For a brief moment (or as long as it takes to read this article, and wish you hadn't) let's set aside all the really important issues facing the Raptors in the coming season -- you know, things like whether to make a run at the 8th seed, trade half the team and tank, and the continued development of Jonas Valanciunas, etc. etc. Sure, all those things could have a profound effect on the future of the franchise for years to come, but we're still a month out from the start of preseason and the NBA ‘dead zone' calls for dead zone-type priorities: priorities like stirring up some bad blood between the Raptors and one of our Atlantic Division rivals.
The Raptors need a team to hate, and a team that hates us. Rivalries make sports fun, there's no getting around it.
And the fact is, since the Raps joined the Association, there's been no real rivalry to speak of; at least nothing that comes remotely close to the reflexive hatred that exists between the Celtics and Lakers, or the Bulls and Pacers. And one can only sit and watch in envy at the blossoming Knicks-Nets feud, which gloriously extends all the way up to ownership - the 6'8" Russian billionaire vs. "that little man".
Of course, there are 3 important reasons why the Raptors haven't had an arch-nemesis up until now: 1. They've been in the league for a relatively short period of time, 2. Other than a brief period when the Vancouver Grizzlies existed, the Raps have been the only Canadian franchise, and there's no other franchise that's geographically close (bring back the Buffalo Braves!), and 3. In order to develop a rivalry against another team it helps to win a lot of basketball games and...yeah, we'll leave it at that.
Okay, so Montreal isn't getting an NBA team, we can't create years of Raptors history that don't exist, and the team's probably going to win 35 games this season - not exactly conducive to creating a heated divisional rivalry in 2013-14. But it's possible that, given the right set of circumstances - a cheap shot followed by a harmless "hold me back" type scuffle, a controversial trade, or a mildly inflammatory press-conference, players and fans can start disliking each other on the fly.
Last season the Houston Rockets jacked up, and nailed, a gazillion 3s in a game against the Golden State Warriors. Draymond Green took his frustration out on Patrick Beverley and was ejected, angry words were spoken in the post-game press conference, and suddenly, with no previous historical precedent, two teams and their fan bases had taken a mild disliking towards each other. Great stuff!
For the Raptors it would obviously make sense to ferment a rivalry within the Eastern Conference - there's no sense in starting beef with a team we're only going to play twice a season - and preferably it would be a rivalry with another team in the Atlantic division, a team that in the years to come (hopefully) the Raps will battle against for a top playoff seed.
So that leaves us with four options: the Knicks, Nets, Celtics, and Sixers.
Seeing as we need this rivalry to begin next season we can dismiss Philly straight off the bat. The Sixers seem barely interested in participating in the NBA season next year, and you can't develop a rivalry with a borderline rec-league team. It's a similar problem with Boston. They're going to field a competitive team to start the year, but Ainge has his finger twitching above that red button and is dying to blow things up in Beantown. Again, it's going to be no fun rooting against a team that's going to lose by 20 most nights. Plus, Kelly Olynyk is probably going to feature prominently next season and it won't feel right enthusiastically booing a hard-working Canuck abroad. I'm no expert on Canadian law, but it might actually constitute treason.
The Brooklyn Nets are a good candidate to become a hated divisional rival if only because there's some history between the teams. Vince Carter left for the Nets (yep, we're still booing a 36-year old Vince, playing for his 200th team) and there's a painful playoff defeat in the past with which to stoke up some good old fashioned hatred - damn you, Richard Jefferson!
But a couple things work against a Nets-Raptors rivalry starting next season. Firstly, these Nets really aren't the same Nets that broke our hearts in 2007 - different ownership, different jerseys, different city. And secondly, just as the Sixers and Celtics are going to be too bad to truly root against next season, the Nets are going to be too good for a fun rivalry to develop. Brooklyn looks set to be a championship contender and it might be an exercise in masochism to make their players angry next season. A Raptors divisional rivalry needs to start off on something closer to a level playing field.
Which leaves us with the New York Knicks, our new, less-than-perfect (as you can tell by now, this article makes no claims to strive for perfection) hated Atlantic Division rival. They're going to be a decent team next season - but not Brooklyn Nets-good - which will help stoke some dislike, there's 2 series worth of playoff history between the teams (series currently tied at 1-1) and most importantly as it pertains to next season, there's a certain player who's switched sides and will be the target of some serious vitriol - no, not Landry Fields, but Mr. Andrea Bargnani.
By the end of his tenure with the Raptors, Bargnani has become public enemy number 1 - the most unpopular Raptor since the 2004 incarnation of Vince Carter. Hated for an inability to rebound, a lack of emotion, a dismissive attitude to fan/media criticism, a suspect work ethic, and fundamentally, a failure to make the most of his undeniable talents, Bargnani was booed at the ACC last season as if he was an opposing player.
Trading Bargnani to the Knicks provides the perfect segue to transition from the rational dislike of a single player, to the irrational dislike of an entire team. It's going to be impossible to see Il Mago (are we still rolling with that nickname?) in Knicks colours, hi-fiving Metta World Piece and J.R. Smith, and not feel anything but a complete loathing for his new team and everything they stand for.
And the Raps are going to see a lot of the Knicks this season - 2 pre-season games and 4 regular season games in which to use Bargnani's presence on the team as the focal point of a growing Raptors-Knicks dislike. And when Andrea drops 30 on us (come on, it's happening, you know it) and when the sound system at MSG blares Dean Martin's "That Amore", there will be no team you'll love to hate more.
And if you think that there's no reason for the Knicks and their fans to dislike the Raptors, and hence, no real reason for a rivalry to develop, then you're wrong. Tyler Hansbrough. Enough said.