NEW YORK – The best team in the NBA’s Atlantic Division has a losing record and a winning stride, a coach who is hell-bent on making the playoffs and a general manager determined to blow it all up.
The Toronto Raptors are simultaneously winning and losing, contending and tanking, conflicted by the present, day-dreaming about their future. They are a bundle of contradictions, the dizziest team in the NBA, presiding over the league’s most feeble division.
“I’ve always defended the Atlantic,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said Friday, hastening to add, “We still have NBA players,” in case anyone had doubts.
Hours later, the Raptors took down the New York Knicks, 95-83, pushing their record to a robust 12-15. If the playoffs started today—and mercifully, they do not—the Raptors would be the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, by virtue of their division title, and would play the Charlotte Bobcats (14-16) in a first-round series. The Bobcats would host.
Such is the state of the East, where three teams have winning records and the rest dream of mediocrity and ping-pong balls.
The Raptors, who have won six of their last nine games, are still trying to sort out their goals.
They opened the season as a dark horse playoff contender, with just enough talent to be intriguing. Then they lost 12 of their first 18 games, and the intrigue suddenly shifted to the front office.
On Dec. 8, the Raptors consummated a deal to send forward Rudy Gay, their second-leading scorer, to the Sacramento Kings, for a package of players with shorter, cheaper contracts.
It was a payroll-clearing transaction at its core, a move by the new general manager, Masai Ujiri, to begin rebuilding a flawed roster. Gay is due $19.3 million next season. Ujiri had previously shipped forward Andrea Bargnani, and his horrendous contract ($11.9 million), to the Knicks over the summer.
But the Gay deal, according to front-office sources, also signaled a shift in philosophy. The Raptors had been on the fence about tanking—i.e., losing for the sake of getting a higher pick in the 2014 draft—but the poor start pushed them over the edge.
Every player on the Raptors’ roster—including leading scorer guard DeMar DeRozan and possibly even Jonas Valanciunas, the highly promising young center—could be available in a trade, according to those same front-office sources.
“We don’t know what they’re going to do,” DeRozan said, before asking a reporter, “You know something I don’t know?”
Point guard Kyle Lowry was nearly dealt to New York two weeks ago. But Knicks owner James L. Dolan, in a rare show of restraint, vetoed the trade rather than send Toronto another first-round draft pick. (The Knicks previously surrendered a first-rounder in the Bargnani deal – a decision that flew in the face of rational thought, since Toronto was desperate to unload Bargnani.)
So there was Lowry, still racing up court in a Raptors uniform, dropping 15 points and 11 assists on the Knicks on Friday. Valanciunas, a 2011 lottery pick with fantastic potential, had 16 points and 18 rebounds.
The Knicks, who have championship aspirations (and the NBA’s second highest payroll) fell to 9-20, four games behind the Raptors, who have no aspirations of winning at all.
This is not entirely true, of course. Team executives dictate a franchise’s agenda, but players and coaches dictate wins and losses, and most of them prefer the joy of the occasional victory.
In Casey’s case, that preference borders on defiance, if not insubordination.
“I’m not even going to talk about tanking,” Casey said, cutting off a reporter’s question about the draft. “I’m not going to answer that question. The goal is to win, period.”
Nor did Casey care to ponder where his players might land in the next month or two.
“I tell our staff all the time: We got to coach these guys like they're going to be here for five years,” he said. “Whatever happens from a front office standpoint, we have to do our job, be professional and work with the players and coach and teach.”
Casey is in the final year of his contract, so he is coaching for more than just pride. He has a career and a reputation to consider. Many of his players are in a similar position. Lowry, who is averaging 15.2 points and 7.0 assists, will be a free agent this summer and could be heading for a big payday.
“No matter what, I want to try to win games,” Lowry said. “I made a commitment to the city of Toronto and to myself and to the fans to try to get the Raptors to the playoffs, so that’s what I’m going out there to do.”
Moving Gay was a rational decision, no matter what the Raptors’ goals were. Although regarded as a scorer, Gay is a high-usage, low-efficiency shooter, a net minus when on the court. And his contract was a cap-killer.
If trading Gay was intended as a first step toward tanking, it has backfired spectacularly.
Over the last nine games, the Raptors have posted an offensive rating of 104.5 (a 3-point improvement) and a defensive rating of 100.5 (a 1.2-point improvement). Gay’s departure most certainly helped.
“Guys are understanding their roles, just helping each other,” Casey said. “The pass has helped us more than anything else. You know, Rudy had the individual talent to go one on one, and he was good at it, but right now we have to trust the pass and trust each other.”
Even Raptors fans are divided, some enjoying the team’s sudden resurgence and others bemoaning it, preferring short-term pain for the chance to get an elite talent, perhaps the Canadian-born Andrew Wiggins, next June.
Another conundrum: Winning enhances every player’s value for an eventual trade, but the more the Raptors win, the worse it looks to break up the roster, the more transparent the agenda becomes.
Those deals could come any week now, anytime before the Feb. 20 trade deadline, but the players have settled into a rather Zen mindset. DeRozan, who was drafted in 2009, is used to the upheaval. Chris Bosh left Toronto a year after DeRozan arrived. Every teammate from his rookie season, other than Amir Johnson, has departed.
“You got to get immune to a lot of stuff quick in this league,” DeRozan said.
Adjusting to the idea of a division winner with a losing record is something else entirely.
“I mean, you’re just happy to be on top, man,” DeRozan said.
The dizziest, most conflicted team in the NBA can at least take solace in that.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.