It seems like an eternity ago that the Toronto Raptors were sitting pretty as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference having just strung together wins against some of the conference's best teams.
Somewhere in the 2020-21 Toronto Raptors is that team, a team that has shown an ability to slow down some of the best teams in the league. They've done it before and they — at least in theory — can do it again. It's the glimmer of hope in an otherwise entirely forgettable season.
That stretch keeps coming up whenever Raptors coach Nick Nurse is asked about this season. He's seen what this team can do and so he can't help but look back to brighter times during that 12 or so game stretch in early February when the Raptors looked like legitimate playoff contenders.
But, you see, hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.
The Raptors are 18-29. They are, at least as far as the standings suggest, the seventh-worst team in the NBA and they're closer to being the second-worst team in the league than a sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. At this point, avoiding the play-in tournament as Toronto had once hoped for is almost impossible, and frankly, a spot even in the play-in tournament is tough to see.
Over the final 25 games of the season, the Raptors are going to play the Brooklyn Nets, L.A. Lakers, and L.A. Clippers twice and the Utah Jazz once. They have the seventh hardest remaining schedule in the NBA and none of the teams in the top six ahead of them is in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
I've broken their schedule down into four categories: bad teams, mediocre teams (including the Lakers without Anthony Davis and LeBron James), good teams, and great teams.
Let's say Toronto optimistically goes 5-2 against the bad teams (OKC, OKC, CLE, CLE, WAS, WAS, ORL), 5-5 against the mediocre teams (CHI, CHI, IND, NYK, NYK, ATL, SAS, GS, MEM, LAL), and 1-7 against the good and great teams (DEN, DAL, BKN, BKN, LAL, LAC, LAC, UTA). We're doing very rough math here, but that would give Toronto an 11-14 record over the final 25 games and a 29-43 record on the season. If everyone else keeps winning at their current rate, the Raptors would finish the season with the seventh-worst (or eighth if you give the Thunder a few more losses) record in the league and a 32% chance at a top-four pick in this year's draft and that's extremely valuable considering how talented this year's draft class is.
The Raptors are not going to overtly or even strategically tank. It's not in their nature. Nurse even said as much on Monday night when he said the time for load management and tinkering this season has passed and it's time for the team to start winning.
"The future is now," he declared.
He's right. The future is now. But not quite as he probably intended it to be. Toronto already committed to a retooling when it shipped away Norman Powell at the trade deadline. Now it's time to continue that shift toward the future. It's time to see what Malachi Flynn, Gary Trent Jr., and whoever else will be around for the future can bring. If it results in more losses, so be it. Frankly, it might actually be a good thing.