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Tough Enough

Mr. Carter had a bit more swagger when he knew he was surrounded by the likes of Oak and JYD...

Mr. Carter had a bit more swagger when he knew he was surrounded by the likes of Oak and JYD...

If you were to make a list of the Toronto Raptors’ all-time wimps, who would be on the list?

Chris Jeffries?

Michael Bradley?

Certainly Vince Carter right?

The funny thing is, while we all remember Mr. Carter as being the baby of all babies, I saw some clips this weekend of a Vince Carter that I had totally forgotten about; a Vince Carter who going after Vlade Divac and looking to dunk on any Atlanta Hawk within five feet.

I was mystified!

I mean, he was no Allen Iverson, but there was a marked difference in his play.

Where was the rolling around on the ground as if he had been shot?

Where was the missed lay-up instead of sure-fire dunk?

And why did he seem to have this extra bit of swagger and aggression while going to the rim? Was my memory of Wince Carter all horribly skewed by his final season in Toronto and his "I don’t want to dunk anymore" stance?

No, not at all.

In fact, on closer inspection I realized just why Vince felt a lot more secure about playing with some reckless abandon.

Surrounding Vince on the court were two dudes named Mr. Davis and Mr. Oakley.

As I watched vintage Raptors’ games from this era I realized that this was actually a tough team that I was watching!

I mean, even after Oaktree and AD, Mo Pete was a feisty rookie/soph, Keon Clarke was a bean pole but didn’t hesitate to talk some trash, and Chris Childs was as ornery as they came.

And even guys like Alvin Williams and JYD, while true professionals, they were hardly pushovers.

However once that toughness began to deteriorate via trades and attrition, the Raptors sort of became this soft bunch of "finesse players" (and even that label might be generous considering the dearth of talent from 2003 to 2006.) I mean, I completely forgot that at one point, Toronto had three of the top 25 rebounders in the league on their roster!

So what about this upcoming version of the Raps, can it finally provide fans with some of the necessary grit they have sought after for years now?

That’s the main question that popped into my mind after watching some of these past incarnations of the Raptors in action. And to answer…well…I’m not sure yet. Yes O’Neal was a great defender, rebounder and shot-blocker, and he dropped a rushing fan at the Palace melee with a single punch, but outside of him?

Well I’m not expecting Jamario Moon or Jose Calderon to put the fear of god in any opponents just yet. And while Andrea showed some promise in his rookie year with a little streak of nastiness, he’s since almost regressed into a gentle giant.

And while Chris Bosh and Anthony Parker are both warriors, they’re more of the Alvin Williams "strong and silent" types.

What about the other new additions, Roko Ukic, Will Solomon, Nathan Jawai and Hassan Adams?

Of this group, Adams is the one who got after it a bit in Vegas and looks to have a bit of an edge. Solomon could certainly play with some fire in his college days so hopefully even in limited minutes we’ll see some of that. Ukic, well, I really haven’t seen enough of him yet to know where he lies in the cajones department. And finally Jawai seems to be more of the jovial sort but perhaps he can turn into a Ronny Turiaf, a player who while good-natured on the sidelines, is all business and intensity on the court.

I’m not suggesting some of these players need to develop into goons or anything like that. In fact, this isn’t even solely about players who are willing to physically get after it on offense and defense. No, this is also about mental toughness and doing things like holding fourth quarter leads or coming back from late-game deficits. These are two areas Toronto struggled with last year and I always thought part of it was due to the team’s mental resolve. Even Michael Jordan’s Bulls didn’t always have the toughest players in a physical sense (that title probably went to the Bad Boys of Detroit) but his clubs never seemed to be out of it. They fought until the end and yes it’s easy to argue that "when you have Michael Jordan, of course you’re never out of it," but Chicago also had guys like John Paxson and Steve Kerr that simply made big plays in the clutch.

As a perfect example of this in terms of looking back at past Raptors’ clubs, who was taking and hitting the three-pointer to send a game against Sacramento into another extra session? None other than Charles Oakley.

So where does this leave next year’s team?

In short I think this will be a tougher team next year both mentally and physically (an important differentiation) and while they’re not at the Oakley level yet, I think provided O’Neal stays healthy, this will be the toughest team fans have seen in years. Most importantly, I think that J.O.’s mentality and play will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the group.

This would be huge in changing the team’s mindset and as we saw with Kevin Garnett and the Celtics last season, good things happen when players take on the habits and attitude of their stars.