clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Brief History of the Toronto Raptors Coming Up Short

The Raps are coming off the most successful two-season run in franchise history, they have one of the best backcourts in the NBA, and they have an admirable commitment to continuity in an age of constant turnover. But are they a threat in the Eastern Conference? And are fans getting a little tired of walking the treadmill?

Kyle Lowry, Dwane Casey, and DeMar DeRozan Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sean Menard’s new documentary, The Carter Effect, is named for the impact that Vince Carter’s stint with the Raptors had on Toronto’s sporting and entertainment culture. Throughout the film, we hear from stars like Steve Nash and Tracy McGrady—as well as “brand ambassador” Drake, shot standing in front of dinosaur skeletons at the Royal Ontario Museum—that VC put the city on the map, the implication being that before that it was the basketball equivalent of an undiscovered country.

About halfway through, there’s a sequence breaking down the events of May 20, 2001. That morning, Vince Carter attended his college graduation at the University of North Carolina, keeping a promise he’d made to his mother. That evening in Philadelphia, he missed a 20-foot jumper from the left wing, leaving his team one point short of what would have been its first-ever trip to the Eastern Conference finals.

I was stuck two hours outside of Toronto that day in a house without a television and had to listen to the game on the radio. (Note: If you want to know true agony, listen to a Game 7 involving your team on the radio. It’s like this, only more confusing and terrifying.) But I’ve watched the clip of the final play so many times on YouTube that I’ve memorized every detail: the old-school NBA on NBC chyron showing exactly 2.0 seconds left on the game clock; the perfect side-out-of-bounds entry pass by Dell Curry, who then doesn’t even try to get open because he knows it’s not his shot to take; Tyrone Hill biting like Count Dracula on Carter’s pump fake; Antonio Davis gamely boxing out even though he knows there’s no time to rebound a miss; the ball hitting back rim as every person sitting baseline at the First Union Center loses their minds.

The Carter Effect dropped last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Drake and fellow executive producer LeBron James walked the red carpet and shared a stage with Masai Ujiri during a post-film Q&A. I saw the movie in a mostly empty theater the day before, with a handful of journalists, several of whom I had talked into attending by telling them it would be fun to watch highlights from the 2000 slam dunk contest on a big screen (note: This screening was at the same time as one for this year’s Palme d’Or winner, The Square—take that, austere Swedish art cinema). Right before they showed The Miss, I leaned over to my friend and said, “Maybe he’ll hit it this time.” This is the definition of Vinsanity: watching the same highlight over and over again and expecting a different result.

Raptors fans know what it’s like to be trapped in a vicious loop. The past few years around here have been less Jurassic Park than Groundhog Day. In 2014 the Raps won the Atlantic Division but lost in the first round to the Brooklyn Nets in seven games—a series that ended again with the team’s best player missing a potentially game-winning shot at the buzzer. That time, I was sitting in the second-to-last row of the Air Canada Centre with a group of strangers, and, when Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry’s floater in the lane, the guy next to me smacked the metal guard rail in front of us so hard that I’m pretty sure he broke a bone in his hand. “See you at Game 7 next year,” I said as we walked out onto Front Street.

“Nah, next year it’ll be a sweep,” he answered, before walking off—hopefully to get medical attention.

Wherever he is, I hope his hand is OK. Also, he was right. The Raptors’ first-round series the next year was a sweep—a 4-0 embarassment at the hands of the lower-seeded Washington Wizards—and Paul Pierce held the broom, burying clutch shots to put Game 3 and the series out of reach. “I don’t feel they have the ‘It’ that makes you worried,” Pierce said afterward, quickly becoming public enemy no. 1 in Canada’s biggest city. What bubbled up underneath all of the jokes and tweets and Photoshopped images of Pierce as Gandalf the Grey was the frustration of a fan base wondering if the guy sticking daggers in their team at regular intervals was on to something.

