The Toronto Raptors have the ability to be good but the incentive to be bad.
They are—and I mean this in the most complimentary way possible—a symptom of the disease afflicting the entire NBA. Competitive sports are supposed to be, you know...competitive. But Toronto is in a position where trying its best has very real and profound negative consequences.
How did the league get to this strange place where losing was actually winning, and vice versa?
To unpack that riddle, maybe it'll help to first examine the Raptors specifically.
We'll take a look at how they got to where they are now, and cast an eye toward the divergent paths that lie ahead. In the process, we'll see a bizarre conundrum crystallize, a backward set of incentives that have the surging Raptors taking a step in the wrong direction for every one they take in the right one.
How they choose to navigate the rest of this complicated season will not only have immense ramifications for their future, but will also have the power to change the entire structure of the NBA.
The Good Part About Being Good
The Raptors have been a joy to watch lately. In a recent run marked by ball movement, improved defense and remarkable team play, Toronto has changed its identity on the fly. And it's not hard to pinpoint the reason.
Rudy Gay's departure ushered in a completely new (and markedly more successful) style of play.
The sheer volume of numbers showing the Raps' improvement since dealing Gay to the Sacramento Kings is overwhelming. Here's a basic expression of their growth, per ESPN Stats and Information:
After Friday's win, Raptors have best record in East (2nd-best record in NBA) since trading Rudy Gay on Dec 8 pic.twitter.com/DQ7Ij102Xo— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 4, 2014
Pretty simple, huh? Trade Gay and suddenly you're better than the Miami Heat.
Obviously, Toronto isn't among the East's elite just yet. But the change has been so profound and abrupt that it has some observers around the league facetiously wondering whether trading Gay was an unfair advantage:
Great two-way performance by the Raptors last night. League may have to outlaw trading Rudy Gay as a performance enhancing drug.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) January 4, 2014
The about-face in the Raptors' fortunes isn't that hard to understand. Cutting ties with Gay allowed the team's young talent—of which there's a a lot, by the way—to blossom. DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson have both been much better without a certain black hole sucking up possessions on offense.
Gay was generally liked by his teammates, so nobody on Toronto's roster is taking shots at him. But you can sense references to Gay's absence in the way guys like Patrick Patterson (one of the pieces that came back from Sacramento) talks about the mentality of the current roster.
Per Marc Stein of ESPN, Patterson said:
No one on this team is selfish; everyone accepts their roles. No one wants to get more shots, no one wants to do more of this, no one is jealous of another player ... we all understand what we have to do in order to make this machine keep rolling smoothly.
Everything is clicking for the Raptors roster, and the head coach reaped the reward recently. Dwane Casey was named the NBA's Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for December.
The Raptors are a ton of fun to watch lately, have been winning games and are among the league's best feel-good stories. But Casey's honor provides a perfect point to transition into discussing the ugly underside of Toronto's beautiful season.
The Bad Part About Being Good
Casey has done a brilliant job for his team this year, but paradoxically, he might not be doing a very good job for his franchise's future. That's because for every win Casey coaxes out of his ragtag Raptors, the organization moves further away from a high lottery pick.
For his part, Casey understands the conundrum. But he's keeping his approach as simple as possible.
Per Grantland's Zach Lowe, the old-school coach responded to questions about the Raptors' unusual situation by saying:
Masai (Ujiri) is the boss. I'm a company guy. I've gotta go with him. I'm never going to talk about losing games on purpose. I won't even discuss it. (Management) doesn't bring it down here, but they have every right to talk about it. They have to think about the big picture. What I have to do is coach the guys we do have, and coach the heck out of them.
That's the right attitude, and probably the only one that will keep Casey sane in the days and weeks to come.
Trying to win is precisely what he should be doing, but he'll have to pursue that goal with the knowledge that maximizing his team's chances at a No. 1 overall pick—especially in a draft that features the best Canadian-born prospect in NBA history in Andrew Wiggins—might be a wiser route to take.
Realistically, the Raptors aren't going to win a title this year. But the odds say they've got a terrific, nearly iron-clad chance to make the playoffs.
Per Eric Koreen of the National Post, the Raps even have a great shot to secure their division and home-court advantage. All they have to do is stay the course, which, of course, is something they might not want to do:
Heading into Sunday’s games, ESPN’s algorithms had the Raptors heading for 50 wins, a 99.9% chance of making the playoffs, a 99% chance of winning the Atlantic Division and, what the heck, a 16% chance of making the Finals. While precisely none of that passes the smell test — the Raptors entered Sunday’s play just four games up on the Celtics, who are also currently the ninth-seeded team, for the division lead — the point is clear: It would take a combination of failure-minded trades, bad play and bad luck to get the Raptors into the lottery. And that has some fans worried.
Koreen refers to "tanking," the buzzword of the 2013-14 season and a very enticing option for these Raptors.
Breaking the Mold
We've seen teams tank before, but we've never seen one that could so easily expect to play its way into a favorable first-round playoff matchup start losing on purpose. Think about it: It's not a stretch to say that the Raptors have an inside track on making it as far as the second round.
From there, who knows what favorable tricks chance and randomness might play? What if LeBron James sprains an ankle and can't take the court in a hypothetical second-round matchup? What if Space Jam is actually real and Paul George gets abducted by aliens who want to harvest his talent?
By tanking, Toronto would be giving up on a legitimate chance to throw its hat into the postseason ring.
Trading Gay was a move that most reasonable people expected would make the Raps better, both in the near- and long-term pictures. But it was still a move made with an eye toward the future because of the financial savings it produced.
Dumping Kyle Lowry, which has been rumored for weeks, would be something entirely different. It would be a deliberate attempt to weaken the current roster with little apparent long-term benefit. And that's just the beginning; there are countless other moves the Raptors could make in an effort to lose games.
The fact that they're considering them just seems wrong.
Per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, Ujiri is still toeing a fine line between enjoying the present triumph and planning his next teardown move:
The players know, I have communicated to everybody where we stand. We want to be a good team, a winning team. If it's not that way, we have to figure out a way to rebuild the team or figure it out. Everybody's clear how this thing works.
Like Casey, Ujiri is just doing his job. The difference is, he's got the power—not to mention the immense motivation—to undermine his team's current success.
The Big Question
Maybe the Raptors will ride this out, maybe they'll keep trying to win and maybe they won't cut their own legs out from underneath themselves by trading away talent in an effort to lose.
But they're playing in a league that has made winning in circumstances like theirs less than ideal.
If there's to be any semblance of real competition in the NBA, the league can't sit idly by and watch a team like this—with whom the fans have fallen in love, that is winning and that already has a bunch of young talent on the roster—lose on purpose.
By bottoming out deliberately, the Raptors could force the league to make major changes to its incentive system.
I don't think it works, because culture is critical. And I don't think you can build a winning tradition with an undercurrent that "it's better to be bad." I've never seen it be successful. It makes me nervous that it has to be asked, so I recognize it's something the league has to focus on.
If the Raptors nosedive, it might force Silver to upgrade his tanking "threat level" a bit.
In an odd way, Toronto is at the center of the NBA universe right now. What the Raptors decide to do over the next few months will impact the future of the entire league more significantly than anything else that happens this season.
If you're looking for a suggestion as to what the right decision might be, forget it. Toronto is operating in an upside-down reality where losses are wins and successes are failures. Offering advice in such a twisted landscape is pointless.
Whatever happens, let's at least hope there's a plan in the works to sort this mess out. The competitive spirit of the NBA depends on it.