It’s hard out here for a Toronto Raptors fan. Overpaying free agents, blowing draft picks, dealing away franchise level talent, convincing the rest of the world that Canadians don’t live in igloos, it’s never been an easy road to follow.
In their heyday Vince Carter set the league on fire with the dunk heard round the world and a playoff performance that was one bucket away from a third round playoff berth, something Toronto had never achieved before or since.
Many fans bemoaned the loss of both Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter, a formidable one-two punch that had finally helped lend the Raptors some credibility. Though neither would end up achieving their dreams of an NBA championship, both would eventually make it to the NBA Finals (Carter in 2009 with Orlando, McGrady in 2013 with San Antonio).
Perhaps more troubling than the loss of Carter or McGrady was the most recent departure of All Star talent, Chris Bosh. This is not to suggest that Bosh was the more talented player of the three, but he had certainly ingratiated himself deeply to the city of Toronto, going so far as to proclaim that he would “Rep T-Dot Till’ they Bury Me”. Or until a suitable sign and trade scenario presented itself.
All bitterness aside, Chris Bosh leaving the Raptors was the best thing that could have happened to them. Publicly handcuffing them into accepting whatever Miami felt like offering is another thing entirely, but what’s done is done. The fact of the matter is, Chris Bosh is not a franchise player, and he certainly isn’t worth a max contract. Had the Raptors bent over backwards and offered him the $125 million that he felt he was worth, there would have been very little financial flexibility left to overhaul the rest of the roster.
In the end, Toronto maintained a modicum of flexibility and Bosh got what he wanted, money and NBA championships. He didn’t end up choosing to be “The Man” as he had claimed, but as an All Star caliber third banana he no longer had the pressure of carrying an entire team as he’d had to do in Toronto. His numbers plummeted and he became the butt of most Heat-related jokes, but he’d gotten further than any other ex-Raptor to date.
Now, this isn’t about players leaving or not wanting to play for Toronto. The Raptors fanbase has always been a voracious beast in and of itself. The mere fact that the Raptors outlasted the Vancouver Grizzlies had been a point of pride for the city. That is, until the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder gained relevance and both surpassed Toronto’s best playoff run. After 5 years without a playoff berth, things seemed bleaker than ever for our fledgling team.
Oddly enough, things could have been even worse for Toronto. When free agent Steve Nash was considering teams, Toronto offered the 38 year old guard a 3 year $36 million contract. Upon learning that he was in talks with the Knicks, Toronto offered restricted free agent Landry Fields a 3 year $20 million deal in the hopes of jamming up New York’s finances and keeping Nash from signing there. Toronto then drafted Terrence Ross over the far more talented Andre Drummond in the hopes that Ross would be a better fit next to Nash. Luckily for the Raptors, Nash chose LA, promptly became injured and helped Toronto dodge a crippling $36 million commitment.
That said, Toronto has had it’s share of silver linings over the past few years. The hiring of coach Dwane Casey seemed like a coup, as he was fresh off an NBA championship with Dallas. Unfortunately, having to bring a team’s defense from the ground up takes time, something Raptors fans have become restless with giving. This season is Casey’s last contract year with Toronto. All eyes will be on him as he continues to develop what he’s started, or auditions for his next head coaching gig.
In addition to Casey, the savvy drafting of young center Jonas Valanciunas has been paying off big time. Jonas is on pace to be the best center in Raptors history, and well worth seeing him develop as the centerpiece of Toronto’s young core. In addition to Jonas, the acquisition of Rudy Gay was the shot in the arm that Toronto needed last season, especially after a dreadful 4-19 start that seemed like the beginning of the end. Obviously he is severely overpaid at $18 million per year, but his leadership and talent is something Toronto desperately missed in the wake of Bosh’s departure.
The biggest question mark going into the 2013 Raptors season is whether the team will attempt a long awaited playoff run or unload the contracts of Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and perhaps Demar Derozen in favour of “tanking” and ensuring a higher pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, widely considered to be the best draft in years. Personally, I’m of two minds on the subject. While I’m not in favour of throwing games and sacrificing chemistry in favour of what MIGHT be around the corner, there is little to be gained by making the 8th seed and being blown out in 4 games. Still, 6 years without playoffs is a long time for fans to go hungry.
The biggest change for the Raptors came with the replacement of GM Bryan Colangelo with former Raptors alumni Masai Ujiri, as well as the hiring of CEO Tim Leiweke. Both are highly respected individuals with a proven track record (Ujiri received the NBA’s Executive of the Year award with Denver, Leiweke won an NHL championship with the LA Kings). Colangelo himself was fresh off winning the NBA’s Executive of the Year award when he joined Toronto, but too many gambles and twists of fate cost him his job.
Ujiri’s first order of business was to divorce the team from Colangelo’s 2006 #1 pick, Andrea Bargnani. Much like BC himself, there were high expectations for Bargnani in Toronto, expectations that he was never able to live up to. Ironically, the Raptors received a better deal for Bargnani than they did for Vince Carter, a fact that still rubs a bit of salt in the wounds of veteran Raps fans.
Leiweke and Ujiri have made it clear that a new era is upon us, and they’ve made good on their word in more ways than one. It was recently announced that Toronto has been awarded the 2016 NBA All Star Game, just in time for the Raptors 20th anniversary. In addition to this, Toronto has partnered with hometown rapper Drake to help lend some credibility to both the city and the team. Drake has been dubbed the Raptors’ “Global Ambassador”, and will have a hand in redesigning the Raptors logo and team colours, just in time for the 2015-2016 season.
While I may not personally be a fan of Drake’s music, there’s no denying his impact on popular music and culture. Since announcing their partnership with Drake, the #Raptors have been trending worldwide on twitter, no mean feat for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in 5 seasons. Between unloading the albatross that was Bargnani, landing the All Star Game and allying with one of the most popular rappers in the world, Toronto has begun the difficult process of digging out from under several years of heartbreak.
Despite the view of most NBA fans, Toronto has never been at risk of contraction. They’ve consistently been one of the top 10 earners in the league, despite how their record may look to an outsider. While there’s still an uphill battle to be fought, the Raptors have made some big steps in the past year. For a team that’s started from the bottom, it won’t be long before the rest of the league realizes we’re here.