For the last three years, the Toronto Raptors have been a walking punch-line. They haven?t received any attention around the league, for obvious reasons.
The attention that they have received, has portrayed them in an execrable light. The truth is, they just haven?t been any good. They?ve only won 117 games over the last four years, and that?s usually not enough to have American television networks scrambling to get a team some air time. Plus, they?re north of the border, so it?s easy to forget about them.
They have been resilient and exciting but that hasn?t translated into wins. And half of their excitement dealt with issues off of the court, thanks to the zaniness of characters like Rafer Alston, Mike James, and the always-pouting Lamond Murray. And who could forget the Diet Pepsi-drinking, lamp-breaking, one side of the ball-coaching, Kevin O?Neill. ?But seasons change, and mad things rearrange.?
That rearrangement has come in the form of a possible playoff birth for the Raptors. The team is playing .500 ball, something they haven?t accomplished this late into a season since 2004, before the team was struck with injuries and finished at a sub-par 33-49 record. They started out this season with what was thought to be a glut of serviceable players, but since settling on a rotation, the Raptors have been among the upper echelon of the weak Eastern Conference.
After being inspired by ?Thank you for the Suns? by Bill Simmons, I?m going to put on my make-believe ESPN hat, and do my best ?Sports Guy? impression, minus the twenty year flashback comparisons. Five or six year flashbacks being more like it.
Simmons? new favorite team, the Phoenix Suns, are one of the top three teams in the NBA, without a doubt. And since Suns? owner Robert Sarver decided to do the Raptors a huge favor by letting his general manager get away, Canada?s only team has had some hope.
That general manager, also the 2005 NBA Executive of the Year, Bryan Colangelo, was one of the minds behind the Suns, one of the most well-rounded teams in the league. Around the same time when Sarver let Colangelo walk, the Toronto Raptors had fired their general manager, Rob Babcock, and were looking for someone to take over his reign. The man who constructed the Suns was wooed aboard to the Raptors? ship and kept them afloat.
Colangelo is the architect, and he?s got his blueprint. Unlike most, he sees the big picture. Instead of going after two or three all-stars and rounding out the rest of his roster with D-Leaguers, Colangelo is always looking to construct a team of capable players. The best part about it though, is that soon enough, the Raptors could have as many as three all-stars, to go along with their deep bench.
Toronto?s depth is a big factor in their success so far this season. They?ve been able to withstand injuries to key players, without letting their record take a dive in the standings. Behind the spectacular play of off-season acquisition, TJ Ford, the Raptors were able to go 6-6 without Chris Bosh, in a stretch that included a four game western road trip. Rarely have the Raptors been able to send a completely healthy lineup onto the floor. Even without Ford, reserve point guard, Jose Calderon, began to convince people that he could be a starter on a dozen or so teams in the league. With only six returning players from last season?s 27-win team, the Raptors have become a cohesive unit faster than anyone could have imagined.
When Rob Babcock was hired in the summer of 2004, he proposed a three-year plan. Their goal was to build from the ground up, on their way to becoming future contenders. And other than the whole Rafael Araujo debacle and the overdue trade of Vince Carter -- I still think the Raptors could have landed Ray Allen if Carter was dealt during the off-season in 2004 -- I was actually a supporter of the Babcock regime. With Chris Bosh and Charlie Villanueva, Toronto had a solid foundation. But then Colangelo came in and overturned almost the entire roster. The Raptors are now a respectable TEAM. Not since 2002 has Toronto had such a good mix of young and not-so-young talent -- I?d have said ?young and old? but the Raptors are the 12th youngest team in the league, at an average age of 26.1 years old.
It isn?t inconceivable that this Raptors team has the brightest future of any team in the league. Unless the Knicks self-destruct -- which, at this point in the season is an unlikely scenario, even for the Knicks -- and Chicago (who has New York?s pick) ends up with either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, almost no-one is messing with the Raptors in five years. And like the current Phoenix Suns, they might just be a force to be reckoned with.
About nine or ten games into this season, the Raptors decided they weren?t going to become Phoenix East or Phoenix North, or whatever you want to call them. When they realized TJ Ford wasn?t Steve Nash, and that attempting 100 shots a game is a little farcical, the idea went down the toilet. Instead, they realized that great teams don?t copycat. They create their own identity. And while the Raptors? current style of play might resemble that of half of the league, it?s still their own. They run when they can run, but they have the ability to slow the game down and run half court sets. In fact, that?s really what they?ve been best at.
But just because they don?t run like Phoenix, it doesn?t mean that the two teams don?t have their similarities. It isn?t in their style of play, but rather in the makeup of their team. Phoenix has three perennial all-stars and a load of proficient role players. While Toronto only boasts one all-star, they?re nine players deep, and have arguably the best bench in the NBA. The roster conjures up memories of the Raptors? teams from the early 2000?s. But instead of two budding premier players, the 2007 team has three (Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani, TJ Ford). Ford and Calderon make up Toronto?s best point guard situation since those playoff days, when the one spot consisted of Alvin Williams and Mark Jackson, and then later, Williams and Chris Childs. Doug Christie is replaced with Anthony Parker, and a young Morris Peterson replaced with a much more grizzled, yet polished version of his younger self.
