The talk of the week is tanking vs. battling to the end.
The Raptors made it clear by resting a fully healthy Kyle Lowry (in addition to the banged up OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher) that they were done even pretending they cared about making the NBA’s play-in round. Why extend this season of misery? They have “home fans” booing them. Many are away from family and friends. Yes, they have nice weather in Florida, but it hasn’t been home. It’s been constant travel, COVID protocols, constant lineup changes due to injuries and COVID. It’s also costing the franchise money every day they stick around in Florida (not that fans or media should care about that. Just pointing it out).
Just shut it down and reset. A high draft pick is vitally needed. The worse their record, the better the odds of a higher selection. No, it’s not foolproof, and teams that live in the lottery seldom become contenders, but it’s OK to be there once or twice. It’s time for a shot in the arm. There’s no point risking anything, be it health or lottery odds, with just over a week remaining. They’d been eying the future for a while, with various lineup decisions backing that claim up. Now, it’s just more obvious.
Some will disagree with the approach, and that’s fine. I’ve always agreed with Masai Ujiri, who said that he didn’t want to be in the middle. That’s the worst place to be in sports. Either be competitive, or be terrible. As long as the best prospects go to the teams with the worst records, that’s what makes sense.
Either way, the players on the court are still going extremely hard. Pascal Siakam matched his career-high with 44 points. Yes, he had a tough finish, but joined some impressive company (that Chris Bosh isn’t on this list is a further indictment, to me, of the talent that was put around him):
Gary Trent Jr. made a nice return to the lineup. Trent had four rough games before exiting the lineup with his injury, so the Raptors have to be pleased with his work against Washington. It’s impressive that Trent has hit at least 50% of his three-point attempts in five of his 15 games with the Raptors (and each of those games came on huge three-point volume). Is the streakiness concerning though? Trent has hit 20% or worse from three in six of the games, so it’s been a bit of feast or famine.
The appearance did have minor cap implications for the Raptors. Trent reached starter criteria in his contract, meaning Toronto’s qualifying offer for the restricted free agent now needs to be $4.7 million instead of $2.1 million and his cap hold jumps by the same amount.
Does that matter? Not really. If Kyle Lowry returns it shouldn’t have any impact as they won’t be able to sign a major outside free agent anyway (not that many of those players are available in this diluted class). If Lowry leaves and they have a target they want to spend big bucks on, having $2.6 million less immediately available (Trent can be signed after and will end up with more than three times the actual qualifying offer in Year 1) shouldn’t exactly swing anything. If they’re doling out a contract well in excess of $50 million to a free agent, can’t imagine $2.6 million less off the top would be a dealbreaker.
How great is Bradley Beal? The Raptors threw everything but the kitchen sink at the Wizards star, who is second in the NBA in scoring again this year. Only four players have averaged more points since 2017-18 than Beal (and all but Damian Lillard has been an MVP) so the Raptors understandably tried to let other Wizards beat them, but Beal still managed to score 28 points. He only got one three-point attempt up, which made the performance even more impressive. Beal wasn’t thrilled about how he was defended, as he made clear post-game while taking a shot at Nick Nurse, but he has to respect it.
The stuff coming out of Indiana about Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren is really strange to hear and frankly, not all that believable. This isn’t to say Bjorkgren is blameless in whatever is happening and his current spot on the hot seat isn’t earned. I don’t know him well, or what’s going on behind the scenes. Moving over a seat isn’t easy. You need to have a completely different relationship with players as a head coach vs. When you are a lieutenant. You can’t be buddy-buddy anymore. It’s a tough transition and maybe it’s been a challenge for Bjorkgren.
But the hit jobs, like a recent one in Bleacher Report, just seems over the top.
Bjorkgren has always been great to deal with from a media side and much more importantly, everyone we’ve talked to has been effusive in their praise about him.
“If you don’t like Nate, you’re crazy, there’s something wrong with you,” Fred VanVleet said earlier this season when the Raptors were getting ready to play the Pacers.
Before that, when Nurse and his staff were named as the all-star coaching staff, Kyle Lowry told a few of us: “Nate is the … I would say, he is the f___ing man,” said six-time all-star point guard Kyle Lowry, who isn’t usually given to heaping praise upon his coaches.
“He’s always that positive, happy go-lucky, always looking at it as the plus side, not looking at anything negative,” Lowry said of Bjorkgren.
“What I do love about our coaches is they’re not stubborn. They’re not like: ‘We’re gonna do it this way.’ They really are relaxed and they listen to the players and let the players have opinions,” Lowry added.
Does that sound anything like that report? Not in the slightest. And TJ Warren even responded to the report with a terse: “Don’t use me to push false narratives,” tweet.
Bizarre stuff. Does it help to coach veteran winners on a contender, the way Bjorkgren did in Toronto? Sure. Is it possibly some younger players are more sensitive and resistant to “hard coaching” and “constructive criticism?” Perhaps. Is it true that good guy and fellow former Raptors assistant Bill Bayno quit because he couldn’t get along with Bjorkgren, as the report claims? Who knows. It just doesn’t jive with everything that’s come out of Toronto.
The Raptors will welcome back Bjorkgren with open arms next season if he gets fired by the Pacers, if he wants to come back.
THREE STARS VS. WIZARDS:
1 — Pascal Siakam (Went beast mode in a big game).
2 — Bradley Beal (A relentless scoring machine).
3 — Gary Trent Jr. (That’s how you make a return).