It's become the NBA's version of "my dad could beat up your dad." Former champions like Magic Johnson and Scottie Pippen have spent the year proclaiming that their old-school teams of yore would dismantle the 73-9, soon-to-be repeat champion Warriors.
Like any inane schoolyard spat between children, it doesn't make for interesting conversation. All these jilted ex-stars are doing is propping up their own legacies in the face of Golden State's historical greatness. Sure, it's understandable for these guys to want to defend their roots; but ultimately, their boasting rings hollow. There's no way to test whether or not the Showtime Lakers or '96 Bulls could beat the Warriors. The NBA game is evolutionary. If you go by the theory that the league innovates as it ages, each new world-beating team is inherently the best team we've ever seen. You don't see some inferior breed of three-legged squirrel thriving in a world dominated by their four-legged brethren.
Again, these are useless and boring exercises in basketball theory.
Thankfully, it's hard to envision a former Toronto Raptors star getting wrapped up in the insufferable "We could beat the Warriors" game any time soon. Such is life for a franchise that only just broke the 50-win barrier in its twenty-first season of existence. As much as it's fun to dream about the José Calderon-Pops Mensah-Bonsu pick-and-roll being being the antidote to the Warriors oppressive defense, there's no team in Raptors history that would even take a game off of these Warriors in a seven-game series. You don't even need to adjust for era to realize that sad truth.
If Magic, Shaq and Pippen can toss out useless hypothetical scenarios, though, why can't we? What if we bent the rules of the Golden State vs. the Old School game and tried to assemble an all-time team of Raptors to go toe-to-toe with the Warriors. That team would certainly have a better chance than, say, the 2007 squad. But what's sobering about Raptors history - and perhaps indicative of how out-of-this-world the Warriors are - is that while you can put together rotation that would give Steve Kerr's buzz saw a run, there probably isn't a fictional Toronto dream team that would be considered a clear favourite against the champs. Golden State is that good -- the Raptors have been that crappy.
So what would the Raptors' best fictitious team, built with the Warriors in mind, look like? How do you put together a roster that will exploit the weaknesses of a team that might not even have one? No opponent, save for the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, has been able to go blow-for-blow with Golden State in the last two years.
Maybe the blueprint the Thunder drew up is the one to try and emulate. The only problem is, Oklahoma City's success was largely dependent on possessing two of the five or six best players on the planet. Kevin Durant played orangutan defense, Westbrook tempered his hyper-aggressiveness, and Billy Donovan's team was able to play at a blistering pace and keep up with the Warriors -- for four games at least. Even that game plan couldn't sustain. And no matter who you feature on a Raptors All-Star team, you're not matching the top-tier talent the Thunder had on hand this season.
If there's one thing we've learned over the last two seasons, it's that trying to match the Warriors at their own game will end in tears. Some teams have tried to out-sprint them -- but that's like challenging team Jamaica to a 4-by-100 meter relay. Others have experimented with small lineups that unfailingly don't compare to the Warriors' prototype, the Death Lineup.
Nobody has uncovered a formula to "beat" the Warriors conistently. But if you're going to try and muck up their flow and throw a substantial punch their way, the move might be to play big -- gargantuan, even. Cleveland found success using Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson to do just that in the first half of The Finals last year; Utah gave Golden State one of its closest calls during its season-opening winning streak with a big man tandem of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert; and the Spurs were at least able to steal one game from the best team ever with LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan up front. Given the players Toronto has had at its disposal throughout history, maybe that's the play? Go big, halt the pace, try to collect a bucketful of rebounds and hope your big men are able to switch on to Steph Curry.
Let's piece it together, shall we? First, some ground rules:
1. This roster will be constructed by players with a corresponding year in which they played and/or excelled with the Raptors (i.e. 2015-16 Kyle Lowry). So for example, when Tracy McGrady appears on the roster, it's not the peak Orlando version of McGrady we're envisioning on the team -- it's the version of the player when he was with the Raptors. Therefore, Chauncey Billups won't be making an appearance.
2. We're going to go nine-deep on the roster. Playoff rotations rarely balloon to double digits, so we'll keep it as tight as possible.
3. This won't just be a team made up of the best individual performers in Raptors history. Mike James averaged 20.3 points in 2005-06. Mike James from 2005-06 is not going to be on this team. Role players who don't score in bunches and can excel away from the ball are important; this isn't an All-Star team.
