If the average basketball fan scanned the Toronto Raptors roster, they would probably need to have Wikipedia handy. It is a group of players that don’t really jump off the page at you. And the ones that are recognizable are probably standing out for the wrong reasons. A season that began with so much optimism now sees the Raptors at 6-19, while leaving fans and pundits searching for answers.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not for a team that has had three top-five selections in the NBA Draft over the last decade.
Although Raptors fans would have liked to have seen him here longer, Chris Bosh was a franchise player and a perennial all-star in Toronto. His WWE like introduction with the Miami Heat may have rubbed Torontonians the wrong way, but his impact on the court can’t be denied. Bosh averaged 22-plus points a game for five of his seven seasons in Toronto, and added three years where he had 10-plus rebounds.
The combination of Bosh and 2006 first overall pick Andrea Bargnani were supposed to be the cornerstones of the Raptors for years to come. Bargnani, however, has never looked anything close to a number one pick, and has had major trouble finding an identity. Is he a big and rangy shooter that can hit the outside jump shot? Or can he use his seven-foot frame to dominate down low? So far in his career he has appeared to be neither. In only one pro season has Bargnani averaged more than 20 points a game, and his career rebounding average is less than five per contest. Not to mention that having a less than one block per game average for a seven-footer is atrocious. Too bad helping move delicious Primo Pasta off Toronto supermarket shelves isn’t an NBA stat.
To say the Raptors chose Bargnani first overall in the 2006 draft is a little misleading. The better word may be “stuck”. In arguably the weakest draft class in the last ten years, Toronto was forced to take Bargnani, who was the best of the bunch at the time. In fact, four of the top ten players taken in 2006, Adam Morrison, Shelden Williams, Patrick O’Bryant, and Saer Sene, are no longer in the NBA. And if you discount Brandon Roy because of his knee issues, only two players from the top ten that year, Rudy Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge, have had significantly serviceable careers so far.
2006 Top 5 Players Selected
Andrea Bargnani – Toronto Raptors
LaMarcus Aldridge – Portland Trail Blazers
Adam Morrison – Charlotte Bobcats
Tyrus Thomas – Chicago Bulls
Shelden Williams – Atlanta Hawks
In other words, the Raptors had the bad luck of being terrible at the wrong time. Should they have had the number one pick in any other year over the last decade, then the state of the franchise right now would be much different. Have a look at the top five players selected from every other draft since 2003.
LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers
Darko Milicic – Detroit Pistons
Carmelo Anthony – Denver Nuggets
Chris Bosh – Toronto Raptors
Dwyane Wade – Miami Heat
Dwight Howard – Orlando Magic
Emeka Okafor – Charlotte Bobcats
Ben Gordon – Chicago Bulls
Shaun Livingston – Los Angeles Clippers
Devin Harris – Dallas Mavericks
Andrew Bogut – Milwaukee Bucks
Marvin Williams – Atlanta Hawks
Deron Williams – Utah Jazz
Chris Paul – New Orleans Hornets
Raymond Felton – Charlotte Bobcats
Greg Oden – Portland Trail Blazers
Kevin Durant – Seattle SuperSonics
Al Horford – Atlanta Hawks
Mike Conley – Memphis Grizzlies
Jeff Green – Boston Celtics
Derrick Rose – Chicago Bulls
Michael Beasley – Miami Heat
OJ Mayo – Minnesota Timberwolves
Russell Westbrook – Seattle SuperSonics
Kevin Love – Memphis Grizzlies
Blake Griffin – Los Angeles Clippers
Hasheem Thabeet – Memphis Grizzlies
James Harden – Oklahoma City Thunder
Tyreke Evans – Sacramento Kings
Ricky Rubio – Minnesota Timberwolves
John Wall – Washington Wizards
Evan Turner – Philadelphia 76ers
Derrick Favors – New Jersey Nets
Wesley Johnson – Minnesota Timberwolves
DeMarcus Cousins – Sacramento Kings
Kyrie Irving – Cleveland Cavaliers
Derrick Williams – Minnesota Timberwolves
Enes Kanter – Utah Jazz
Tristan Thompson – Cleveland Cavaliers
Jonas Valanciunas – Toronto Raptors
Anthony Davis – New Orleans Hornets
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Charlotte Bobcats
Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
Dion Waiters – Cleveland Cavaliers
Thomas Robinson – Sacramento Kings
It’s pretty evident that if the Raptors chose first in any one of those other years they would be in a much better position. That of course is assuming they could have retained the player they selected long-term. That has been another challenge facing Canada’s only NBA team. With Steve Francis famously refusing to play for the Vancouver Grizzlies, Antonio Davis’ on again, off again love affair with the metric system, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh wanting to seek greener pastures, and a scary tax system for Americans, many players seem to have a negative perception of Toronto and Canada.
The Raptors will need to change that if they hope to compete. You need a superstar in the NBA to win more than you do in any other major pro sports league in North America, and here’s why. If you take the top ten players in minutes played in the NBA in 2012-13 and average out their court time, you get 38.8 minutes per game. That accounts for nearly 81% of a 48 minute contest. Compare that to the NHL where your average ice-time leaders are playing below 50% of the game, the NFL where offensive and defensive players are only out on the field about 50% of the time, and baseball where you average about four at bats and are in the field for the other 50% of the game. An impact player is so crucial in the NBA just for the sheer amount of time they are out on the floor.
Look at LeBron James’ situation for a minute. Forget about what he did upon arriving in Miami, but instead look at how his departure hurt the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2009 the Cavaliers were 61-21 in LeBron’s final season in Cleveland. The next year the Cavs went 19-63.
Toronto obviously doesn’t have anyone even close to LeBron. In most years a number one draft pick would almost assure a big-time player was headed your way. Not in 2006, however, when they acquired Bargnani. Jonas Valanciunas is the next hope for Raptors fans. Even if that optimism may be a little naïve.
The Raptors have just five post-season appearances, one playoff series victory, and one division title in their history. They were at their most effective when they had Carter or Bosh in a starring role, but have still lacked to find that franchise player that wants to commit to the city long-term. It was supposed to be Bargnani, but that ship has sailed. Until they find that player, mediocrity will reign in Toronto.