I remember where I was when Mark Tatum, the NBA’s Deputy Commissioner, was calling out the order of selections for the 2021 draft: sitting on a couch, summer evening, waiting for my chicken to finish cooking in the oven. Going into the draft, the Raptors were highly likely to select eighth overall, with a 33.9% chance to land that selection. Knowing that, Jalen Johnson was the prospect I wanted to see. Sure, it would’ve been a stretch for some, especially considering he went to 20th to the Hawks, but a tall shooter with length is the name of the game today. My fingers were crossed right after Tatum announced the ninth pick would be going to the Kings. I swear my heart skipped a beat or two for what was to come:
“The eighth pick will be made by… the Orlando Magic.”
I smacked my hands together so quick, it sounded like a gunshot went off in my house. “YES!!”
I hadn’t even stopped to consider that the seventh pick was still in the ballpark, but I was already up and pacing. Then that domino dropped and it was as if the Raptors had already won the lottery. At that point, it didn’t matter which pick fell into Masai’s lap – the Raptors rebuild had been accelerated light-years faster beyond what was expected. At least, that’s what I think now.
Let’s go through the last two times Toronto began a rebuild. I use the term ‘began’ lightly since the front office executives of the past didn’t have a clear direction of what was to come, especially when compared to the revolutionary Ujiri.
In 2002-03, expectations were high. Vince Carter had cemented himself as a top-10 talent in the league after the Raptors lost their five-game playoff series to the Pistons. The year before that, Toronto advanced to the conference-semis and we all know the chaos Vince caused by going to his graduation the day of game seven against the 76ers. Philly went to the finals that year and Toronto went back to the drawing board. The organization made the playoffs from 2000 to 2002, so the pressure to bring in some heavy hitters was on. No significant upgrades were made between those three years and in 2002-03, Vince played just 43 games, which made it impossible for the Raptors get a proper read on the roster. Toronto won just 24 games after winning 42 or more the previous three.
Now you might say that it wasn’t a completely lost season, given that the 2003 draft class is viewed as one of the best-ever. But after drafting Chris Bosh fourth overall, what did Toronto really accomplish? Two playoff series that went no further than the first round. In fact, I’m not so sure that Toronto was really that great in 2007. I remember the rule where division winners were given the top three seeds, but the east really wasn’t that menacing or deep, as evidenced by the east-winning Cavaliers that year.
In 2007-08, the roster stayed mostly the same. Morris Peterson was picked up by the Hornets and Toronto signed the reigning three-point shootout champion, Jason Kapono, as their biggest splash. It didn’t yield the improvement that was expected, as the team went 41-41, finishing the season with a clear need to pair Bosh with a difference-maker.
One team that moved on from their beloved star was the Indiana Pacers. Jermaine O’Neal was sent to the Raptors and I remember thinking how great he would be with Bosh. Since the trade included Toronto’s first-round pick that year, Colangelo apparently joked with other execs/media members that he was selecting a tenured NBA veteran who had already been an All-Star.
And by mid-season, everyone in the situation thought so too which is why O’Neal was sent to Miami for “The Matrix” Shawn Marion, who donned a Raptors jersey for just 27 games. Toronto failed to make the playoffs for the first time in two seasons. Credit to Colangelo for the summer that ensued because he made a lot of moves that could’ve panned out.
It included the biggest signing in franchise history at that time: Hedo Turkoglu. While he was a productive player with Orlando the season before, he simply couldn’t bring his *Magic* with him to the Raptors. The only bright spot in that season was the drafting of DeMar DeRozan.
Which brings me to the 2010-11 season. Bosh left town to join his super friends in Miami, Turkoglu liked the clubs better than his job, and things in Raptorland just weren’t popping. DeRozan was the only thing poppin’ in Raptorland and without him, the present-day roster wouldn’t exist. In some ways, he inadvertently brought forth a concept that I never considered: the Raptors were never good. They were just good enough at the time.
The biggest in difference with this roster and all it’s predecessors is that there’s an expectation to win for these guys. A few of them have won it already and they’re thirsty for more. It’s as evident as ever this season that they’re not over last year. Of course, Scottie wouldn’t be on the roster if last year hadn’t gone awry. But with everything taken into consideration, a poor season being a motivating factor this year isn’t surprising.
When you compare this team to how past Raptors teams have performed in the first year of a rebuild, the biggest difference is that this team has a clear direction. In the 2003 offseason, the Raptors drafted Bosh and finished the following season with a less-than-stellar record of 33-49. VC was eventually traded for a jar of mustard pickles and Bosh became the face. Toronto didn’t sign anyone of significant value and completely missed on their ’04, ’05, and in hindsight, ’06 draft picks.
After drafting DeRozan, the Raptors were depending on a major improvement to convince Bosh to stay north which didn’t happen and it sent Toronto back to a familiar place: purgatory. While those selections weren’t validated immediately, DeRozan was the only one that panned out. He didn’t win with Toronto but he helped set the bar for what players should expect when they come here.
This team is ahead of schedule not just because of one player. The whole team, their mentality, and the shared philosophy to win is what has vaulted these Raptors back into the playoff picture. For Raptors fans, hype is usually followed up by disappointment so getting your hopes up just isn’t ideal. But that’s completely changed. It’s time to hype up the Raps because they’re really that damn good.
The personnel in place is much better than those Carter and Bosh teams. Years ahead.
This team is so, so, so good with the potential to be great for many years to come. Let’s revel in it all.