Those Raptors teams were obviously the best in team history, for the simple fact that they made the playoffs. And if only a couple of things had gone their way... well, let?s just say they would have been pretty darn good. You hear it from fans all the time: ?Oh, if we had kept Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, we?d have had a dynasty, no question.? While that might just be the truth, Toronto?s building blocks, Chris Bosh, TJ Ford and Andrea Bargnani, have a few things that Vinsanity and T-Mac never had.
After you put it all together, one of the most recognizable differences between this year?s squad and Raptors teams of the past, is the absence of a chemistry-hurting character. There is no longer a Skip to My Lou, or the Rod Tidwell of the non-fictitious sporting world, Mike James.
But at the same time, this team lacks a character with a mean streak in him. Charles Oakley did it best. Aside from Oakley?s proper barbecue etiquette (?you don?t bring eggs to a barbecue?), he gave the Raptors something they?ve lacked since his absence. He injected some attitude. Some mental and physical, raw toughness, to go along with some comedy. The Oak had the ?onions? to take on the best. No, I?m not talking about Jeff McInnis, or Tyrone Hill, but the Raptors? very own superstar, Vince Carter.
And that?s where the difference between the team?s two most recent franchise players come into play. Unlike Carter, Chris Bosh doesn?t need a kick in the pants to get some motivation. He has the will and determination to win and to be the best. We?ve seen it in past years, when Bosh has been near tears during blowout losses. Instead of his natural talent getting him to where he wants to go, it?s his heart and dedication that pushes him.
His rookie running mate has it too. It?s not quite as discernible as Bosh, however. Colangelo?s first overall pick in 2006, Andrea Bargnani, has that edge that all winners possess. Often compared to Dirk Nowitzki, who is known for his tireless work ethic, Bargnani plays with that little bit of arrogance and confidence that shows why he?s bound to be something special.
Asking Bargnani to become the next Dirk Nowitzki may be a tall order to put on the shoulders of a twenty-one year old, but even if he develops into two thirds of the player that Nowitzki is, Toronto will be in good shape. He?s already a better defender than Dirk has ever been, which is a little surprising, even though Bargnani did lead the Italian league in blocked shots. Bargnani still has a ways to go to become a top-5 player in the league, but there?s no reason to believe he won?t be a top tier player for years to come.
One of the most intriguing things about Bargnani is the fact that his facial expressions never change. Even though he has a mild to severe case of Hoffa-itis -- his mouth never closes -- he has a look of focus at all times. By looking at his face, you?d have no idea whether he was playing during garbage time of a blowout, or crunch time of a game 7. Bargnani has cracked a smile just once during play all season long. No, he wasn?t laughing at the fact that someone told him his team was actually in first place, but rather that he was mere inches away from completing what would have been the assist of the season. During his first few weeks of the season, any pass from Bargnani was a truly a sight to be seen. And not because his passes were dazzling, but rather because every time the ball went into his hands, without thought, it was fired at the basket immediately. But since growing comfortable, the young rookie has been magnanimous. Finding his teammates has become one of his strengths, and another reason he has become so difficult to defend against.
The team is packed with players who are willing to make sacrifices in order to win. It?s the unselfishness of this young team that will help take them where they?re destined to go. They?ve got two capable point guards, which is two more than many teams can say they have.
A team led by TJ Ford has never missed the playoffs. For the Raptors? sake, he should be in Toronto his entire career. His amalgamate of speed and court vision causes problems for opposing teams, as he is able to get into the heart of defenses at will, and find open shooters. He plays with style and substance, but like his back-up, winning comes first. The attitude runs rampant throughout the entire organization, and was one of the key focuses when Bryan Colangelo was putting this team together. In order to get his point guard of the future, Colangelo was forced to trade promising sophomore, Charlie Villanueva, but was able to replace him with Bargnani. Bargnani?s outside/inside game is a better compliment to Bosh than Villanueva was. And the rest of the roster knows who The Man is.
Chris Bosh is no longer the rail and frail thin rookie who everyone said would get eaten alive in the NBA. He?s far bigger than he used to be, but is still just as quick. His offensive game is more polished than any other young big man in the league, and when his jumper is on, he?s virtually impossible to guard. He can blow by defenders with his quickness and get to the line, or face up and knock down the 18-footer on a consistent basis. He?s even added the three point shot to his repertoire, making him an even bigger mismatch for big men.
The best part about these three players? They?re all under 24 years old! Barely even APPROACHING their prime. Imagine five years down the road when Toronto might be able to boast a combination that would resemble Kevin Garnett, the aforementioned Nowitzki, and Tony Parker. While those three players may not be parallels of Toronto?s three cornerstone pieces, Bosh, Bargnani and Ford?s future abilities should have an approximate correlation to those current stars.
The only thing Toronto?s squad is missing is a consistent 2nd scoring option. They have depth, and have players who can score 20 on any given night, but there are many nights when no-one (other than Bosh) steps up offensively. While Bargnani may be that guy down the road -- hell, he may even be the first option -- the Raptors need someone who can be counted on day in and day out to shoulder that load. They probably don?t have the trade assets to get a player of that type of calibre, so until Bargnani becomes what?s expected of him, Toronto will probably have to make do.
Within a matter of months, Bryan Colangelo has turned the Toronto Raptors from a perennial cellar-dweller into a respectable team, and a club that?s on the rise. There?s no telling how good this team can be with Colangelo at the helm. If his past is any indication, we are looking at future contenders. And that?s the truth.