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STINSON: Raptors biding time until next big move becomes a possibility

On a stage in Boston five years ago, Billy Beane was talking about the Oakland A’s draft that was made famous in the book Moneyball.

Beane and his Oakland executives had set out, he said, to try a drafting strategy that completely removed human emotion from the process. Everything would be based on numbers and data. They had already been leaning this way for years, but he wanted to go nuts. “Scorched earth,” he called it.

Sam Hinkie, sharing the stage with Beane, piped up: “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

The line elicited a big laugh in the auditorium.

Hinkie had recently resigned as the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers after engineering the biggest scorched-earth campaign in NBA history, if not organized sport. As he sought draft picks that would increase the Sixers’ chances of acquiring star talent, he traded anyone with present-day value, resulting in a team that won 19 games in 2013-14, 18 games the following season and then 10 (!) the season after that. Eventually ownership, and reportedly the league office, had seen enough of that and Hinkie left the organization.

The end result of Hinkie’s spectacular tank job, sort of, is now in the second round of the NBA playoffs after an uneven series win over the Toronto Raptors. But as Raptors fans consider the future of their team, and how it might go from good to great, it’s worth considering the Sixers, who went from building a roster carefully and slowly — so slowly — to making big moves, and then more big moves. In the modern NBA, the distance from tinkering with a contender to smashing the reset button has never been shorter.

The reason for that “sort of” in the previous paragraph is that it remains an open question as to whether Hinkie’s strategy worked. All those years of drafting high netted Joel Embiid, a superstar, but also Markelle Fultz, a first-overall bust, and Jahlil Okafor, a third-overall bust. And also Ben Simmons, a first-overall enigma. For several years now the Sixers have been good and competitive, but they have also never made a conference final. Only a Sixers fan could tell you if this run of form was worth the years of abysmal teams, and that opinion will likely change depending on what happens over the next couple of weeks.

What is interesting about the Sixers from a roster-construction perspective, and what’s relevant to the Raptors, is that they did not get to this point through an entirely brick-by-brick approach. Rather, all the years spent assembling young talent were followed by multiple blockbuster trades. They moved five players and a draft pick for Jimmy Butler. They acquired Tobias Harris in a six-player deal later that same season. After the team’s relationship with Simmons fell apart, this year they moved another three players, Simmons included, and two first-round draft picks for James Harden.

That is, over four seasons, three big trades involving more than a dozen Sixers assets, each of which brought in a player that the Philadelphia front office felt was a significant upgrade. The only constant through all of it has been Embiid. Almost every other roster spot has been turned over multiple times in that short period. In today’s NBA, seismic trades are almost a matter of routine.

The Raptors of the Masai Ujiri era were a brick-by-brick team for years. To no one’s surprise, Ujiri and head coach Nick Nurse said this week that they intend to follow that process with this group.  After all, that’s what this season was supposed to be about, anyway. It sounds a lot like Ujiri’s early years in Toronto, when it was all about steady improvement and a culture change, while building around a core already in place.

The Sixers stand as an example of going the other way. As much as the Raptors have young pieces to work with, some of those same pieces could be part of a roster-reshaping move. Would they package a couple of prized assets for an All-NBA type talent? It would run counter to the experiment that has been taking place in real time, as the Raptors deployed a roster that lacked a true big man and at times had five players on the floor of the same height. Perhaps the front office wants to see how far it can go with this strategy. The careful build has usually been how they do things.

Except, of course, the one time that they didn’t. The slow builds of the DeMar DeRozan-Kyle Lowry years survived several years of playoff disappoints, right up until Ujiri discovered, while he was on the other side of the world, that Kawhi Leonard was available in a DeRozan trade. Suddenly the careful plans were lit on fire.

That’s probably the way to think about this group of Raptors, too. Given their youth and relative inexperience, there is reason to believe that they can improve significantly even with only modest outside help. But that doesn’t mean the big move won’t eventually arrive. For years, the question was whether the Raptors could win without a true superstar on the roster.

We still don’t know the answer to that.

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