In his best-selling book, Freakonomics, authour Steven Levitt explores the â€œhidden side of everything,â€ finding connections between such diverse subjects as sumo wrestlers and school teachers.
One connection Levitt overlooked is the one binding the University of Tennessee and the Toronto Raptors.
The connection between these seemingly disparate subjects is not as easy as drawing parallels to the respective seasons of the Volunteer football team and the Raptors. Letâ€™s not forget that, like Charles Dickens, the Volunteers had great expectations for this season. The Raptors, meanwhile, had very few.
Itâ€™s something a little deeper than that. Allow me to recount my recent experience and the eerie connection.
En route to the Tennessee-Memphis football game, where we would get a good look at Memphis QB/WR/Point guard Maurice Avery, the car radio was tuned to the sounds of the U of T radio station. Why? Because college radio kicks ass, kids.
After the requisite DangerDoom and Animal Collective joints, the sounds of Damian Marley came through the less-than-Blaupunkt speakers of the rental car. Instead of the full version of â€œWelcome to Jamrock,â€ however, we were treated to an announcerâ€™s voice, praising the upcoming reggae show, featuring the sounds of the entire Marley family (probably even a rare Rohan Marley cut from his days with the Ottawa Rough Riders), Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff.
Yet, it wasnâ€™t until the name of the program was announced that the connection finally hit me.
Which is exactly what Raptors fans need to do.
It seems there are very few places that a Raptors fan can turn without being subjected to Raptor bashing.
Email jokes about the Raptors being granted custody of an abused child because, as the punchline goes, the Raptors canâ€™t beat anyone.
A daily onslaught of negative articles regarding the plight of the franchise.
Colleagues questioning oneâ€™s sanity for cheering for the â€œworst team in the NBAâ€.
With all of the negativity surrounding the franchise, should Raptors fans be rushing to push the panic button? Not so fast, my friend.
Everyone knows that the city of Toronto is starved for a winner. That much is evident when Yonge Street is jammed with cars, blaring horns, after the Leafs win a playoff game. However, as Morcheeba reminded us, Rome wasnâ€™t built in a day.
The main problem with this team right now is the lack of talent. As weâ€™ve mentioned on several occasions, the team has one legitimate NBA starter in Chris Bosh. While it certainly appears that Charlie Villanueva is well on his way to joining CB4, this team still desperately needs a talent upgrade. The best place to acquire such a talent infusion is the draft.
A poor season on the floor would lock up a high lottery pick for the Raptors. Since the 2006 draft is not the deepest, a top-three pick is essential.
Josh Boone is nice, but heâ€™s hardly a saviour, and certainly not better than CV Smooth. Adam Morrison may remind some of Larry Bird. He reminds me of Wally Sczerbiak. Dee Brown may be touted as the best point guard in the land by some talking heads, but he surely wonâ€™t be bringing the Illinoise in the pros like my man Sufjan Stevens.
What do the Raptors need? An impact swingman capable of creating his own shot, like Rudy Gay.
Gay can pretty much do it all, from low-post scoring to draining Js and finishing on the break. Could you imagine a frontline of Bosh, CV Smooth and Gay? That's one athletic and long frontcourt, possibly the most promising in the NBA.
Sure, itâ€™s probably too early to begin speculating on who might be available come June 2006. Has that ever stopped us before? There are reasons why the televisions at the Raptorshq HQ are constantly turned to ESPNâ€™s NCAA basketball broadcasts in November and December. And it sure as heck isnâ€™t to check out Chaminade and Hofstra.
The other bonus to a losing season is the opportunity for the team to evaluate the talent it already has on hand. What does the team have in Araujo, Graham and Calderon? Thereâ€™s only one way to find out: play them.
Does Hoffa have it in him to be a contributing member of this teamâ€™s rotation? No, he is never going to be an All-Star (even in the East), but he has shown glimpses of what he is capable of. Will these glimpses morph into a more regular contribution? Weâ€™re not going to find out if Sam Mitchell only plays him five minutes a night.
Fighting for a playoff spot might be beneficial to this team (especially at the box office) in the short-term. However, finishing 8th or 9th in the conference year-in and year-out is no way to build a contending club.
Do we, as Raptor fans, want this team to eke into the playoffs year after year, only to be lambs led to the slaughter at the hands of Miami, Indiana or Detroit?
Or, do we live through a few bad years, with the knowledge that a talent base worthy of competing with the elite teams in the East is possible?
Look at the Chicago Bulls. In 1998, they won their sixth NBA title of the decade. After Michael Jordan retired (again), they languished at the bottom of the league for six straight seasons. While it cost them some â€œfansâ€ (donâ€™t try and act like you didnâ€™t have any Bulls gear during their run), the on-court struggles allowed them to stockpile talent. The end result is one of the top young teams in the NBA, a team that probably would have made a playoff run last season if they were not beset by injuries.
While high draft picks are no guarantee of future success (just ask Elgin Baylor), Iâ€™m willing to put my faith in Rob Babcockâ€™s drafting abilities and see what kind of team he can put together.
As a Raptors fan, here are your two options:
1. Evoke R.E.M. and figure that itâ€™s the end of the Raptorsâ€™ world as you know it. Believe everything negative that is written about this team, even from the columnists who could be granted a night with Angelina Jolie and turn around and write an article the next morning criticizing her performance. Demonstrate your shortsightedness by showing up at games with â€œFire Babcockâ€ signs.
2. Take this season for what it is: a chance to develop our current young talent and score a high draft pick that will improve our talent base, which is the best chance for the organization to take another step to returning to respectability.
Like Black Sheep said, the choice is yours.