The last time Raptors fans felt the immense pain of a devastating playoff defeat was thirteen years ago in Game 7 against Philadelphia. There have been playoff losses since, but that series and Vince Carter's missed shot remains the absolute pinnacle and nadir of the franchise.
Flash forward to three months ago, when Kyle Lowry's game winning attempt in Game 7 against Brooklyn was blocked by Paul Pierce, sending the Raptors to an early exit despite winning a franchise record 48 games in the regular season.
The stakes were different, but the pain was the same. It's the agony that comes with believing in your team, only to see them fall short. But the Raptors also ended the season with a lot of hope for the future.
This offseason has been a stirring success. In the thirteen years since Vince Carter's missed shot, the team has struggled to maintain a consistent roster and a stable front office equipped to make smart moves to position the team for contention. This off-season has run counter to that. The Raptors retained Lowry at a fair market value of four-years, $48 million, brought back Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson and also acquired Lou Williams and brought back James Johnson.
For the first time in forever, the Raptors feel like a franchise with identity and direction. No longer is the franchise running in circles with endless course corrections just to remain mediocre. The new front office -- led by Masai Ujiri -- have expressed confidence in the core of this team and demonstrated it by bringing them all back. The Raptors quietly went about their business of retaining their division winning roster, and now, a few months before the start of next season, the question becomes: could they be on the verge of reaching a new pinnacle?
Do we dare dream it?
We can figure out how to anticipate the future by looking to the past. Following the second round loss to Philadelphia in 2001, the Raptors went all-in during the off-season to build on their promising season. The team re-signed Vince Carter, Alvin Williams, Antonio Davis, Jerome Williams and added Hakeem Olajuwon. General manager Glen Grunwald was confident in his core group, and with reason. The team had Lenny Wilkens as their coach, and everything appeared in place for a prolonged run in the East. It was a team to dream, of trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, and perhaps even the NBA Finals.
Of course, things did not break that way for the Raptors, and we learned a few important lessons along the way.
The following season was one of prolonged anguish, a kind of unraveling that made the entire regular season feel like one long sustained note of deflation. Olajuwon was a disappointment, and Carter was injured in the second half of the season. The Raptors endured a 13-game losing streak in the second half, and appeared out of the playoffs. They recovered without Carter, and went on a 12-2 to close the season and sneak into the playoffs. The Raptors season again came down to a final shot from Chris Childs, and once again, the team fell short and headed home in the first round against the Pistons.
The aftermath of that season dragged on. The Raptors didn't make the playoffs with Carter again and he eventually forced his way out of town.
So, the lingering memory of the Vince Carter era remains. The Raptors once again have a team that looks primed to contend in the East, and a core looking to build on the previous year's success. On paper, they appear to be on their way to establishing themselves as contenders. But we've been here before. The future looked impossibly bright after the 2001 season, and then flickered out just as quickly.
We hoped before, and we're ready to hope again. Perhaps this time around, the results will be different.