(On a personal note, and with apologies to Hunter S. Thompson, I should say that, as of this season, Paul Pierce is gone, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing. I hate him, but goddamnit, do I respect him).

Facing reporters after a brutal Game 4 in which his team looked like it had given up before the opening tip, Raptors coach Dwane Casey made a point of flashing his 2011 NBA championship ring, won during his stint in Dallas as an assistant to Rick Carlisle. I remember thinking at the time that this was a baller move, but also a sign that he thought his time was up. After two straight years of getting beaten in the first round—and losing Game 1, at home, both times—I figured the Raptors were going to clean house.

They didn’t, unless you count getting rid of Lou Williams, and they still ended up with the best two-year stretch in franchise history: a grueling, dramatic trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 2015-16 (somewhere Vince Carter never went in Toronto), and the conference semis the following season. In both cases the team’s success was, at times, seemingly in spite of its All-Star backcourt, with both Lowry and DeMar DeRozan posting near-historically bad playoff shooting percentages. In both cases the Raptors played the Cavaliers and got embarrassed. In lieu of rehashing all the game stories, matchup nightmares, and overwhelming anecdotal and statistical evidence about how inadequate the Raptors were against LeBron James, just watch this; it’ll do the trick.

Once again, in the aftermath of a humiliating sweep—albeit against a superior opponent—I wondered if the Raptors would finally capitulate to expert predictions and blow it up. When Ujiri talked publicly about a “culture reset,” it seemed like change was coming. But the GM who once proved ballsy enough to trade Carmelo Anthony in his prime has, strangely, turned into the front-office Tammy Wynette. He stands by his men.

On Thursday night, Toronto will open its season with Casey on the bench for the seventh consecutive season (the fourth-longest tenure in the NBA), and the same basic core that’s been in place since 2013. They’re going to war with a starting lineup built around Lowry, DeRozan, and Jonas Valanciunas. The realities of team-building are complex, but it’s hard to get too excited about Toronto’s chances, even in a diminished Eastern Conference.

The Raptors have some nice young players, including the re-signed Norman Powell and Jakob Poeltl, who shot 93 percent from the field in the preseason, but nobody who looks like a future All-Star. They say they’re going to take more 3-point shots this season, but other than the newly acquired C.J. Miles, there isn’t a true long-range specialist in the bunch. They have Serge Ibaka for a full campaign, but if they start him at center instead of Valanciunas—who may be set to take on a Greg Monroe–like sixth man role—there’s nobody to play power forward (especially not Bruno Caboclo, who has gone from being “two years away from being two years away” to being “a year away from not being on an NBA roster”). They won’t miss DeMarre Carroll; they will miss P.J. Tucker and movie buff Patrick Patterson (the NBA player most likely to see The Square in order to fill out his 2017 top-10 list). Looking ahead to the next eight months has the same preordained feeling as replaying that Vince miss from 16 years ago. It might look close there for a bit, but we know what’s coming. Clank.

I realize I’m making it sound like Raptors fans are a solipsistic, pessimistic, grimly realistic bunch. But knowing that the vast majority of NBA fans, writers, and tastemakers agree that the greatest moment in your greatest player’s career is either dunking unopposed on All-Star Weekend or jumping over a French guy instead of hitting an open jump shot will give you a bit of a complex—and thin skin is easily Pierced. I still remember when The Ringer’s David Shoemaker fantasy-booked the NBA playoffs for Grantland in 2015 and invented a story where DeRozan builds a time machine to prevent Toronto from ever getting an NBA team. In the Twilight Zone twist ending to this thought experiment, the Raptors ended up in the league anyway, based out of London, England—just another hapless squad from a different, only slightly more foreign country. “DeRozan screams a violent, futile scream,” Shoemaker concluded—the bloodcurdling cry of a basketball star cut off from the United States.

