If horror movies have taught me anything, it’s that some days haunt people for the rest of their lives. For the Toronto Raptors, that day is May 20, 2001.
That is the date of what I believe to be the biggest game in franchise history. It was Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers, at the First Union Centre, in the city of brotherly love.
That morning, Vince Carter, the best player to ever wear a Raptors’ uniform, attended his graduation at the University of North Carolina. By the time he finished taking pictures with friends and family and arrived in Philadelphia via Larry Tanenbaum’s private plane, it was 12:15 pm. Tip-off was at 5:30 pm. At the time, he got a negative response to this decision. I was also mad at him. How could he have anything else on his mind BUT game 7? I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand why the Raptors allowed him to go, either.
The Raptors lost by one point after Vince Carter’s fadeaway jumper in the far corner, rimmed out. But it was ok. This was a strong team that looked like they were going to contend for many seasons to come. This was not the end; it was the beginning.
Because they lost, the Vince Carter graduation storyline got more attention. Looking back, I don’t think Carter going to his graduation made a difference. It’s not like the Raptors lost by 20 points. They lost by one. As a road team, in game 7, if you are told that with a few seconds left you will be down by one point, have possession of the ball, and have a chance for one of the best players in the league to win the game, you take that every time. It’s a shame he missed the shot, but that’s the way sports go.
This team had scorers, toughness, and a fierce attitude to back it up. Vince Carter. Antonio Davis. Charles Oakley. Alvin Williams. Dell Curry. Keon Clark. Jerome Williams. Chris Childs. Morris Peterson. They were the best Raptors team I have ever seen and they lost.
The Toronto Raptors have never been the same since. What was once believed to be the start of something good, turned into a franchise defining moment – failure.
Injuries started creeping up on Carter and Alvin Williams. Carter was missing a ton of games and Williams saw his career come to a premature end.
Fast forward through the Carter trade, the Chris Bosh years, and the Bargnani years. Yes, the Raptors made the playoffs while Bosh was here. Yes, they even won a division title. But, at no time were they ever considered a threat to do anything successful.
If the Raptors weren’t already extinct, they were close to it after Bosh left. Watching the Raptors was the definition of “up a creek without a paddle.”
And now, the Raptors seem to be trying more than ever to market themselves as “Canada’s Team.” I understand why they are doing this. Toronto is the only NBA team in Canada. Fine. But, if I’m living in Vancouver or Saskatchewan, do I really care that much about the Toronto Raptors? Just because the whole country got behind the Toronto Blue Jays doesn’t mean they will do the same for the Raptors. Put a playoff team on the court first and the fans will come.
Masai Ujiri is now the General Manager of the team. He comes in as the reigning NBA Executive of the Year – the same title Bryan Colangelo had when he became the Raptors GM in 2006. Colangelo made a quick impact by trading away draft bust, Rafael Araujo. We all thought that would be impossible. Who would want this guy? Well, Colangelo found him a new home. Ujiri came in and has also made a quick impact. He traded away draft bust, Andrea Bargnani. We all thought that was impossible, too.
Personally, I like Masai Ujiri, but I am remaining hesitant. I still do not know what he plans to do with the current roster. As stated by the new CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, Tim Leiweke, one of the options for this team is tanking. This means that Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan would be traded and for the next twelve months we all hope our team is bad enough so that we can select Andrew Wiggins first overall in next year’s draft.
If tanking is the route this team wants to go, I am scared. This team has proven that no matter how bad the roster is, they are never bad enough to be at the bottom of the standings. If we trade away our assets, there is no guarantee we receive the 1st overall pick. Then what? How do you explain to your fans that you took a gamble and failed. This roster needs consistency. During Colangelo’s reign as GM, every year it seemed like at least half the team was new. And when they didn’t get the job done, they were gone after one year. Teams need time to gel. They need time to grow together. Let this team do that. Give them a chance. Bring the Raptors back to life. Give fans some hope.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the “hope” comes from tearing this team apart. Trading Gay and DeRozan would surely bring back valuable assets. Right? I don’t know if Raptors’ fans have enough patience to start over again. That’s what they’ve been doing for the last three seasons – starting over. How many times do you have to start over before committing to something?
The current roster doesn’t look THAT bad on paper. Are they the Miami Heat? No. But no one is.
If I were the GM of this team I would build around Gay, DeRozan, and Valanciunas. Every move this team makes should be done to complement those three players. They are the closest resemblance of “superstars” on this team – doesn’t mean they are, though.
Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, and Amir Johnson are good pieces to have, but they aren’t players you build a team around. I’ve seen too many people suggest that they should build around these three players, in addition to the ones I named above. NO. Sure you can keep these players, but they aren’t the focal point of your franchise.
If Lowry is their point guard, let him run with it. He needs a back-up; I’m a fan of D.J. Augustin – who is a free agent. Ross should (key word) continue to develop and can act as a reserve for Gay and DeRozan. Johnson is the glue that is holding this team together.
The recent signing of Tyler Hansbrough gives this team toughness. His nickname is Psycho-T. Perfect. Thank you. I’ve been waiting for a player like this since Charles Oakley back in 2001.
All that being said, the Raptors still need to grow up. They need to stop being friendly on the court. They need to stop smiling so much. Yes, smiling. Dwight Howard smiles all the time during games and what has he won in his career? You look at Kobe Bryant and he has a death stare on his face the second he steps on the floor. The Raptors need that kind of focus and mental toughness in order to compete.
If the Raptors are offered a trade they cannot refuse, then yes, go ahead and trade Gay or DeRozan, or both. But, if the team remains how it is and continues to add smaller pieces via trade or free agency, then I’d be ok with it.
Last season, the Indiana Pacers made it to the Eastern Conference Finals based on defense. Who was the superstar on that team? Paul George is not a finished product yet, although he was impressive. Roy Hibbert was a force at the Centre position. David West provided veteran leadership. But really, there wasn’t a legitimate, proven, star player. In fact, their best player when the season started was Danny Granger. Granger missed the entire season (except a handful of games) due to injury. They did it as a team. Why can’t the Raptors?
I understand this entry seems overly optimistic and a lot of things need to go right in order for the Raptors to make the playoffs next season and to be taken seriously. I understand that a week from now, this roster might look completely different. I get that. As a fan, I’ll have no choice but to support that. But to me, this team is starting to resemble that team back in 2001 that had so much promise. They just need a chance.
Hopefully, Ujiri can bring this Raptors team back to life and give the loyal fans a reason to cheer again.
Let’s go Raptors…