There's a season going on right now and, believe it or not, the Raptors are actually in the playoff hunt for the first time in years. Ignoring the fact that it's a pretty pathetic "hunt", that's something to talk about. Even if the Raptors do manage to make the playoffs this year, though, they remain in pole position as the NBA's most forgotten franchise. Being a Raptors fan sometimes feels completely meaningless.
How did it come to this? With no NBA games tonight (Happy Thanksgiving to our American friends!), I figured there's a chance to get a little creative with today's post. Let's take a trip down memory lane and look at some of the Raptors' greatest hits to explain their decade-long plunge into obscurity. It begins more than nine years ago.
June 24, 2004: Raptors draft Rafael Araujo eighth overall
Araujo is the Patient X of the Raptors' epidemic; from this one decision sprang so much horror. General manager Rob Babcock took BYU's Araujo with the eighth pick, one spot ahead of Andre Iguodala. Araujo somehow started 75 games for Toronto before being shipped off to Utah for Kim Kardashian's future ex-husband; Iguodala, of course, is a 10-year NBA vet who's made his mark as an elite defender and do-it-all swingman.
The ramifications of this pick rippled for years to come. Instead of pairing Iguodala with Vince Carter and a young Chris Bosh, Babcock opted for a 23-year-old Brazilian with T-Rex arms and no discernible NBA skill. It set off a chain reaction that led to...
December 17, 2004: Raptors trade Vince Carter to New Jersey for Aaron Williams, Eric Williams, Alonzo Mourning and first-round picks in 2005 (Joey Graham) and 2006 (later traded to New York, became Renaldo Balkman)
Less than six months after the Araujo disaster, Babcock one-upped himself by executing one of the worst trades in NBA history. Seriously, take a look at that trade again. Carter had made four straight All-Star games at that time, was one of the league's most popular players and established Toronto as a viable NBA market. Sure, he had given up on the team - if you need proof, look at the numbers he put up after being traded - and maybe there was no way to avoid a trade, but this trade? Really?
A New York Times article written the day after the move makes for mesmerizing reading on so many levels. An Eastern Conference official summed up the trade as, "Basically, it's Eric Williams for Vince Carter." Eric Williams, who might be best known for throwing a drink at a woman on a horrible reality show. Let that soak in a little bit.
Not all was lost, though! There was NBA legend Alonzo Mourning who, uh, refused to play in Toronto and was bought out. Ok, but what about those valuable draft picks Babcock seemed so enamored with?
Well...they only used one of those picks and it was on Joey Graham! Better yet, those picks were both protected in the 2005 draft (top-eight and top-five), so what in the hell was Babcock so excited about?
We'll close with another gem from that Times piece: "Around the league, the move caused some executives to question the thinking of Rob Babcock, Toronto's first-year general manager, and to praise the Nets' move."
Miss ya, Rob.
After that unspeakable start to the Babcock era (I didn't even mention the six-year, $29 million contract he gifted to Rafer Alston), things smoothed out a bit. The 2005 Draft saw the Raps select Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham; far from ideal, but positively Auerbachian after the Arajuo disaster the year before. Babcock even made a great move by signing unknown Spanish point guard Jose Calderon in August 2005; still, it wasn't enough to save his job and Babcock was fired halfway through the 2005-06 season.
Bring on the Bryan Colangelo era! With his high-necked shirts and thoroughbred basketball pedigree, Colangelo seemed like an obvious upgrade over the less-than-charismatic Babcock and, at least early on, he was. He plucked Anthony Parker from Israel and Jorge Garbajosa from a Spanish motorcycle gang; he traded Villanueva for TJ Ford and drafted a sweet-shooting seven-footer to play alongside an emerging Bosh. As the Raptors claimed their first-ever Atlantic Division title in 2007 and Colangelo was named the NBA's Executive of the Year for the second time, all seemed well - but that was soon to change.
Only two months after the Raptors were eliminated from the playoffs by the New Jersey Nets, Colangelo set the franchise on its current path to endless mediocrity with the first of many questionable moves.