The laundry list of reasons NBA players supposedly prefer not to play in Canada is long and familiar, dating back to Steve Francis’s pleas to the Vancouver Grizzlies not to draft him: bad weather, high taxes, and, more ephemerally, the idea of being stranded in no-man’s-land. The Raptors and their brand managers doubled down on this sense of otherness with 2014’s brilliantly orchestrated “We the North” campaign, which sought to depict Toronto as a far-flung basketball paradise.

The first YouTube clip was filled with and-1-mixtape-ready shots of chain-fenced pickup courts, interspersed with more unconventional imagery like trash-can fires flickering in the wind, and pacing, hungry huskies (a reference to the first professional basketball team to play in Hogtown).

As a slogan, “We the North” was catchy and succinct. It conjured up the sight of a united front, owning its distance from the center of the basketball world and maybe inviting adventurous American fans to join the cause—those more enlightened or esoteric basketball aficionados, spiritual descendants of the conscientious objectors who fled for colder pastures decades ago. And the migration went both ways, too. Raptors broadcasts often pause so announcer Matt Devlin can point out all the “We the North” signs and shirts filling the stands in cities from Detroit to Atlanta to Orlando. The past few seasons mark the first time that the Raptors have been a draw on the road since the days of Carter getting cheered for dunking all over the home team’s basket.

So for those of us who lived through and did our best to cheer for all kinds of bad (and worse) Raptors squads over the years, from the “we can’t score” Kevin O’Neill Raptors to the “wow, Mike James is averaging 20 points per game” Raptors to the “Chris Bosh is going to punch Andrea Bargnani” Raptors to the dancing-Hedo Raptors, the “We the North” era has been pretty great. And a season of respectably-competitive-playoff-qualifying, “maybe if LeBron comes down with the flu we could sneak into the Finals” Raptors doesn’t sound so bad.

Except to those for whom it does. On message boards and in the Pizza Pizza line at the ACC, Raptors fans worry about the consequences of being a “treadmill team.” Remaining stuck in place while other teams are either moving ahead or gaining fast is the great fear in these parts.

But treadmills aren’t all bad, right? They keep you in shape, which can be seen as analogous to building a proverbial “winning culture.” As exciting as it has been to watch the Process in process, it remains to be seen how long it will take players who are used to losing (and joke-tweeting about the necessity of losing) to figure out how to win. There’s no shortage of teams, past and present, that have been singing the same, patience-testing song for years, and said song sounds a lot like what Toronto’s unofficial pop poet laureate Steven Page sang at the end of the last song he ever performed on stage with his band: “rebuild, rebuild, rebuild.”

The Raptors and Ujiri clearly don’t want to undertake a full rebuild. I can understand the logic, even if it’s frustrating to see a team that, as currently constructed, isn’t going to win a title bump up against the luxury tax. Tanking and attempting a Canadian version of the Process (which would be pronounced “PRO-cess” in accordance with our constitution) would not only undo the past few years’ worth of modest success, but also threaten a larger shift in a city primarily known for its hockey fandom.

An article published in The Toronto Star a few years ago suggested that the Raptors had more diverse attendees on average than the Maple Leafs, which has as much to do with ticket prices as demographics (this point is also raised in The Carter Effect). And yet the whole situation still feels oddly contingent upon success, as if the Raptors are filling a temporary void rather than remaking the city’s sporting landscape in their image, especially with the Maple Leafs back on the rise behind confirmed overtime assassin Auston Matthews.

That’s why all the insults launched over the years by journalists and players, even ones in Raptors uniforms like former All-Star Antonio Davis, who said he didn’t want his kids going to school in Canada, sting so badly. The worry isn’t that the Raptors will be relocated like the Grizzlies, but that they’ll stay right where they are, in every sense, stuck in a vicious cycle of seasons that will end, at best, with a miss and not a make.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Vince Carter has never been to the Eastern Conference finals. He never went with the Raptors, but did play in that round with the Magic against the Celtics in 2010.