With all that said, here's the Raptors' best possible team for a stupid, non-existent series against the greatest team of all time.
PG: 2015-16 Kyle Lowry
This one's a no-brainer. Kyle Lowry's third-team All-NBA run this year wasn't only the best season ever turned in by a Raptors point guard -- you can make a case for it being the best season any Raptors player has pieced together. His 6.3 Value Over Replacement Player, per Basketball-Reference, was 2.8 wins higher than any total accrued by Chris Bosh, and was only half a win shy of matching Vince Carter's legendary 2000-01 VORP of 6.8. Considering that Lowry was able to lead the Raptors to the deepest playoff run in franchise history, you could reasonably give the nod to Lowry in that coin flip.
Except for maybe Damian Lillard, no point guard in the league went toe-to-toe against Curry with more aplomb than Lowry this season. He averaged 34.5 points, 5.0 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 3.0 steals in two of the narrowest wins the Warriors picked up during their record-setting start. Lowry isn't the Mach 4 fighter jet that Russell Westbrook is, but he hounds passing lanes like few others can, and is the kind of opportunist you need to take advantage of the Warriors when they get sloppy. Kyle Lowry is over everything. That includes all of the other point guards who have put on a Raptors jersey.
SG: 2000-2001 Vince Carter
Golden State plays a Utopian style of defense -- everyone's the same damn size, and can switch on the pick-and-roll seamlessly, creating an orderly and impenetrable wall of defenders for opposing offenses to haplessly probe around. One way to dig into the core of Golden State's fortress is by having explosive, one-on-one creators who can exploit the teeniest mismatches on switches.
Who better to take up than mantle that one of the most powerful drivers in league history, circa his most outstanding season?
While his reign as the greatest Raptor doesn't seem so indisputable anymore, there's no denying that on raw ability alone, Carter is the best player this franchise has seen. There's no way you could leave the edition of Carter that averaged 27.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists on a phenomenal (especially for the time period) 41 percent mark from three-point range off this team. Prime Carter next to this year's Lowry would probably yield a horrifying, supercharged version of the Raptors' efficient drive-and-kick offense built around the back court of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Sorry, DeMar.
SF: 1999-00 Doug Christie
This was the trickiest spot in the starting five to fill. With Carter being a decent-not-great wing defender, I wanted to compliment him with a lock-down option who could spell Lowry for some possessions against Curry, and navigate the forest of screens that the Warriors like to set for Klay Thompson.
Morris Peterson, young Tracy McGrady and even Anthony Parker all had years that could have earned them this spot, but Christie gets it thanks to his 40-plus percent three-point shooting and surprising ability to create for his teammates. If in this never-gonna-happen game the Warriors wanted to try and coax the ball out of the hands of Lowry and Carter, Christie could be a dependable option to keep the offense moving. He averaged an impressive 5.1 assists per 36 minutes in the 1999-2000 season.
I'm putting way too much thought into this...
PF: 2006-07 Chris Bosh
Chris Bosh is the third painfully obvious choice for the starting five of this make-believe team. The difficult part was choosing one of Bosh's robotically consistent seasons with Toronto. Eventually I went with the 2006-07 year in which he carried the Raptors to 47 wins and finished seventh in MVP voting.
Bosh didn't morph into a three-point bombing, defensive anchor until he went to form the Big Three in Miami, but this was the first season in which Bosh started to spread things out to the three point line. He shot 34 percent on half an attempt per game. It was also his best season in Toronto in terms of Defensive Win Shares (excluding his rookie year, somehow), and was his second-best rebounding season in Toronto when it came to Total Rebounding and Defensive Rebounding Percentage behind his 2009-10 season. (I would have picked the version of Bosh from the last season he played in Toronto if not for the sour taste that season left in our collective mouth).
As one half of the gigantic front line needed to overcome the Warriors' small-ball brilliance, it's tough to go wrong with a 22-year-old Bosh.
C: 1997-98 Marcus Camby
You could make a case for Antonio Davis and his All-Star season in 2000-01 as the rightful player and season to put in this slot. But against a lethally fast Warriors team, I'd rather a spry, 23-year-old Marcus Camby from a year during which he averaged a league-best 3.7 blocks per game instead of a hulking, 32-year-old Davis.
