In the inglorious recent history of the Toronto Raptors, owners of a lone winning season in their last 11, this might be the most annoying thing yet: They can't even tank the right way.
They are falling forward and stumbling up, bumbling their way to the division lead, now fresh off an accidental flogging of the Pacers to start the calendar year. They are winning when maybe they should be losing. They are screwing up a chance to build a solid foundation this off-season. And through it all, their fans and new management can only shrug and applaud a job well done, though not too loudly or enthusiastically.
Over the last month, the Raptors have looked like a contender -- even though they're not, at least not in the genuine sense. They won in Oklahoma City and Dallas and then, before a hyped home crowd on New Year's Day, ran away from the Pacers in a thoroughly-convincing fourth quarter. That's a win against the best team in the West and best in the East over 11 days. They've gone 9-3 since trading Rudy Gay. They're starting a stretch of soft scheduling that's almost guaranteed to nudge them comfortably above .500 in the standings by month's end. Isn't this the way to re-establish your good name and create a lasting and respectable team for the near future and beyond?
Well, to be brutally honest, no.
Welcome to the Raptors' world, where nothing is making sense, where they're losing by winning, where the fun times come with a false ring to them. Normally, when a team that was 9-20 a year ago this time is looking down at everyone in the Atlantic Division, it's cause for celebration. Normally, when a team hits .500 this deep in the season for the first time since 2009-10, it's a sure sign of progress. And yes, in one sense, what the Raptors are doing is admirable.
"We don't care who's out there in front of us," said DeMar DeRozan.
But let's be real: Ownership doesn't want this team to win its way out of next summer's draft lottery. And if you placed Masai Ujiri's hand on the Bible, the first-year general manager would come clean as well. The blueprint for the franchise was to remain stuck to the bottom of the East this season, purge the roster of bad contracts and stagnant players to create cap space, then pluck local kid Andrew Wiggins or another one-and-doner from what may be the swaggiest draft class since LeBron-Carmelo-Wade-Bosh in 2003.
What the Raptors didn't anticipate was the East collectively crashing and causing Toronto to rise by default. The Raptors are actually being punished by staying healthy and avoiding the kind of internal chaos that's causing other, more established teams in the East to stink. And so, the result is a Toronto team that looks a lot better than it actually is, and a team that's picking the wrong time and place to pound its chest.
Although, don't tell that to the players and the coach.
"We're playing with confidence now," said Dwane Casey. "We'll find out how far we need to go or if we're there already."
When Ujiri replaced Bryan Colangelo last summer, his mandate was clear: Rebuild. Almost immediately, Ujiri began undoing everything Colangelo did, starting with dumping Andrea Bargnani and then Gay. Those trades were primarily done to ease the cap burden; the Raptors shaved $20 million from the books. By asking for and getting little in return, the implication was the Raptors were also OK with getting weaker. And why not? Some years it doesn't pay to be horrible. This isn't one of them. The best way to get a superstar is through the draft, especially for a team that lacks a franchise player and isn't a prime destination for free agents.
Yet: The Knicks, who happened to be the landing spot for Bargnani, are imploding a year after winning the Atlantic. The Nets made the mistake of hiring Jason Kidd, who is doing no favors for his team or the Raptors by steering Brooklyn off the bridge. The Sixers started the season 3-0 and then bought themselves a ticket to Tankapalooza.
And we haven't even mentioned the carnage elsewhere in the East. Derrick Rose's second significant injury in three years is causing the Bulls to sink. Even the Hawks, the third-best team record-wise in the East, just lost Al Horford for the year. The Wizards, Celtics and Pistons are all teetering and in danger of dropping further south in the standings without warning. Basically, unless something drastic happens, the Raptors are looking like a sure top-8 team whether they want to be there or not.
It's not all bad. Without Gay around, Toronto is giving the ball to others and some are doing wonderful things with it. DeRozan now has the floor to himself, and if he's ever going to be a leading man, this is where he learns the ropes. He's averaging just under 21 points a game. Isn't that OK? Sure. He may never be an efficient shooter (now at 42 percent) and his range remains limited for a two-guard, but you could do worse.
Ujiri has the chance to study players who could be keepers. Like Terrence Ross, who can play above the rim but has no idea how to play basketball. And Jonas Valanciunas, a big, promising lug who needs to raise his basketball IQ along with his rebounding rate. And Greivis Vasquez, who does have a future at point guard, either in Toronto or elsewhere.
But that's about it. If the Raptors were winning with a young core that will stick around for years, that's one thing. Two summers from now, when the Raptors are equipped to spend big on free agents if they choose, the turnover form the current roster will be significant. That happens when teams try to change their identity.
Reshaping the future begins now, although try telling that to players who are playing for contracts, as well as a head coach, and therefore are doing what they can to impress. Ujiri can trade point guard Kyle Lowry, and he has tried, but will that even be enough to slow down the Raptors?
They're in an 11-game stretch against East teams, and only three of those opponents have winning records. Imagine: By the All-Star break if not before then, the Raptors could be No. 3 in the East, behind the Pacers and Heat.
"They've turned the corner," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. "You win in Dallas and in Oklahoma City, those are springboard games. There's a residual effect that carries with you over the next stretch of games. You just play with more confidence, more togetherness, and that's what they're going through right now."
It just seems like fool's gold, and building false hopes... and playing your way out of possibly getting a franchise player in the draft. What the Raptors are doing looks good on the surface, but they're really just taking advantage of a lousy conference (wins over Dallas and OKC nonwithstanding) and their timing is, well, lousy as well.
If they win 45 games and a round in the playoffs and keep winning next season with a series of brilliant off-season decisions by Ujiri, then what they're doing now is all good. If they get ambushed in the playoffs, settle for the No. 18 pick in a top-heavy draft and watch Wiggins tear it up for the Bucks for the next decade, which is the more likely scenario, then it was all for naught.
It's hard to tell a franchise that hasn't been a factor since Vinsanity not to enjoy the moment. But moments can be fleeting and, in the curious case of the Raptors, possibly fatal in the long run.