On Monday’s LockedOn Raptors Podcast, Daniel Reynolds, Sean Woodley and Vivek Jacob discussed Masai Ujiri’s fiery comments on Media Day, about the narrative of players wanting to leave Toronto (or not wanting to come here) and how that narrative is over:
Sean: There were a lot of questions circling around the idea of the Raptors not being able to keep players, not being an attractive destination... and Masai, you could tell, after four or five versions of the same question, was just like, “fuck this,” I’m gonna say something, and what he said was, that narrative is done, get rid of that narrative, Toronto is not an unattractive destination, have confidence in what they’ve built.
Daniel: In Toronto, Raptors fans, we sort of expect a bit of incredulity from the American media; that’s obviously been the longtime narrative, always overlooking the Toronto market and the Raptors in particular. But there is a thread through the Toronto media that things are always going south... and the Raptors were bad for a long time, or making bad decisions.
Sean: There is a history of the organization not being able to attract players.
Daniel: I find it fascinating how ingrained that is.
Despite Ujiri’s protestations, Toronto Raptors fans—and, judging by some of the questions on Media Day, Toronto Raptors/sports media—aren’t quite there with him, yet. We expect players will leave. We expect playoff failure. We assume officials are biased against us, the league doesn’t want us to win, won’t show us on TV, doesn’t care about us.
So I’m curious. Why are we like this? Did we earn it? Are we just a bunch of complaining Canuckleheads? And even if we really did earn it... is it, indeed, over?
Toronto Raptors History: Is it Really That Bad?
That’s question that could fill a book or two, but in short, the Raptors have had a pretty mediocre, and sometimes crappy, 23 years. And even the few good years have been marked by some sort of misery—a postseason sweep (four times!), a last-second, game seven miss (two times!), Chris Childs forgetting the score (ONE TIME TOO MANY).
It’s natural to become conditioned to imagine things will go against your team in every situation, when it seems like the majority of the time, they do.
Still, perspective matters. There are 11 other NBA teams that have never won a title, nine of whom have been around longer than the Raptors. It’s been 50 years for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even longer for the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs before they broke through.
And speaking of those two teams, how many horrific losses did they endure? As tough as it was watching Vince Carter miss his baseline jumper or Kyle Lowry get blocked by Paul Pierce, at least the team controlled its own destiny—we haven’t had an Aaron Boone game, a Bartman game, or a Buckner game.
(I guess you could argue Childs comes close. But the odds of him successfully hitting a three, after taking the inbounds under his own hoop (because Lenny Wilkens inexplicably blew a timeout to sub out Antonio Davis 30 seconds earlier)... it wasn’t looking good.)
Are We Still Just an Expansion Franchise?
It’s interesting to look at those NBA teams that haven’t won. The NBA has seen seven expansion franchise since the 1980s: The Charlotte Hornets (later New Orleans Pelicans), Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors, Vancouver (later Memphis) Grizzlies and the Charlotte Bobcats (later Hornets) (it’s complicated).
Those seven teams, in a combined 179 seasons, have combined for 14 Conference Finals appearances—and half of those were Miami’s. Miami remains the only 1980s-or-later expansion franchise to win a title.
In other words, the Raptors aren’t alone in their futility. Neither iteration of the Charlotte franchise, nor the subsequent Pelicans, has made a Conference Finals, and Minnesota and Vancouver/Memphis are tied with Toronto with one appearance each.
I don’t need to run down the history of franchises that have been winning titles all these years, of course. The NBA has always been top-heavy, with the same franchises winning multiple titles. It’s hard for expansion franchises to break through.
So maybe it has nothing to do with the Toronto Raptors franchise. It’s just the situation as a young NBA team, and Toronto is not alone there.
Are the Raptors at a Disadvantage Because the Franchise is in Canada?
This is the deepest root of our inferiority complex—that because most NBA players are American, they won’t want to play outside of the United States. There are higher taxes here, apparently. We don’t have ESPN, or Chick-Fil-A; we do have the metric system. ESPN and TNT won’t show as many Raptors games, because they can’t track viewers to sell ads north of the border. We play O Canada at all of our games, you gotta go through customs, and yes, sometimes, it’s fucking cold.
These things are all real, and a handful of players have spoken out and used them as reasons why Toronto is not an attractive destination.
But as Kawhi Leonard himself said the other day, winning changes that. Who cares about going through customs if you have a chance to win a title? I think we have this fear that winning won’t matter, because we haven’t really seen it pay out in terms of a great player opting to come here... yet.
Do Players Really not Want to Play Here?
I wish I could say this was a myth, but Kenny Anderson, Alonzo Mourning and B.J. Armstrong (all refusing to report), and Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh (both leaving without even taking a meeting), say it’s not.
Then again: As Daniel noted on the pod, those things all happened in the distant past. Even Bosh’s departure was eight years ago, and he re-signed once before that (as a restricted free agent).
And lest we forget, Vince Carter re-signed, and he was a bonafide NBA superstar at the time. Lowry re-signed twice, during the winningest era in franchise history. DeRozan would have stayed forever, probably, but it sure didn’t hurt that the franchise was winning.
Today, although the team has yet to sign a marquee external free agent, you don’t hear anyone saying anymore that they won’t play here. Even something as small as the Greg Monroe signing matters—he could have gotten more money and a bigger role elsewhere.
And if Kawhi Leonard leaves in 10 months, it won’t be because of the franchise or the metric system or too many Tim Horton’s. It’ll be because California is his home, or he has a chance to play elsewhere with a player he likes, or some other reason entirely his own. It’ll still suck, but, it won’t be Canada’s fault.
Well, We’re Not the Clippers
Sure, Toronto’s had some players leave, have had some terrible seasons, and have made some bad personnel decisions and suffered a few embarassing moments. But the Raptors have only had 23 seasons, and I think you could argue nine of them were pretty good; the Raptors have five playoff series wins in that span as well.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been around for 48 years, and have only 13 winning seasons, with five playoff series wins. They’ve never made the Conference Finals. The Raptors even have more division titles than the Clips!
And I won’t even get into all that other stuff.
All of this is to say: yes, we’ve earned some of this hard-luck rep we’ve foisted on ourselves. But perspective is a wonderful thing.
It could be worse. Much, much worse.
The Raptors have had five straight winning seasons that resulted in playoff berths, have an ownership group that’s bought in, have an excellent management team, a great practice facility and a G-League team. They’ve spent money and made moves to win.
I think Masai Ujiri is right: That narrative is over. We should stop thinking that way. Our collective sports media should stop promoting that narrative (and asking questions that lead players into answering that way).
I have to think our American neighbours are tired of hearing us talk about it... or would be, if they were listening.