At the start of the season, it seemed asinine to assume that the Toronto Raptors wouldn’t be in contention for the postseason.
Hot off a year where Pascal Siakam was named to the All-NBA team, Fred VanVleet was named to his first All-Star game, and Scottie Barnes was named Rookie of the Year, Toronto seemed set for the near future as one of the Eastern Conference’s most competitive lineups.
The same can’t exactly be said for the state of the current team on January 5.
While the team’s shown flashes of brilliance throughout the season, their 16-22 record and 12th place ranking in the East makes one wonder: was last season a blur? Is this roster really broken? Will they be able to turn it around soon?
We’re not quite halfway through the NBA regular season, but we will be by this point next week.
And as it stands, the Raptors have got the 6th best odds at the first overall pick, as well as a 34.8% shot at a top-four pick, per Tankathon.com.
And that’s while they’re trying to be competitive.
For a group of players that looks dysfunctional on many nights, adding a top-end, young talent to the mix could be the jolt the franchise needs to get back to its winning ways.
So-called “rebuilds” can happen in the NBA seemingly overnight, with a new piece or two completely transforming a roster.
Enter Victor “Wemby” Wembanyama, largely considered to be arguably the best NBA prospect since LeBron James. Yes, he’s expected to be that good.
Who is “Wemby” and why do Raptors fans want him?
Wenbanyama isn’t like any basketball player you’ve ever seen before. Standing at 7’4″, the 19-year-old French forward is described by just about everyone who’s watched him as a one-of-a-kind talent.
“Wembanyama can create off the dribble, shoot one-legged three-pointers, and act as a human fly swatter around the rim or on the perimeter when switched onto guards,” HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto recently wrote.
He’s currently averaging 22.9 points, 9.6 rebounds, and three blocks per game for Metropolitans 92 of the top French league this season.
I don't think we're talking enough about how Victor Wembanyama is making floater 3-pointers a thing over in France. He's made multiple of these shots this season, and it breaks my brain every time he does it. Think Luka is the only other person I've seen try this more than once? pic.twitter.com/5T3MhWjit6
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) January 3, 2023
And Raptors fans have made their voices heard: they’ve seen enough of this team and want the team to give it their best shot at landing the projected superstar — with some thinking they might’ve actually already secretly started that plan.
At least Victor Wembanyama will rebound for the Raptors next season.
— Chris Walder (@WalderSports) December 30, 2022
Raptors tanking for Wembanyama?
— Samatar (@Cemetery_19) December 30, 2022
Wembanyama Future Raptor
— Raptors ao Contrário 🦖 (16-66) (@srotparrrrr) January 5, 2023
Raptors trying to get in on the Wembanyama sweepstakes? I'm down for it 🤷🏽♂️👀
— H.A. (@6r4v3h34rt) January 3, 2023
— phil verret (@BasketballPhil) January 5, 2023
If there is a knock on Wembanyama’s game, it’s hardly his own fault: 7’4″ players have a tendency to get injured at a higher rate than most due to the unique nature of their body structure. Expecting a long, healthy, career is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Of course, there are no guarantees that tanking for Wembanyama works. Even if Toronto finished bottom-three in the NBA, they’d still only have 14% odds at landing Wembanyama (or anyone else with the first overall pick).
It’s a draft class that features other top-end talents like G League Scoot Henderson, Arkansas’ Anthony Black and Nick Smith, Alabama’s Brandon Miller, Kansas’ Gradey Dick, and South Carolina’s GG Jackson, but Wembanyama projects to be head-and-shoulders — literally and figuratively — above everybody else.
As for Wembanyama himself? Well, he’s not a fan of tanking either.
“Tanking? It’s a weird strategy,” Wembanyama said recently in a chat with French newspaper Le Parisien. “I find it unreasonable, and I try not to think about it.”
How would Toronto actually go about tanking?
Tanking, in theory, can go down in many different ways.
There’s the simplest method: trade all your top assets for as many draft picks as you can get, and hope you end up with some high-value ones in the process. Teams like Oklahoma City, Boston, and Philadelphia have taken this path over the years.
But Toronto already has all its own draft picks moving forward, as well as five players that have proven to be serviceable NBA starters in Gary Trent Jr., Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Scottie Barnes.
Selling the house doesn’t seem like the sensible strategy, although trade rumours have sprung up recently about just about every single one of those players. If Toronto wanted to truly “tank for Wemby,” it’d probably start by parting with one of those five names.
Trent Jr. and VanVleet both have a player option after this season that could take them to free agency, making them the most likely trade candidates.
But if Toronto doesn’t opt for a big move, there are still ways to sneakily tank that we’ve seen over the years: play your best players less, and your lesser players more.
Any minor injury is suddenly treated like a major one, and the “40 minutes a night” plan for the team’s starters might suddenly dip to 30 or so.
VanVleet’s reoccurring lower back stiffness? Yeah, expect that to change from day to day to week to week if the Raptors plan to commit to the Wembanyama sweepstakes.
Only time will tell what direction the Raptors go in for the remainder of the year.
But man, is it fun to imagine that one-of-a-kind talent calling Scotiabank Arena his new home.
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