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Should the Thunder Hope the Raptors Make the Playoffs?

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With the season winding down to its' final weeks, the Thunder are locked in a battle for the #1 spot in the Western Conference. But, perhaps more interestingly, the Thunder's future rests with a team in Toronto.

The Thunder swept the Raptors this season, but it may turn out to be a regrettable move.
The Thunder swept the Raptors this season, but it may turn out to be a regrettable move.
Shane Bevel

With the season winding down to its' final weeks, the Thunder are locked in a battle for the #1 spot in the Western Conference. But, perhaps more interestingly, the Thunder's future rests with a team in Toronto. In the James Harden Trade, the Thunder received two picks. One of them is a pick from the Mavericks that we won't be receiving for a long while, if ever. The other one is a strangely protected pick from the Raptors.

The list below shows how the pick will be protected over the next 5 years. That is, if the pick lands in the range designated, the Thunder get the pick, and the later on years are irrelevant. But if the pick lands outside of the range designated, it rolls on to the next year. If it never lands in the designated range, then the Thunder get Toronto's pick in 2017, regardless of position.

12-13: 4-14

13-14: 3-14

14-15: 3-14

15-16: 2-14

16-17: 2-14

17-18: Unprotected.

If you're a close follower of the NBA, you know what that means. If Toronto makes the playoffs this year, we keep the pick and can hope for a better selection. If Toronto falls just short of the playoffs, we're stuck with a late lottery pick.

Do we want Toronto to make the playoffs? Right now, signs would point to yes. A lot of NBA analysts are categorizing the 2013 draft as one that's not a whole lot to get excited about. Without the top-heavy stars, teams in the later lottery are going to be looking at players that might normally go a bit later. That is, the long term projects, the one-dimensional players, or the guys who have holes in their game. While having a late lottery pick isn't a travesty for a title contender, you still want to get the most bang for your buck, and this draft really doesn't provide that.

Will Toronto make the playoffs? There's reason to believe they can. Right now Toronto sits 7 games behind Milwaukee for the last spot in the East. That looks like a tall order, especially with only 16 games left on the schedule. But you should also consider that the Raptors are 10-10 since acquiring Rudy Gay on January 30th, and that the Bucks are 8-12 over the same period. The Raps also won't have Andrea Bargnani stinking up the floor anymore with his poor shooting percentages and horrible defense, since he was recently sidelined for the year with a sore elbow. The Bucks also have to face some tougher teams, with 4 matchups upcoming against the top 5 teams in the NBA. The Raptors, by contrast, have only 1 matchup against a top 5 team. Furthermore, Milwaukee has 5 back-to-backs coming up, including a four game in five night stretch near the end of the season.

Still, any Toronto playoff hope seems like a longshot at this point. Both teams have a roughly equal amount of home and away matchups, and about the same amount of games against playoff teams. Plus, overcoming a 7 game deficit in 16 games basically requires that the Bucks play well under .500 ball while the Raptors absolutely beast the end of the season.

Should we hope for Toronto to lose out? This is another possibility. The Raptors are only 3.5 games ahead of Cleveland, the 13th seed in the East, and they're only a stones throw away from the bad teams in the West. The only problem with this scenario is that Toronto has no reason to lose, while most of the other teams do. And a lot of Toronto's games are against those very teams.

What's the most likely scenario? As much as I hate to say it, we're probably getting a late lotto pick this year. I don't see the Raptors getting ahead of the Bucks, but they should do just well enough to stay around the 11-12 seed or so. There's also the remote possibility that the Raps move up to the top 3 and keep the pick, but that's less likely to happen than a playoff run.

What's the benefit of keeping the pick until later? My hope is that Toronto can become a stable playoff team for the next few years. If some of their prospects, like Jonas Valanciunas, can develop, I could see them slotting themselves as a low playoff seed. Then, hopefully, something will go awry and they'll be a high lottery team, putting the Thunder in an ideal situation. Of course, that all hinges on how well they can recover from their horrible early season this year, so it's moreso wishful thinking than anything else.

If the Raptors can't make the playoffs, who will the Thunder draft? The Thunder's most immediate need right now is for a backup big, and my gut feeling is that they'll draft a project of some sort in that category. There's about 5 centers who are in the conversation of the late lottery, and all of them have their drawbacks. Cody Zeller is skilled and can shoot, but he doesn't have physical assets. Willie Cauley-Stein is really athletic, but his offensive game is extremely limited. Alex Len has a traditional game, but has nothing exciting to bring to the table. Kelly Olynyk looks like Nick Collison 2.0. Rudy Gobert is long, but he's a huge unknown out of France.

There's also the possibility that the Thunder could go for other positions, but I doubt it. Jones and Lamb provide enough future as forwards and wings, and nobody major is about to expire or go away in either category. Perkins and his bloated contract, on the other hand, are in danger of amnesty, and Thabeet isn't looking like the long-term solution as backup center.

Will the Thunder trade the pick? It's a possibility, but I really doubt it. There's no way the Thunder can get better value for the pick right now than they did in the Harden trade. By taking the pick, the Thunder get a cheap player for four years rather than coughing up a contract in free agency or a trade, and that's a bonus for Sam Presti. The only situation I could see the pick being dealt under is if it's as a cap saving measure so the Thunder can re-sign Kevin Martin.

What will happen to the Toronto Pick? What should happen to the Toronto Pick? Let us know in the comments!