A fun NBA parlor game is to rank a team's all-time starting five. For some teams, it's a who's-who of basketball royalty; the Lakers might roll with a backcourt of Magic Johnson and Jerry West and a front line of Kobe Bryant, Elgin Baylor and Kareem, with Shaq and Wilt coming off the bench; the Celtics could boast Cousy - Havlicek - Bird - McHale - Russell. The 76ers offer Iverson - Hal Greer - Dr. J - Barkley - Moses Malone.
As for the Raptors? Damon Stoudamire - Vince Carter - Tracy McGrady - Chris Bosh - Antonio Davis seems like the most reasonable answer. Ranking that group against other teams is no fun. Instead, we're going to dive into the cesspool that is Raptors history and find the worst possible starting five. First, a couple ground rules:
- My experience with the team really began during the 2002-03 season, so players before then won't be considered. Apologies to Zan Tabak and Yogi Stewart, but you guys were before my time.
- The player in question must have appeared in a reasonable amount of games with Toronto. Guys on 10-day contracts don't qualify. Nate Huffman makes me laugh every time I think about him, but he only played seven games in Toronto.
- Factors other than a player's on-court production will be considered very seriously. Did the player fall short of expectations? (I'm looking at you, Hedo.) Did he fire a weapon in the vicinity of the White House? (Lonny Baxter.) Did the player/players inspire a Chuck Swirsky nickname? (Hammer and Nails, anyone?) Is he best remembered for the continuation of a meaningless streak? (The immortal Darrick Martin.) All things to consider.
With those principles in mind, let's get to the list. First, some honourable mentions.
Rafer Alston: "Skip to my Lou" was a New York streetball legend that predictably flamed out in the NBA. Originally signed as a 10-day player, Alston started 78 games with the Raptors during the 2004-05 season and actually played pretty well, averaging 14 points and better than six assists. He makes honourable mention largely on his legendary conflicts with coach Sam Mitchell, culminating in a December 2004 game in Boston in which Mitchell lost it on both Alston and Loren Woods. After the game Alston admitted he might quit playing basketball: "I don't know if I'm a good fit for this team and I don't know if I'm a good fit for this league," he said. Never change, Skip.
Lamond Murray: Remember when this guy was going to be the second option after Vince Carter? Acquired from Cleveland, Murray missed his entire first season with the Raptors (2002-03) with a foot injury. He played 95 games over the next two seasons, averaging six points and starting only five. He wasn't awful before coming to Toronto, so he gets a bit of a pass with the injury. Needless to say, he never became that second option.
Mamadou N'Diaye: It's still unclear how N'Diaye became a first round pick (26th in 2000), but it didn't take long to recognize he wasn't an NBA player; he appeared in 69 total games and was out of the league by 29. Over the course of three seasons with Toronto N'Diaye did almost nothing, but he'll always have November 4, 2002. In a game against Chicago N'Diaye came off the bench to block eight shots in 23 minutes in one of the great random performances in Raptors history. That game doubles as one of my first clear Raptors memories, so N'Diaye gets a personal bump in the rankings.
Robert Archibald/Nathan Jawai/Pops Mensah-Bonsu/Pape Sow/Patrick O'Bryant/Alexis Ajinca/Mengke Bateer: Not exactly a Murderer's Row of bigs. Nothing to add here.
Now, onto the main event.
Point guard - Milt Palacio: Another product of the dark years of the early 2000s, Palacio might have been the worst offensive guard to ever put on a Raptors uniform. During an epic 2003-04 campaign, Palacio shot 26% on jumpers and 43% on layups!. He improved the following season, but only in the sense that "horrific" is better than "below average". It's doubtful that a player like Palacio would even be an NBA player today; with such an emphasis on shooting, a guy who shot 23% from three for his career and doubled down with an inability to finish at the rim would have a hard time finding a job. After leaving Toronto he played one season with Utah and has been overseas ever since.
Shooting guard - Rasual Butler: Signed just prior to the start of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, I can only guess that Butler was supposed to bring veteran leadership and shooting. Instead he submitted one of the worst seasons in franchise history, somehow starting 14 games despite shooting 30% and posting the fifth lowest PER in the league. As a non-shooting shooter, he'll complement Palacio nicely to form the exact opposite of the Steph Curry - Klay Thompson backcourt.
Small forward - Joey Graham: Did you know that Joey Graham has his pilot's license and an identical twin named Stephen? That's what comes to mind when I think of Graham's time with the Raptors - mindless trivia. Drafted 16th overall in 2005, Graham was blessed with incredible strength and athleticism and looked like a prototypical small forward.
Unfortunately, he struggled with dribbling, passing, shooting and other basic basketball skills. He played four seasons in Toronto and I can't remember a single moment; it's all just a series of midrange jumpers and talk of flying. Graham's greatest contribution may have been as an insurance policy in case the pilot and co-pilot on the team charter suffered simultaneous heart attacks. You can never be too careful.
Power forward - Rafael Araujo: There could be no other choice. The Brazilian Beast has been beaten to death but it's always worthwhile to remind ourselves of how horrible he truly was (Best part of that clip? Hoffa's Carlos Boozer-style scream just before blowing the dunk). Like Palacio, there's no way Hoffa would be an NBA player today, let alone the eighth pick in the draft. He couldn't shoot, pass, defend or jump and he was nearly 24 years old when he was drafted. Other than that, he was a can't-miss prospect. My favourite part of the Hoffa story is a video clip of GM Rob Babcock on the phone with Kevin McHale as he justifies the Hoffa selection; Babcock says Toronto fans will love Hoffa because he plays with a "hockey mentality". If anyone can find this clip for me, I will be eternally grateful. Let's just move on.
Centre - Loren Woods: The Raptors beat the Rockets 95-85 to open the 2004-05 season. Loren Woods started at centre, played 24 minutes and scored nine points to go with seven rebounds. I watched the game with my friend Dart (his last name) and I clearly remember that we were trying to talk ourselves into Loren Woods: "If he gives us 10 and 10 every night, we'll be fine!" He actually followed up with a 17-14
It's not that Loren Woods was much worse than Patrick O'Bryant or any other random awful centre the Raptors have employed; it's that he's the poster boy for everything that's gone wrong with this franchise over the past 19 seasons. Every Raptors fan has tried to talk themselves into someone who probably shouldn't be on an NBA court in the first place. Loren Woods just happened to be my guy and for that he gets the coveted final spot on the worst all-time starting five you've ever seen.