Now would be the most painless time to tank

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As a team, the Toronto Raptors have been straddling the line between the mediocre and the downright bad. The Eastern Conference is divided into three subdivisions. At the top, we have the true title contenders, namely the Nets, 76ers, and Bucks. Each could conceivably win the East, each could conceivably win it all this year.

Next, we have the bulk in the middle. The teams fighting for seeding and experience in the playoffs might not be able to win the championship but they each in their own way pose a challenge to the big guns at the top. They are the Celtics, Heat, Hawks, Knicks, Hornets, Pacers, and Bulls.

And finally, we have the bottom feeders. The teams whose best hope for happiness lies in lottery balls, not basketballs. They are the Wizards, Cavaliers, Magic, and Pistons. The Raptors have been interesting in that they straddle the line between groups two and three.

Call it skill or pride or yet another testament to the weirdness of this uniquely ridiculous NBA season, but despite the injuries, suspensions, COVID precautions, loss of roster talent, and playing in Tampa, the Raptors have flat out refused to slip into the gutter of the NBA.

That’s why the fanbase should prepare themselves for this final stretch. For their final 15 games of the seasons, nine of them are against playoff teams. They play the Knicks, Nuggets, Clippers twice, Lakers, Jazz, Nets twice, and Mavericks. Yikes.

The Toronto Raptors have some tough opponents on the horizon.

Tankathon.com has a system to rank individual team schedule difficulty. For the remainder of the season, the Raptors have the fifth-highest strength of schedule behind the Rockets, Spurs, Suns, and Trailblazers.  Note that that gives them the toughest schedule in the East.

If ever the Raptors were to bottom out for better lottery odds, it’d be now. It’s a shortened season, there are no fans, there are injuries and suspensions, and plenty of good teams on the horizon jockeying for playoff seeding.

We already see it happening. In Friday night’s game against the Orlando Magic (a game the Raptors won ironically) all of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Kyle Lowry, and Gary Trent Jr. were sidelined for rest.

The NBA ended up fining the Raptors $25,000 for this blatant attempt to lose the game, so on Sunday night’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Raptors executives made sure to report Anunoby out with a left calf strain, Siakam with a shoulder bug, and VanVleet with a hip ailment.

We know the Raptors have been a good team for a long time now, and the fact that this streak of playoff appearances is coming to a close might be tough to swallow, but every team goes through its rough patches.

If ever the Raptors were to participate in the dreaded ‘T’ word, now would be the easiest time to do it. This is a strong and top-heavy draft this year, and particularly the top 4-5 players are on track to be really impactful.