The Toronto Raptors… Are they the new LA Clippers or are they rising to respectable status?
Let's face it, when one player scores 81 points on your team, you are in for more than a little ridicule. Even if that one player is Kobe Bryant.
On the other hand, after starting the season a woeful 1-15, the Toronto Raptors have been a winning team, as they look to try and make the playoffs, and as they look towards an important off season.
The Raptors also have an embarrassing image. In their 10-year history, the Raptors have exactly three winning seasons and one playoff round win to their credit. Of course, image is all about style and, oh my, the Raptors sure do have style when it comes to making mistakes.
Let's compare similar situations to a respectable NBA franchise.
Last year, Vince Carter decided he didn't want to play for the Raptors anymore. Hey, this is the NBA, and superstars are wont to do this kind of thing.
So Rob Babcock, then GM of the team, shopped VC around. All off-season he shopped. All pre-season he shopped. The season started in November and still no deal. Finally in December, Babcock extracted the value he could for his truculent superstar.
For Babcock, that value was two players (Aaron and Eric Williams) who barely played for the Raptors, a middling first round draft pick, and -- get this -- a player (Alonzo Mourning) who had no intention of ever stepping foot in Toronto -- except as a member of the Miami Heat. Oh, and he wanted to be bought out of his contract to the tune of $10 million so he could play for the aforementioned Heat.
Now you have to admit, paying someone $10 million to play somewhere else AND watching your superstar play in New Jersey is a mistake with some serious style points.
A few weeks ago, troubled Ron Artest of the Pacers wanted out of Indiana. Keep in mind that, while Artest is valuable while beating opponents on the court, he occasionally beats fans in the stands as well. Not so good. Not Vince Carter good at any rate. Bad news for the Pacers right? Well, the Pacers took about two weeks to make a deal and they got Peja Stojakovich in return.
While the Carter saga might top the highlight reels in terms of Raptors mistakes, there have been plenty of others. They've never had a coach the last three seasons. They paid a decrepit Akeem Olajuwon obscene amounts of money not to play. They are the only NBA team to ever lose a game to a European club team. The list goes on...
But wait... don't look now, but the Raptors are actually winning! The official record, after their woeful start, is 17-15. Coach Sam Mitchell said that he liked this team when they were 1-15. He did! Some of us wondered if he also liked being stabbed with sharp objects, but he did actually say that.
Lo and behold... Maybe Mitchell isn't a masochist. And maybe these Raptors aren't your father's Clippers.
They do have, in Chris Bosh, a legitimate all-star. More importantly, the 6'11" post player is a solid citizen and self-admitted basketball keener. He works hard at improving daily and has enjoyed a steady rise in stats and stature every year since he was a rookie. He is also the reason this off-season is such a pivotal one for the Raptors.
This off-season is the one where they, and only they, can re-sign Bosh to a multi-year contract. If interim General Manager Wayne Embry, or his eventual replacement, fail to sign him, the franchise may be in serious jeopardy. A Raptors team without Carter and Bosh may be one that can't sell tickets.
Even if they can still sell tickets, it's hard to change your image among NBA players. The Canadian franchise is already at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting free agents. If the reputation as a place to stay away from magnifies any further, it could well become virtually impossible to lure players north.
To their credit, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, who own the team, have made some steps to try and avoid that scenario. They recently fired Babcock as the General Manager. In the Interim they installed well respected Wayne Embry. At 69 years old, Embry stressed the interim part of his job title, but promised to hit the ground running.
He wasn't blowing smoke. Within a few days he dealt useful, but overpaid, Jalen Rose to the New York Knicks, getting useful, but overpaid, Antonio Davis in return. More importantly, he opened cap space, as Davis' contract expires at the end of this season.
That may give the Raptors enough room under the salary cap to re-sign Mike James. James has become Bosh's running mate on the squad, and he may have some influence on whether Bosh will stay put.
There are other factors to consider when deciding whether the Raptors are on the road to respectability. Among them are the stockpile of young supporting talent they have, like Charlie Villanueva, Joey Grahame and Jose Calderone.
How they develop will be important to the franchise's future. Villanueva, especially, has the talent to improve the team's fortunes. Mitchell may indeed be the one to provide some stability with these young developing players. Of course, whoever they hire as the new GM will have an effect as well.
However, none of them matter as much as signing Bosh this summer. It's a harsh reality that you live and die with your stars in the NBA, and the Raptors could illustrate this point clearly in the coming years.