Vince Carter is the gift that keeps on giving for Canadian basketball, all the while continuing to haunt the Toronto Raptors.
How else to describe the feeling when Anthony Bennett, the first Canadian-born player to go first overall in the NBA draft, speaks to an American TV audience about being mesmerized as a child by a Carter windmill dunk at the Air Canada Centre, thinking as he left the building: “That’s going to be me.”
Watch: Cleveland selects Canadian Bennett with top pick
There was Bennett of Brampton, Ont., wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers hat on Thursday, knowing that in 12 months another Canadian player is expected to go first overall: Toronto-born, Thornhill, Ont.-raised Andrew Wiggins – Frozen LeBron – who will likely declare after year of NCAA competition with the University of Kansas Jayhawks.
Steve Nash is the spiritual pater familias of Canadian basketball but make no mistake: Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Kris Joseph, Andrew Nicholson, Robert Sacre and now Bennett and this year’s 13th-overall pick, Kelly Olynyk, are all in many ways the Spawn of Vince. (Olynyk calls Kamloops home, but he was born in Toronto.)
They have something else in common: None of them play for the Raptors.
And while the Toronto Blue Jays’ experience with Canadian third baseman Brett Lawrie reinforces the idea that passport and perfect planning don’t always jibe in professional sports, for an NBA club whose chief executive officer has made a priority out of building a national brand, there must be a sense of opportunity lost. Thursday’s optics didn’t matter to the hardcore basketball fan, who realized the surprise over Bennett’s selection indicated this was one of the weakest draft classes in some time.
But Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. chief executive officer Tim Leiweke and new general manager Masai Ujiri must surely realize a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in five years and has a roster dotted with overpaid, nondescript, non-winners could have done worse than squeezing in a guy like Olynyk, and they must out of necessity try to position themselves to get a lottery shot at Wiggins in 2014.
DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and the one useful piece left by former GM Bryan Colangelo – Jonas Valanciunas – aren’t going to grow anything for the Raptors; an eighth- or seventh-place finish and first-round playoff exit won’t grow this team past the 905 area code.
There is precious little to attract the next generation of basketball fans inside or outside of Toronto to the Raptors.
It is pie in the sky to dream of Toronto as being a destination for NBA free agents, especially when this generation of stars thinks nothing about taking less money to hook up with another star and go for a title. When you can’t appeal to an athlete’s greed, you’re screwed. So teams like the Raptors need to build through the draft, and for many it will seem a no-brainer Ujiri’s priority ought to be throwing away the 2013-14 season for a shot at Wiggins.
You can’t hold a news conference to announce you’re tanking; but you can ship out players and try to get by with a representative team capable of playing defence and offence just badly enough to lose a lot of games, while telling people you’re working on “cultural change.”
The problem for Ujiri is his predecessor stuck the team with difficult contracts and a bunch of players who would be on the bench on good teams. Colangelo’s panicky and selfish attempt to squeeze out a playoff berth last season set the franchise back and extricating it out of the mess will test every fibre of Ujiri’s being.
It isn’t up to coach Dwane Casey to get this “tanking” thing right; it’s up to the GM to make sure Casey is short-handed enough he can’t help but get it done.
There are other issues, too. Even finishing last doesn’t guarantee the lottery coming out in your favour – although early indications are the 2014 draft is deep enough that a club can make out just fine with the Nos. 2 or 3 pick. Trading up is a possibility, providing a team has future draft picks and young, cost-effective players.
For the Raptors, a strategic kissing away of the 2013-14 season at least gets them in the conversation. Call it “tanking” if you want; there are those of us who see it as being the exact opposite.
Better to aim high for Andrew Wiggins and fail, than to settle for Rudy Gay.
Time for more Air Canada and less Err Canada. And if that sounds too cynical, you can thank Bryan Colangelo.
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