The tank is on for the Toronto Raptors.
The organization won't admit it. Nick Nurse basically scoffed at the notion the team would tank this season. But their actions tell a different story.
Saturday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers is almost a must-win game for the Raptors. They dropped their last must-win game to the Chicago Bulls who now sit 2.5 games up for the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference for the final spot in the play-in tournament. Not only are the Cavaliers "competing" for that final play-in spot as much as the Raptors, but Cleveland represents one of the few remaining easy games on the schedule for Toronto.
Now, there's no real way to prove a team is tanking. The players aren't ever going to throw a game and Nurse isn't going to call the wrong plays or make bad substitutions, but look at Toronto's roster for Saturday night. Fred VanVleet remains out with a hip injury. Kyle Lowry is battling a toe infection and has been downgraded from questionable to doubtful. And now, the most telling of all, Pascal Siakam will sit out Saturday's game due to rest.
In other years, rest would be totally understandable. Frankly, it makes sense for Siakam who continues to recover from COVID-19 especially with the team playing five games in seven days. But right now, with the team supposedly fighting for a playoff spot and already down two starters, it's hard to see the decision to rest Siakam as anything other than an opportunity to lose a pivotal game.
Coming into Saturday, the Raptors are a half-game back of the Cavaliers in the lottery standings. A Raptors win and an Oklahoma City loss to the Philadelphia 76ers would bump Toronto down to eighth in the lottery standings, giving them a 6% chance at the top pick and a 26.2% chance at a top-four pick. A loss to the Cavaliers, however, would likely have Toronto in a three-way tie with the Thunder and Washington Wizards for the fifth-best odds and almost a 40% chance at a top-four pick, according to Tankathon.
Looking ahead, it's hard to see the Raptors eking into the playoffs even if they went all out. They have the fifth-hardest remaining schedule with games against Brooklyn, both Los Angeles teams, Utah, and Denver still upcoming, and few truly winnable games on the horizon. Conversely, the Cavaliers and Wizards have fifth and ninth easiest remaining schedules, respectively.
The fanbase has already begun to turn its attention toward the lottery. They know that adding a top-four pick to a team that already boasts a very strong young core can be a major difference-maker for the years to come. Now, it appears the organization realizes that too.