Training camp during the 2001-02 season was unlike any in the Raptors’ history to that point. They were coming off of their best-ever season, having come within one shot of the Eastern Conference Finals, and spent their best-ever offseason very loudly retaining their own.
Fifteen years later, the Raptors are again coming off of their best-ever season, having come within two wins of the NBA Finals, but this time, despite again having their best-ever offseason, it was about as quiet an achievement as this team has ever managed.
For those who are too young to remember, 2001 was the first time that Toronto basketball became a thing in Toronto. It was Vince Carter’s third year with the club, but it was his first an international superstar, thanks to his historic performance in the slam dunk competition in Oakland that February. That, combined with the team’s then-best 47-win season and incredible seven-game second round series against Allen Iverson and the 76ers, brought massive positive attention to a club that had, to that point, been mostly an embarrassment to anyone who really cared that they existed at all.
The team had also done this despite losing Damon Stoudamire and Tracy McGrady within 29 months of each other.
All of that added up to what was sure to be an intense offseason. At the time, the Raptors had three key free agents in play: All-Star Antonio Davis, starting point guard Alvin Williams and sixth-man Jerome Williams. It was also the first window that the team had to negotiate a contract extension with Carter. The popular opinion was the Raptors were likely to lose at least two of those free agents to competing offers, and no one was sure why Carter would tie his future to a franchise as historically inept as the Raptors. Despite the team’s recent success, the memory of Stoudamire and McGrady felt even more immediate. Plus, no one was even sure that the organization was all that interested in investing any real money in this club. So much was still unknown about how this team would handle their first bout of success, and so most Toronto fans expected the worst.
Then, like shots ringing out in the distance, came the news: Raptors re-sign Davis. Raptors re-sign both Williams’. Raptors extend Vince Carter. The organization laid out a ton of cash, but they didn’t lose a single member of their core. The statement they were making was clear: they were in this for real.
Of course, history has not been kind to the memories of that summer. They also laid out a ton of cash to sign an over-the-hill Hakeem Olajuwon, and all of those salaries put together left the team with little wiggle room to improve, and so the team started making poor roster decisions to compensate and that ultimately led to none of those players finishing their contracts in Toronto.
The problem was almost unavoidable. The Raptors needed to make the statement that they were not the kind of team was indifferent to their successes. They wanted to be taken seriously, and that meant showing that they had the interest and the wherewithal to keep their key players. Back then, the surest way to do that was to overpay (save for Carter, whose max contract was obviously deserved). Glen Grunwald, then the team’s GM, obviously believed that the team’s success would continue, but even he had to know that financial predicament he was putting himself in if even one thing went wrong (in fact, several things went wrong, including Olajuwon being toast, Alvin Williams and Carter becoming injury problems, the team’s veterans moving on, etc.).
All that said, the Raptors aren’t where they are today were it not for the summer of 2001. The signal that summer sent, especially in their ability to extend Carter, made people sit up and take this organization seriously. Yes, they were still bad for a number of years thereafter, and that undid some of the progress, but this is where the march to 2016 started, and what allowed the team to have their best summer ever as an organization in the quietest way possible.
Look at what happened this summer: the Raptors re-signed their head coach (the most successful in team history) to a new deal, and it was expected. They locked-in their stellar front office to new deals, and it was expected. They not only re-signed their second-best player but they did so without him even taking an interview with another team, as expected. They saw their two best players selected to play on Team USA for the Olympics and win gold medals, not expected, but also not jaw-dropping news.
All of that, and yet barely more than a peep about how this is easily the best summer this organization has ever had. They didn’t need to parachute in a saviour because they were already two games away from the NBA Finals. They didn’t need to hit a home run in the draft because they already have a solid, deep roster. Are they perfect? No, they could definitely stand to improve in a league where Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry play on the same team, but they managed to fortify just about every corner of their club with no one thinking too much of it.
There are two areas that are particularly worth point out as evidence of how much things have changed since 2001.
The first is stability. Not just on the roster, which continues to pay dividends as the roster now routinely outperforms preseason analytical predictions, but up top and on the sidelines, as well. When Casey was first hired by Bryan Colangelo, he spoke often of culture. He was certainly not the first hire in Raptors history to lean heavily on a clearly absent element in the organization, but he has been the first to actually see a meaningful culture implemented. That came from stability. That came from a front office that allowed him to make mistakes and learn from them. That came from players understanding that he wasn’t going anywhere, and so they had better buy in. That came from Masai Ujiri targeting players and personalities that fit that culture, and then sticking around to ensure that it is enforced from the top of the food chain on down. There is actually a sense now of what a player can expect if they wind up in a Raptors uniform. A bizarre phrase like “We The North” actually means something. There is accountability. There are expectations. There is pride. It’s happened so gradually it can be easy to overlook the meaning of that reality. This summer the club took stock of where they were and they very quietly and purposefully said “yes, more of that, please.”
The second area worth looking closer at is confidence. The reason the Raptors signed Olajuwon back in 2001 is because they felt they had to. They felt that they had to have someone that would allow Antonio Davis to slide down to power forward. They felt that they had to acquire someone to show the world that they could attract a Hall of Fame name (if not a prime Hall of Fame talent). They repeated these missteps again and again with Jalen Rose, Hedo Turkoglu, Jermaine O’Neal, and the failed attempt at signing Steve Nash. These were pursuits made not from a position of strength, but fear.
This summer, the Raptors didn’t make two moves, and they showed a tremendous amount of resolve in their actions (inactions?). They didn’t trade for Serge Ibaka and they didn’t mortgage the farm to re-sign Bismack Biyombo.
Ibaka was an obvious target for the Raptors, a defensive-minded power forward that could slide in perfectly alongside Jonas Valanciunas. However, the Oklahoma City Thunder wanted Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, Patrick Patterson and the 9th pick in the draft. That’s nearly the entire bench rotation plus a top-ten pick for a guy slated to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. There was a time when the Raptors would have jumped at the chance to make that deal, but they are in a place right now where they simply don’t feel that they need to take these wild swings in order to be successful.
Biyombo was a different case. He was a massive fan favourite coming off of the bench last year. However, the Raptors did not possess his Bird Rights, which would have meant that they’d need to shed a ton of salary in order to retain him (at least Patterson and Ross). Now, had the Raptors done so, it would have raised some eyebrows, but given what some big men signed for this summer, and given Biyombo’s impact last season, one can envision a scenario where Toronto makes the choice to keep him no matter what. They didn’t do that, though. They felt that a backup centre was simply not worth given up two assets for, especially not when his new salary would have killed their flexibility going forward. It was painful to see him go, but the Raptors believed they could afford to, both on the court and in the hearts and minds of their fans.
That’s simply something the team couldn’t afford to do in 2001. Even if it would have been better for the roster, it would not have been better for the organization, which was still searching for respectability amongst their own fans, as well as the league at large. Fifteen years later, though, as the team team enters training camp in the unfamiliar position of having very little to prove, they can relish in their ability to make roster-first choices without having to worry about fallout from fans. That doesn’t happen without having gone through 2001 — despite the decline that it precipitated. This is what success looks like for the Raptors, now: quiet and expected.