July 11, 2007: Raptors sign free agent Jason Kapono to a four-year, $20 million contract
On the first day of free agency in 2007, Colangelo jumped the gun (a recurring theme) by using Toronto's full mid-level exception to sign Kapono, a role player who never made more than $1.1 million on a non-Colangelo deal. Outside of winning the Three-Point Shootout in 2007 and 2008, Kapono spent two forgettable seasons in Toronto before being traded to Philadelphia for Reggie Evans.
It's not so much that Kapono's deal was a financial millstone or that he was completely useless while in Toronto; instead, this deal was a harbinger of things to come as Colangelo went on a spree of unnecessary/overly expensive signings, trades and extensions.
July 10, 2008: Raptors trade TJ Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Maceo Baston and a first-round pick (Roy Hibbert) for Jermaine O'Neal and Nathan Jawai
This one's only getting worse with each passing day.
Desperate to pair Bosh with a legitimate center, Colangelo gambled on O'Neal, who had missed significant chunks of three of four seasons before being traded to Toronto. He also came with a hefty price tag: $44 million over two years.
Like so many other Colangelo moves, this one faded quickly. O'Neal only played 41 games with Toronto before he was traded to Miami as part of the Shawn Marion deal. (As an aside, trading for O'Neal helped Miami carve out enough cap space for LeBron James and Bosh in the summer of 2010, when O'Neal's massive $23 million salary came off the books.)
Honestly, though, it's not the O'Neal part that stings the most about this one. It's Hibbert, who went to Indiana as an afterthought and is now a max-level player who's doing a reasonable Dikembe Mutombo impression. It would have been almost impossible to predict when Hibbert came out of Georgetown - he was a bit doughy and very slow - but this trade shows how risky it can be to trade first-rounders for injury-prone veterans, no matter where those picks may fall.
July 8, 2009: Raptors sign Andrea Bargnani to a five-year, $50 million extension
Again, take a moment to let this one sink in.
Colangelo doubled down on his decision to draft Bargnani first overall by extending the possibly comatose Italian to a ridiculous five-year deal. Masai Ujiri miraculously got out of the deal this summer like Harry Houdini escaping from a packing crate in the East River.
The craziest part about this contract was that Colangelo extended Bargnani a year before he was set to become a free agent. Bargnani would have hit the "open" market as a restricted free agent anyway, meaning Colangelo could have matched any offer. I guess Colangelo was worried someone would offer a historically bad rebounder and help defender more than $10 million a year.
Over the next five seasons after signing that extension, Bargnani helped the Raptors amass a record of 152-242 with zero playoff appearances. By the end of his time in Toronto he was being mercilessly booed every time he checked into a game.
We now move almost exactly three years into the future for the final act in this sad play.
July 11, 2012: Raptors sign Landry Fields to a three-year, $19.5 million contract
At the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Bryan Colangelo meets with senior staffers. He wants to brainstorm ideas on how to get Steve Nash in a Raptors uniform.
Pulling nervously at an overly starched shirt collar, Colangelo begins to panic as he realizes he can do nothing but appeal to Nash's patriotism.
Colangelo: I'm worried about New York. Steve lives there in the offseason. He plays soccer in Central Park! We can't compete with that.
Senior basketball advisor Wayne Embry jokes about tying up the Knicks' cap space by offering a deal to restricted free agent Landry Fields, despite rumors that Fields can no longer bend his elbow. Colangelo's eyes light up.
Colangelo: Yes, Wayne! Let's get Landry's agent on the phone.
Embry: Bryan, hold on a second. What if the Knicks let Fields walk and then sign Steve? Or what if he decides to sign somewhere else?
Colangelo thinks for a moment.
Two days later, Colangelo walks into his office. He claws at an overly starched shirt collar. The nightmare has come true: the Knicks let Fields walk and, in an unexpected twist, Nash orchestrated a sign-and-trade that sent him to the Lakers.
Colangelo stares out the window at the bustling traffic on Bay Street. He composes himself, straightens out his collar and walks downstairs. It's time to introduce Landry Fields.