Going big against the Warriors only works if you have big men limber enough to either switch on to Curry in the pick-and-roll, or hedge hard and recover back to the rim without compromising the defense's structure.
How you doing, Kevin Love?
Camby might have had his offensive flaws (41 percent from the floor in his sophomore season), but his agility on defense would have made him a valuable -- dare I say, Bismack Biyombo-esque -- defender in today's NBA. Even through the graininess of this highlight reel, Camby's ability to swoop in out of nowhere for dramatic rejections is something to behold.
Having a young Camby paired next to Bosh would give the Raptors the size and rebounding you need to punish Golden State's voluntary lack of size, without compromising too much in terms of foot speed from the four and five positions.
G: 2015-16 Cory Joseph
Cory Joseph is by no means the second-best point guard the Raptors have ever had. He is, however, one of the best defenders the franchise has seen at the position. Damon Stoudamire, José Calderon, T.J. Ford and Alvin Williams all had seasons that statistically dwarfed what Joseph posted in his first year back home, but none of those guys could stay in front of opponents like Toronto's current backup can. Against the Warriors, as the Cavaliers showed through two games in the Finals, you can't afford to have bad defenders on the floor, especially at the point of attack. Golden State will pound any liabilities into a fine dust with their sturdy screens and ability to get high quality shots off through the tightest gaps in space. Joseph ensure minimal defensive drop-off when Lowry needs a breather.
G/F: 2005-06 Morris Peterson
A 40 percent three-point shooter who doesn't need the ball in his hands and can play solid defense (not against Kobe Bryant, mind you) always has been and forever will be an asset in the NBA. As the Warriors have proven, putting together an assembly line of similarly sized wings is a solid way to go about building a team.
Adding Morris Peterson also helps us hit our headband quota. He's on the team in a secondary, gunner-type role.
G/F: 1999-00 Tracy McGrady
I'm admittedly too young to remember, but from some conversations with Raptors folks who were cognitively aware at the time, the consensus seems to be that McGrady's best defensive seasons came with the Raptors, before he turned in to an offensive monster capable of PER totals greater than 30 in Orlando and Houston.
McGrady didn't shoot particularly well in his chosen season (45 percent from the field, 28 percent from long range), but maybe on this team he could serve the kind of role Andre Roberson did for the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, just off the bench instead of as a starter. His 6-foot-8 frame could also potentially lend itself well to playing as a small-ball four in some wing-heavy, switchable Raptors lineups if they were to dare to go small in concert with the Warriors.
This is getting sillier than I ever expected it would ...
F/C: 2015-16 Patrick Patterson
Prior to this year, Patterson never would have had a place on a roster meant to take down the mighty Warriors. But as I detailed in my review of Patterson's season, his newfound ability to switch on to smaller players and even guard bruising wings straight up makes him a necessary cog in any team striving to replicate the position-less beauty of the champs. That Patterson isn't a guy who the Warriors wouldn't be able to give the Roberson and/or Tony Allen treatment is just a nice cherry on top of his defensive prowess.
F/C: 2003-04 Donyell Marshall
It's easy to forget how outstanding Donyell Marshall was for the Raptors in the 66 games he played with the club in 2003-04. In that span after he arrived in Toronto from the Bulls, Marshall tallied 16 points and 10 boards a night on 40 percent three point shooting. On this team, he'd probably get limited playing time -- a function of him being the worst defender in this imaginary front court rotation. However, you could do a lot worse than having a guy who once hit 12 threes in a game play the Mareese Speights role on your anti-Warriors roster.
So, there you have it. A team of former Raptors that, on paper, could at least avoid being vaporized by the A-Bomb that is the Warriors. The fact that it took 21 years of Toronto teams to provide enough talent to fill out a roster that wouldn't be total a pushover in a series against Golden State is both unbelievable and crushingly sad.
And still, despite the talent in the Raptors' lineup, my stupid, meaningless, hypothetical pick for this stupid, meaningless, hypothetical series: Warriors in 6.
Is there anyone I left off that you would include? Should I have gone meta and included Dell Curry and Mark Jackson?
What's your pick? But more importantly -- what's Magic Johnson's pick?