It takes a certain level of apathy to be able to just think of what-ifs and then shrug them off as just that. I liken it to some sort of an emotionally empty superpower that can be both a blessing and a curse, depending purely on the context. I wish I had that power.
And NBA general managers and franchises? We’ll never know exactly how easy they can shake things off and move forward. I mean, how quickly can a GM tell himself that taking Greg Oden over Kevin Durant was “an error in judgment and we can’t dwell on the past”? Personally I would go to my grave continuing to look over stat sheets and measurables and scouting reports to try and justify that I did not only the right thing, but the same that everyone else would have done.
Having the NBA Lottery Tuesday night conjured up all these thoughts of what-ifs in me. The Toronto Raptors weren’t in it, which is a nice morale boost given the past few seasons of futility. They wouldn’t want to be in the lottery after how their season played out, with career years from important players and an optimistic outlook that is shared by both the franchise and the fan base.
But they could have been in the lottery. And it wouldn’t have been a bad year to be holding a ticket.
Look back to around December of last year, as the season was only about a month old but the tenor of my Toronto Raptors columns, and certainly the musings of many others, were centered on the idea of whether the Raptors needed to take the plunge and tank the season. Being an unfortunate prisoner of the moment, I jumped on the bandwagon and screamed for the trade of both Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry with an option to move DeMar DeRozan of the “right” offer came along.
I was convinced that the dreaded “no man’s land” was the inevitable destination for those Raptors if they didn’t make a drastic move to overhaul the roster. If that meant fielding a team of Jonas Valanciunas, scrubs, and blind hope, then they had to be committed to that end.
But that isn’t how things progressed. Trading Rudy Gay made the Raptors a better, far more efficient team. It allowed DeRozan to become the “Tracy McGrady-lite” that I had been touting before the season began. It let Kyle Lowry finally have the ball in his hands and run a team. He found a real home for the first time and we will see in the coming months if that was more than just talk on his part. Simply put, on the surface, not tanking the season worked.
There is a small part of me, though, that still thinks GM Masai Ujiri feels he needed this lottery to put his stamp on this Raptors team. I still think that he felt the team would collapse without Gay and they would make trades and set themselves up for a very high pick. Ideally it would have been Canadian golden boy Andrew Wiggins to save Canada from its downtrodden basketball history and make for a new era. It didn’t happen, and I would love to see if there is any muted contempt beneath Uriji’s enthusiastic showing. I hope not, but I wonder.
So, again it brings me back to that lottery last night. The Cleveland Cavaliers got the first pick for the third time in four years. They had a 1.7 percent chance of getting the top pick. Let the conspiracy theories fly, as they always do, and the debate will rage about who will hit and who will miss in spectacular fashion, because someone will.
And what would a tank have done? Would the Raptors have been worse than the Bucks or the 76ers or the Jazz? Not a chance. They would have been better than the Lakers and the Kings, probably markedly so. Honestly, they would have had like the ninth or 10th pick.
I’ll say this: If Gary Harris or Doug McDermott gets you excited enough to want to lose games on purpose, then your franchise probably doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on in the first place. I’ll take the 20th pick and a real tangible optimism over “winning” draft night all day long.