It’s time for the Raptors to truly embrace the tank

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To say the Toronto Raptors need to tank is like saying we need more electric vehicles: it’s true, but we’re already on the way there. The defence, which used to be an organizational superpower, doesn’t work anymore. The cohesion, which used to be assumed, is frayed.

After losing to a Boston team that was missing three starters by the end of the game Saturday, the Raptors had the sixth-worst record in the NBA. After beating New York on Sunday, they inched back into seventh. Well, you can’t lose them all.

That said, it’s time to embrace the tank. Toronto has good players, an average point differential and a bad mix, and embracing a lost season is the only sensible path. Sunday saw Fred VanVleet play despite rib soreness, and O.G. Anunoby out with ankle soreness; minor injuries can become tank material. The trickier stuff would be trades, and as the Star’s Doug Smith wrote, the players see what could happen, too.

The reason it’s tricky is not just because making great trades is hard in the NBA, but because Toronto has so many hypothetical options for HOW to tank. Even if teams are reticent to offer Rudy Gobert-style deals anymore, team president Masai Ujiri has a whole buffet of options. The question is what the organization wants, and can get.

You want to move one core piece? You have four available, and the differences in potential return between Gary Trent Jr., VanVleet, Anunoby and Pascal Siakam range from minor upgrades to a bejewelled haul. You want to become Oklahoma City, with draft picks in bunches? At least one team has previously offered three first-round picks for Anunoby, and Siakam is worth more. Trading both would be a near-total reset around Scottie Barnes.

And if the right deal doesn’t materialize, well … the team is already seventh-worst in the league, and when you play all five starters 40 minutes a game, it shouldn’t take much to sabotage an already janky team. It’s all there for Toronto, but remember: Ujiri can be as unsentimental as a shark. Any of the core four COULD move.

But the desired horizon matters. Ujiri has never wanted to try a total rebuild; he described the Tampa tank, a one-season experiment, as one of the least enjoyable years of his life. It will be harder to do with a team that is actually playing at home, at MLSE prices.

No, the only recognizable Raptors strategy has to be to let the season go further sideways in the year of Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson and a deep draft, before rising anew. This team will want to contend again, too.

The margins aren’t obvious, or easy. Houston, Detroit, Charlotte and San Antonio are the league’s four worst folding chairs, and will be hard to catch, but Toronto should try. The difference between seventh-worst, sixth-worst and fifth-worst is a 15.3 per cent, 18.2 per cent or 21 per cent change at a top-two pick; fourth-worst is 24.7 per cent, and it tops at 27.4 per cent after that. In a year like this, every percentage point might matter. And even the short-term-tank route doesn’t rule out moving any of the core four: it just sets the parameters for what you’d want in return.

It’s a hell of a puzzle. It’s easy to say you can trade Trent Jr., who is an average player with upside; he might bring back a first-rounder, plus a salary. It has become surprisingly easy to say you could trade VanVleet, whose body, defence and shotmaking have all suffered this season. He’s been walking championship culture for this team, and playing him heavy minutes seems unwise, but VanVleet should be a really good team’s third- or fourth-best player, and shouldn’t be a top shot creator; he’s just not athletic or consistent enough to do it. His potential free agency this summer could hurt his value, some. But there are teams that value him.

And if you want to really change the mix and depth of assets around this team you consider moving Anunoby or Siakam, and this is where things get more complicated. Anunoby is still just 24, and his defence is superb. But his shot creation remains relatively rudimentary, even as he is said to want a bigger offensive role. His salary is easy to move or pair with another contract; he could fit easily into a number of teams. And he would bring back a lot.

And that brings us to the question of Siakam. He’s carried this team this season. He’s the best shot creator they have, by a lot. He can still add electric defence, which he showed at the end of the win over the Knicks in New York last week. He’s great.

And he’s 29 on a team where Barnes is seen as the key to the team’s future. Barnes is now flashing his potential more often as a point centre and in crunch time after a strangely passive year, and this team still believes Barnes can be a superstar — though that isn’t a guarantee yet — so you could see the argument for getting the ball into Barnes’s hands more, and doing so while turning your 29-year-old star into a wealth of assets. There is, at least, a logic there.

Even that idea comes with options: Toronto could try to weigh deals for present value, or future picks. Do they inquire into New Orleans first-rounder Dyson Daniels with filler and picks, or Daniels and injury-prone scorer Brandon Ingram? Do the Raptors try a lateral move and inquire into a package for Deandre Ayton and picks from Phoenix? Do they bet on the surgically repaired knee of Chicago’s Zach LaVine? Do they ask Indiana about Myles Turner and Canadian Andrew Nembhard? Denver probably doesn’t move Jamal Murray, right?

There are a lot of phone calls to make, if that’s the route you take. But you can’t afford to miss on a Siakam trade, either. Whatever the result, it’s time for the Raptors to truly embrace the tank, and maybe to change. You may want to get emotionally prepared.

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