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Globe and Mail sports columnist Cathal Kelly.
Globe and Mail sports columnist Cathal Kelly.

Analysis

Kelly: Raptors poised to be the NBA draft’s biggest losers Add to ...

The NBA draft will officially take place on Thursday. The real draft is happening Monday.

According to multiple sources, that’s when the Boston Celtics will announce they have agreed to move their No. 1 overall pick to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Philly’s No. 3 and future first-round slots (plural). Thanks to years of tanking and player swapping, Philadelphia is carrying more picks than a Led Zeppelin guitar tech.

This deal is essentially a trade for Markelle Fultz, a preposterously gifted teenage court general who is by consensus the top talent in a deep draft. The Celtics already have their show-runner of the future (Isaiah Thomas) and so are happy to move down two spots to take an almost equally gifted player, forward Josh Jackson, who better fits their needs.

This is the black swan of blockbuster trades – one that (on paper at least) equally and immediately benefits both parties.

In NBA media circles this weekend, there was a lot of high-fiving over the move because it’s both counterintuitive (nobody trades a No. 1) and so commonsensical that any idiot can see its worth. Everybody in charge comes out of it looking golden.

It’s proof that you don’t need to split the atom to seem like a genius. You just need to have been standing in the lab when it happened.

It is in the binary nature of all sporting exchanges that while several someones can win a deal, several more have to lose it. There are a lot of contenders for that gong, but the Toronto Raptors may lead the pack.

Though right in the middle of their winning window, the Raptors already know they aren’t likely to vault the final hurdle in the near term.

Everyone in basketball has accepted that as long as LeBron James maintains his freakish form for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Eastern Conference is theirs to win each year. The play here is to wait for James either to get hurt, decamp for the Western Conference or decide to spend the rest of his 30s in an ashram. None of those scenarios seems very likely.

Now the medium-to-long term is getting away from the Raptors as well.

The Celtics are already just about as good as Toronto, though younger and deeper. After adding Jackson and two more high-first-rounders, they will get much younger, much deeper and, in short order, much better.

The 76ers are even scarier. They will still be a poor-to-average squad this year. Their roster as constructed is so callow, it is perilously close to being a high-school all-star team.

But after years of losing, the depth of high-ceiling talent in Philadelphia’s group is astounding. And there is more to come.

They are perfectly placed to begin peaking whenever James starts to decline or decides to leave Cleveland. The way the NBA is going these days, the 76ers might end up being James’s preferred destination.

Where are the Raptors in all this?

They’re drafting in the middle 20s – again – hoping forlornly to hit a jackpot that almost no one ever hits.

They’re trying to decide if they will re-sign Kyle Lowry, thereby committing their future to an oft-injured 31-year-old who is not going to suddenly turn into Magic Johnson.

They’re grappling with the idea that they will eventually have to tear this thing down, but as yet having no good excuse to do so.

You don’t dismantle a 50-win team just because. Before you create a plan, you need to build a narrative.

It’s hard to envision how the Raptors sell a magic trick that – ‘Presto change-o!’ – turns a winner into a loser overnight and calls it progress.

One way to think of the Raptors right now is in Evel Knievel terms.

Three years ago, they made their first attempt to jump over Snake River Canyon. People who hadn’t previously cared about canyon jumping rushed in to get a look at that one. It was new and exciting.

Like Knievel, the Raptors didn’t make it (everyone forgets that part of Knievel’s story.) But we all agreed that we enjoyed the way the attempt made us feel.

The next year, they tried again. With less success, but the fans were still hopeful.

The year after that, they got close but still didn’t manage it. That was the peak.

This year, they regressed. And you could feel the effect of that disappointment in the stands. Resignation began to set in.

Each year, the Raptors crash into the canyon. And each year, people who really cared in the first instance care a little less.

That’s the problem with winning – you need to do more of it each time out in order to maintain the same level of interest. Eventually, you have to stop jumping and start building a better bike.

Now it will get worse. Because it’s one thing to lose if everyone around you is in stasis, which has been the case in the Eastern Conference for a couple of years. It’s another if your competitors are beginning to put the pieces together.

That’s where the Raptors find themselves – a neither/nor team: Neither good enough to win nor bad enough to wreck.

What can they do about it? That’s the frustrating part – nothing. All they can do is stick to what they have and trust to luck, which is by its nature untrustworthy.

Maybe Lowry & Co. will come back imbued with new purpose and resilience. Maybe James will turn an ankle in April. Maybe the Golden State Warriors will, Michael Jordan-style, decide to play baseball instead. Maybe.

But more likely, the Raptors will continue to butt against a bulletproof glass ceiling and come away with a headache. Their next realistic title horizon is many trades, many losses, many drafts and many years hence.

That rebuild will start where all rebuilds do – in a corporate boardroom with a bunch of nervous suits that need convincing.

The topic for discussion: Here’s how Boston and Philadelphia did it.

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