Toronto Raptors History:January 8, 2019
By: Matt Lippe, Basketball Analyst
In 1995, the NBA was looking to expand again. After adding the Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves in 1989, the NBA wanted to expand to a new market: Canada. After seeing the MLB have success in Canada, the NBA saw a great opportunity that they could capitalize on. So, they added the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies to the NBA. The Toronto Raptors came out of the expansion draft with a very rough team, but luckily had something to keep fans interested in the team during these lean years: The jerseys.
The 90s were a time in which NBA teams tried out crazy jersey designs. The Raptors were no exception to this trend, having some of the most ambitious jerseys ever worn by a professional team anywhere. And, unlike some the other jerseys of the era that flopped, the “Big Purple Dinosaur” jerseys became iconic and generated excitement around the new team. However, a new team, new arena, and cool jerseys cannot carry a franchise for too long, so it was key that the Raptors would hit gold in the 1997 and 1998 draft in the form of a franchise stars.
Looking back at the 1997 Draft, it did not offer much in terms of talent, so when the Raptors took a risk drafting a high school star named Tracy McGrady, it made sense. McGrady being so young, received limited playing time, but when he did play he proved that the hype was legitimate: he was an athletic specimen. With an up and coming player in T-Mac, the Raptors still needed another piece to become a team that could compete for a championship. The second piece would come in the 1998 Draft, in the form of an athletic shooting guard from North Carolina. The 1998 Draft was one of the best drafts in NBA history in terms of the stars, so it was important that the Toronto Raptors drafted carefully. Originally, the Raptors had selected Antwan Jamison with the 4th overall pick, but they would soon trade Jamison to the Warriors in exchange for the 5th overall pick Vince Carter. While Jamison would be an all-star caliber player for most his career, the Raptors received the best of the trade, because Carter brought more to the table than just his basketball skills; he was an attention-getter.
Carter’s rookie year and Tracy’s second season did not lead to much success in wins, however the following season the Raptors would reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Carter would average 25.7 points and McGrady would follow with 15.4 points. The duo could only carry the Raptors so far, as they would lose 0-3 to the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs. Then came the summer of 2000 and Tracy McGrady left the Raptors to join Grant Hill with the Orlando Magic. This left Carter as the lone star on the team, but this did not lead to any excuses by Carter. He saw an opportunity that could be advantageous. The 2000-2001 NBA season was probably the best of Carter’s career. He put up 27.6 points and led the Raptors to the 5 seed and carried them to the second round. They would face off against the Philadelphia 76ers where Allen Iverson and Vince Carter would battle in a legendary duel. The series went 7 games with Iverson averaging 33.7 points and 6.9 assists, while Carter put up 30.4 points and 6 rebounds. The Sixers would pull out the victory in Game 7, winning 88-87. However, this was truly a big moment for the Raptors Franchise: they were able to take a famous franchise to 7 games and had a franchise star.
Unfortunately Carter would never be able to replicate the success of the 2001 playoff run. The following three seasons, Carter would be an all-star every year, but there would be no playoff success, as the Raptors would only make it once in those three seasons. After this stretch of decline, it was evident that Carter was not looking to spend his career on a failing team. After only 20 games with the team during 2004-2005, Carter was traded to the New Jersey Nets. Even though this was a devastating turn of events for the Raptors, the Raptors made an important pick in the 2003 NBA Draft that would allow them to make a successful rebuild.
During the summer of 2003, the Raptors had come off their first losing season in since 1998-1999 and were granted with the 4th pick. The 2003 NBA Draft was another draft which was loaded with talent, such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. The Raptors were lucky enough to nab one of the other great talents from the draft, a center named Chris Bosh from Georgia Tech. Chris Bosh was able to play a year under Carter’s wing, which would help him see how to carry a franchise. When Carter left mid-season in the 2004-2005 season, Bosh was instantly the center of attention, but he was prepared.
