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Posted on December 18, 2011 | 6 Comments
The famous (and famously mangled) quote by George Santayana continues to run around my head whenever I debate with a Raptor fans the merits of “tanking” vs “winning now”.
If you’re a Raptor fan, you no doubt heard the rumours that were flying around at the beginning of the “offseason”. Most of them I mentioned in a previous post. And if you’re a Raptor fan, no doubt you debated with another Raptor fan about whether or not signing one of the better free agents would be a good idea. To some Raptor fans, signing a guy like Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan or even Shane Battier would have been a no-brainer. Why not improve the team if you can, right? Well, other fans feel that the team is not going to compete anyway, so with the upcoming draft looking like one of the better ones in more than a decade, the last thing the team should be doing is adding more wins, which would take chances away from finishing in the top 3 in the NBA Draft Lottery.
If you want to know my opinion, you just have to look at the history of the Raptors.
NOT GOOD ENOUGH, BUT NOT BAD ENOUGH
In their 16 years of existence, the Raptors have finished between .320 and .580 twelve times. That’s twelve times out of sixteen where the team has finished with between 26 wins and 47 wins1. During those seasons the Raptors made the playoffs four times, only making it to the second round once. The times they didn’t make the playoffs, only once did they secure a top five draft pick, when they won the lottery and selected Andrea Bargnani.
Meanwhile, the 4 times they finished below 26 wins, they came up with Marcus Camby, Vince Carter, Chris Bosh and Jonas Valanciunas. While Valanciunas hasn’t had a chance to play in the NBA, yet, Carter and Bosh all went on to become perennial All-Stars and All-NBA players, and Camby went on to become the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year.
The Raptors have won a franchise best 47 wins twice in their history. The first time with Carter and the second time with Bosh. Carter lead the Raptors to three playoff berths while Bosh lead Toronto to two.
To me, it’s obvious that the most success the Raptors have had was when they started off at the bottom. The 16 wins in 1998 led to Vince Carter and eventually three consecutive playoff appearances, including their only second round appearance. The 24 wins in 2003 led to Chris Bosh and two consecutive playoff appearances.
Last year, with Bosh gone to Miami,the Raptors started the season without an All-Star on the roster for the first time in more than a decade. Despite this, many fans were talking about playoffs again, despite predictions to the contrary by most media pundits and those connected to the NBA. Then the team went out and lost 60 games and got the fifth pick in the draft, and some think possibly the best player, in Jonas Valanciunas. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that’s better than another first round exit or, even worse, a low lottery pick.
Now, Jonas will not be playing for the Raptors until next season, and even if the Raptors had signed a Chandler or Gasol or even a Battier, their chances of making the playoffs this year were slim. Whether Raptor fans like to believe it or not, the team this year may not be any better, and might possibly be worse, than last year’s squad (I’ll go into that on another post).
That may sound depressing for Raptor fans, but on the bright side, the upcoming draft is supposed to be one of the best in a while. PhDSteve, over at Raptors Republic, recently did a podcast that talked specifically about the draft and what the Raptors strategy regarding it, and I have to say I respectfully disagree.
Before I get to why I disagree, let’s first look at what the Raptors have done in the past when they HAVE been able to draft a potential franchise player.
THE VETERAN PARADE
When the Toronto Raptors drafted Vince Carter, they knew they had something special. They also knew that their earlier draft pick, Tracy McGrady, had the potential to be something special, too. It was then that Raptors GM Glen Grunwald made a decision that would end up ushering in an era where the name Raptors was synonymous with excitement. The decision also meant that success was limited and short lived, with the Raptors only making the playoffs for three years before being sent back to the lottery for another four years before Chris Bosh lead them back to a brief playoff rebirth.
A couple of weeks before the 1998 Draft, the Raptors traded away Roy Rogers and two first round picks for the 36 year old Kevin Willis. Grunwald obviously had decided to bring in more veterans, knowing that’s the path to more immediate improvement.
And then, just a day after the Raptors drafted Vince Carter (well, actually Antawn Jamison who was turned into Vince Carter) they traded the 24 year old Marcus Camby, who was coming off a disappointing season, but still had a lot of promise, to the Knicks for a player who was more than 10 years older, Charles Oakley.
It’s not as if these two players did not have an immediate impact. While Vince exploded onto the scene in his rookie year, it was the veteran leadership of Oakley and Willis, as well as veteran holdovers, Doug Christie and Dee Brown, that helped propel the team to what would amount to a 21 game improvement (the 23 games they won in a 50 game season is equal to 37 games in an 82 game season). Huge, by any measure.
Unfortunately, the team missed out on the playoffs, but with the help of an earlier trade that had sent a young Chauncey Billups2 to Denver, the Raptors were able to secure the 5th pick in the draft, in addition to their 12th pick3. Feeling the Raptors needed more veteran firepower to reach the playoffs, Grunwald turned the pick into 31 year old Antonio Davis, and then went out and signed a pair of 35 year old free agents, in Dell Curry and Muggsy Bogues.
During the 2000 season, the average age of the ten players that played at least 600 minutes was 30 years old. For a team whose two leading scorers were 23 and 20, this was NOT a young team. And behind that veteran play, the team went out and won 45 games and qualified for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, although got swept in 3 games by the New York Knicks.
Not long after the Raptors were sent home packing, the Raptors were dealt a blow when up and coming star, Tracy McGrady, fled a team he felt didn’t respect him and that he couldn’t be the main man on with his cousin taking so much of the spotlight. In his place, they drafted Morris Peterson and signed 35 year old Mark Jackson (as well as a 38 year old Tyrone Corbin). Jackson only lasted to the trade deadline when he and Muggsy Bogues were traded for a slightly younger 33 year old Chris Childs.
Are you starting to see the pattern here? Chris Childs was followed by a 39 year old Hakeem Olajuwon, followed by a 30 year old Lamond Murray, and a 30 year old Donyell Marshall and 31 year old Jalen Rose.
The parade of veterans was not enough to prevent the decline of the team, going from a mediocre 47 wins and a memorable second round appearance back to the depths of the lottery again in just 5 years.
The prize for that was Chris Bosh.
And then history repeated itself…
1. Due to the lockout and subsequent shortened season in 1998-99, their 23 wins was equivalent to 38 wins. And anywhere from 26 to 47 wins is the meaty part of the mediocrity treadmill, where the Raptors have pretty much lived their entire existence and the reason for this post.
2. While it would have been nice if Toronto had seen the potential in Chauncey Billups, he took him 4 more years before he came into his own. Still, the Raptors had Chauncey Billups, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Marcus Camby at one point. They never actually played together, and were only on the same team during the offseason of 1998, when the NBA was on strike, but still, it makes you think about what might have been.
3. The Raptors famously drafted Jonathan Bender and then dodged a bullet by trading him for Antonio Davis, but they drafted him for the Pacers. What is rarely discussed is who the Raptors could have also drafted. Yes, Davis made a big impact and helped the team make the playoffs, but the success was short lived. Davis was 31 when he was traded to the Raptors, so the window with him wasn’t incredibly big. If the Raptors had used their pick to select Andre Miller or Shawn Marion, and then used their 12th pick to select Ron Artest or even Corey Maggette, the Raptors would have been better in the long term. But Grunwald wanted the immediate success an established veteran would bring.
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