, and maybe longer. They have lost 12 games in a row, 20 of their last 25, 36 of 49 overall. They are not sliding; they are plummeting, the air rushing by their ears. They were, as of Tuesday morning, the third-worst team in the NBA.
In other words: So far, so good.
Really, what more did you expect? What more could you ask for? Chris Bosh left for nothing tangible, injuries have abounded, and it turns out Andrea Bargnani is just about exactly who we thought he was. To those of us who have called on this team to embrace a patient, sustainable rebuild instead of swinging at the Jermaine O’Neals, Shawn Marions, and Hedo Turkoglus of this world — well, this is what it looks like. It looks like 13-36.
And that’s fine. Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo may have been painted into this corner — and applied a bucket of paint or two himself — but it was the only tenable corner to occupy. For all the flak Bosh took before and after his exit from Toronto, he carried this team, as best he could. Quick question: Who was Toronto’s second-best player last season?
It was probably Bargnani, as uninspiring — and uninspired — as he can be. He was this team’s Mo Williams, if you want to use the LeBron James comparison. (Cleveland, post-LeBron, is 8-40 and has lost 21 games in a row. You want depressing? There you go.) When a one-man band loses the man, the band tends to falter.
And this band is faltering about as well as it can. It is not losing like Cleveland, without heart or spine. It’s not losing to the Lakers by 55, the way the Cavaliers did on Jan. 11, to which the ever-classier LeBron tweeted, “Crazy. Karma is a b–—. Gets you every time. Its not good to wish bad on anybody. God sees everything!”
No, the Raptors are not getting commensurately humiliated, yet. They may get blown away like dust some nights — a 40-point loss to Orlando, for instance — but they also lost in January by three points, by six, three, four, two, and six again. Some nights, they try. But the important thing is that they lose. It’s the only productive thing to do.
And it is not like nothing is getting done. DeMar DeRozan has shown flashes of being a serious scorer, if little else — he is rebounding less and shooting worse than he was as a rookie last season, but every once in a while he shows flashes of being a serious NBA player. Bargnani has been a little better, if just as maddening. Forwards Ed Davis and Amir Johnson have shown flashes and improvement, respectively, which would be slightly more encouraging if they weren’t so close to being the same player.
But hey, assets are assets, and the Raptors need them. The trick is that all these young players are improving enough to perhaps become supporting players on a reasonable team, and no more. Which means the Raptors need to go and find a centrepiece, again. Since superstars don’t often get stolen in trades, and free agents aren’t coming to Canada, it is most likely go to be via the draft.
And while the 2011 draft is universally acclaimed as underwhelming, you might as well start there and see what you find. In the last 10 full seasons, the Raptors have missed the playoffs six times. In those six years, they recorded 24, 33, 33, 27, 33, and 40 wins. Their top picks in the drafts that followed were fourth, eighth, seventh, first — they moved up in the draft lottery despite an 8.8% chance at the top slot — ninth, and 13th.
In their worst year, the Raptors got Bosh. In their second-worst year, they won the wrong lottery but got the best guy on the team today, even if his essential flaws abide. When injured forward Reggie Evans tweeted yesterday that “If people do not have nothing good to say about [Bargnani] can kiss your the sun do not shine cause he our best player,” he offered a grammatically fractured but accurate assessment of life after Bosh.
And in the other seasons, had the Raptors picked, say, fourth overall instead of seventh or eighth or ninth, they could have had point guard Devin Harris (2004), point guard Chris Paul (2005), guards Tyreke Evans or Stephen Curry (2009), or big man DeMarcus Cousins (2010). Only Paul is a clear franchise player, but the point tends to be that if you draft well, it’s better to draft higher. If you’re going to be bad, be good at it.
Colangelo tends to bristle at the mere suggestion of tanking a season, because he is pathologically competitive. Which, to be clear, also beats the alternative. Colangelo’s mistakes tend to be mistakes of commission, rather than omission, so at least he is trying, too.
But Colangelo also moved Jarrett Jack, who was the team’s starting point guard, for future cap space; since then, the Raptors are 9-25, and Jose Calderon has re-established himself as someone who could conceivably be traded for something more than a bucket of poison one day. The heavy salary obligations lift in the summer of 2012, and maybe by then there are a couple more top-five draft picks hanging around. No guarantees, of course, but that’s probably when the future really begins.
On Tuesday, the Raptors got snowed under by the colossal snow storm sweeping over North America, and spent the night stuck in what Sonny Weems described on Twitter as “whack Indiana.” It probably seemed bleak. But no storm lasts forever, does it?