After finishing the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 with losing records, Bosh came into his own during the 2006-2007 season, averaging 22.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks. That season, Bosh would be named to his second all-star game and lead the Raptors back to the playoffs. The Raptors entered as the 3 seed, but as fate would have it, would lose in 6 games to the New Jersey Nets lead by Vince Carter. However, this amazing leadership shown by Bosh leading the Raptors back to the playoffs, truly displayed his talents. The 2007-2008 season, the Raptors would not be able to get past the first round, as Bosh continued to post all-star numbers. After this season, though, things took a turn south.
The Raptors found themselves not in the playoffs for the next five years for a multitude of reasons. First, the Raptors had three different head coaches during this span. This much change is not a recipe for success and caused a lot of tension with the players and front office. Second, Andrea Bargnani never grew to be the Robin to Bosh’s Batman. The Raptors, after so much success in the draft, whiffed when they selected Bargnani with the 1st pick in the 2006 NBA Draft over LaMarcus Aldridge. This setback caused Bosh to have to do all the heavy-lifting, without another player to take some of the load (I still think a duo of Bosh and Aldridge would’ve been an extremely dominant front-court duo). Third, the Raptors did not add any free agents or make any trades of significant to improve the team. After missing on Bargnani, the Raptors made a mistake in not looking to pair another star with Bosh. In Bosh’s last season with Toronto, he averaged 24 and 10, by far the best of his career. If the Raptors had capitalized on Bosh’s talent, they could’ve made a run for the Finals. Fourth, in the 2010 offseason, Bosh left to form the Big 3 down in Miami. This left the Raptors to rebuild, but luckily they had made another good draft decision in 2009, when they drafted DeMar DeRozan with the 9th overall pick. So, after Bosh left, the Raptors went three years without the playoffs, but with a good head coach in Dwayne Casey and a trade in the 2012 offseason which brought in Kyle Lowry, the Raptors would quickly begin to contend during the 2013-2014 season.
The 2013-2014 season was a return to the playoffs and the first all-star appearance for DeMar DeRozan. This season brought hope back to a franchise that desperately needed it. DeRozan and Lowry lead the Raptors to the 3 seed, but would lose in 7 games to the 6 seed Brooklyn Nets. But, this season was a season in which the Raptors would build on in the coming years. The 2014-2015 season would result in DeMar being named an all-star for the second time and Kyle Lowry being selected for the first time, however it would result in another first round exit. The 2015-2016 season, on the other hand, would become the greatest Raptors season in franchise history. During this season it resulted in many important moments for the Raptors franchise. One of these moments was when the Toronto Raptors hosted the 2016 All-Star Game. This brought great amounts of publicity to the Raptors. The rest of the season was an even greater success, as the Raptors would claim the 2 seed and head into the playoffs full of confidence. And unlike in the past, they were able to come out victorious in consecutive game 7’s, in the 1st and 2nd Rounds. So, after winning the first two rounds, the Raptors went to their first ever Eastern Conference Finals in franchise history facing off against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Raptors would fall down 0-2 to the Cavs, but would win the following 2 games at home to even the series to 2-2. However, LeBron proved too much for the Raptors to handle, as the Cavaliers would win the following two games, winning by an average of 32 points. After this matchup, the Raptors were quickly viewed as a team in the East which could dethrone LeBron. In hindsight, this view would become more of a curse than anything to the Raptors, as the following two years the Raptors would have great regular seasons (51-31 in 2016-2017 and 59-23 in 2017-2018), but were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by LeBron each year.
So, for three years, the Raptors had faced the same foe and lost and this lead the front office to change things up in the 2018 offseason. They fired head coach of the year Dwayne Casey and traded DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs in exchange for Kawhi Leonard. While this trade upset many fans at the time, the Raptors have experienced a great amount of success so far this season. Currently, the Raptors are 23-9 and 1st in the Eastern Conference. With LeBron leaving for LA, the Raptors’ greatest foe has left. Will this be the year that they climb the mountain and make the Finals? Only time will tell.