Woof. Welcome to the dog days of the NBA. Which is why there is no better time to answer what may be the question in Toronto Raptors history:
Which letter produces the best starting five you can put on the hardwood?
That’s right, I’m going through every letter in the alphabet, taking the Raptors whose last names start with a given letter, and making a five-man team. Then, I’m going to rank’em.
A few rules:
- I have to try to put forward a semi-realistic lineup — which means players at position they could credibly play.
- The players are credited for what they did as a Raptor (so Hakeem is not an all-world talent, but a barely above replacement big), but when it’s close, their body of work comes into play.
- A longer Raptors career helps, but really I’m looking at what their peak as a Rap looks like. To gauge that I used Basketball Reference’s Value Over Replacement People (VORP) as a guide
- For players who only played part of a year with Toronto, but were significant players (say, Marc Gasol), I pro-rated their Raps VORP over a full season.
- I’m looking at these rosters with an eye towards today’s game. So shooting and positional flexibility is key.
- Some letters don’t have enough names to their credit to make a team, so on occasion I have combined letters where the player combos make the most sense around forming a team.
After digging through everything I was able to make 15 teams. I’m not going to inflict them all on you (rest in piece, the legendary K-O squad, led by Charles Oakley, and with a back-court of Jimmy King and Jason Kapono), so I’ll only rank the top eight.
R-N: Alvin Robertson, Terrence Ross, Jalen Rose, Lucas Noguiera, Rasho Nesterovic (total Raps VORP: 10.5, peak one-season VORP: 6.9): A couple of teams score a little worse than these guys, but realistically, any team that runs out a Nog and Rasho frontcourt is gonna have some issues defending the pick and roll.
Surprising Fact: Jalen Rose has the worst Raps peak of anyone on the team.
B: Jerryd Bayless, Dee Brown, Marco Belinelli, Chris Bosh, Bismack Biyombo (Total VORP: 21.3 ‘Peak’ VORP: 5.9): It hurts to leave an all-timer like Bosh on the sidelines, but the rest of the line-up just isn’t that good — combining for just 2.1 ‘peak’ war) I had Raps season tickets from 2001-02 to 2010-11, so I know first hand how far Bosh and a bunch of nobodies can go.
Surprising Fact: Matt Bonner actually has the second best career and peak VORP for Team B — but he got edged out by Bismack for on-court fit reasons. Though I really wanted to make him a massive three.
W: Alvin Williams, Lou Williams, Walt Williams, Jerome Williams, Kevin Willis (nee: Williams) (Total VORP: 9.5, Peak: 6.6): The final cut. The back-court is great, and you could put Delon Wright in there too. But the frontcourt is what kills them — Willis is a net negative for both his Raps and total career — and Jerome Williams would be less valuable in today’s pace and space game than he was in the early 2000s.
Toughest Roster Decision: Walt “the Wizar (he had no D)” Williams has the best single season peak of this group (2.2 VORP).
Alright, on to the TOP 8.
8) TEAM D
Nano de Colo, DeMar DeRozan, Carlos Delfino, Ed Davis, Anthony Davis (Total VORP: 15.5, Peak: 7)
DeRozan is the key in a team that is solid 2-5, but has a gaping whole at point guard, with Euro league star, De Colo “edging out” NCAA star Juan Dixon. Team D’s big issue would be shooting, aside from Delfino there isn’t a single proven long-range threat. This team would have been a lot better in the 90s, but still makes for a frisky eighth seed.
Toughest Roster Decision: De Colo over Dixon, but it’s not that tough. De Colo actually grades out as a slight positive — better than three other alphabet teams starting point guards.
7) TEAM T-U-V
Fred VanVleet, Greivis Vasquez, Hedo Turkoglu, P.J. Tucker, Jonas Valanciunas (Total VORP: 10.8, Peak: 6.8)
This team doesn’t have the numbers, or the names of the squads it outranks, but the fit is perfect. Three ball-handlers, shooting at four positions; imagine a Turkoglu-Valanciunas pick and roll (and for those that hate on Hedo, it’s not his fault the Raps took a template for the future of basketball and turned him into a spot-up shooter), some feisty defenders. Team T-U-V might lack some talent, but they’re going to kill themselves trying to beat you.
Toughest Roster Decision: Charlie Villanueva is better as a Rap than Vasquez, but the fit with Hedo at the two and Charlie at a forward spot is a little awkward defensively. That, and after his surprising rookie year in Toronto, Charlie V generated precisely 0 VORP for the rest of his 11-year career.
6) TEAM L
Kyle Lowry, James Lucas, Voshon Lenard, Kawhi Leonard, Brad Lohaus (Total VORP: 34.5, Peak: 9.8)
Thank God for top end talent or Team L would be screwwwwed otherwise. Lowry and Leonard are legends, the rest of the team — not so much. If you wanted to see what two NBA champions would look like playing with a bunch of guys randomly pulled up from the G League this is it.
Toughest Roster Decision: If you prefer Art Long (seven games in ‘02-03 over Lohaus, six games in ‘96-97) at centre, sure, he’s all yours.
5) TEAM J
Cory Joseph, Jarrett Jack, Mike James, James Johnson, Amir Johnson (Total VORP: 22, Peak: 9.6)
What this team thrives on is that in his one year as a Raptor, Mike James was an absolute stud. He shot 44 percent from three on almost five attempts per game and poured in 20.7 PPG on 58.3 percent True Shooting. Team J also gets Amir’s apex season (2012-13 — and by VORP even better than James), where he was one of the best defensive players in the league while also adding a little on offense. The team would be small, and need to play basically three point-guards, but it would be an interestingly whack-a-doodle group that wouldn’t be afraid of anyone.
Toughest Roster Decision: Mark Jackson has a slightly higher Raptors peak than Cory Joseph, but Cory has more total VORP as a Rap, and this year was basically Jackson’s last as a rotation-calibre player. (Plus, Canada eh?)
4) TEAM P
Anthony Parker, Norm Powell, Morris Peterson, Patrick Patterson, Jakob Poeltl (Total VORP: 26.4, Peak: 10.4)
I flip-flopped on three and four. I wanted to give Team P the bump because of the far greater accrued Raptors value, but two factors stopped me: 1) I have to cheat a little here by shoe-horning Anthony Parker in as the lead ball-handler, and 2) in crunch time, who’s the man here? Aside from that though, this is a very good team. Parker is a heady player, who’d figure it out at the point. They have excellent shooting around Poeltl, who has already shown that he’s an excellent roll-man. It’s properly sized around the court with no worse than average defenders everywhere, and great switchability (I’m legit excited about what Powell’s defense looks like getting to mostly cover 1’s and 2’s this year). And it’s probably as high a basketball IQ team as you’ll see on the list... except for the one that edged it out.
Toughest Roster Decision: Putting Parker as the point guard. Still, the other option was Milt Palacio, so unless you want 45 percent of your possessions to start in the corner after your PG has dribbled aimlessly with his head down for 10 seconds, Parker was it.
3) TEAM F-G
T.J. Ford, Danny Green, Rudy Gay, Jorge Garbajosa, Marc Gasol (Total VORP: 10.3, Peak: 10)
The ultimate “What-If” team on this list. I’ll go to my grave believing that a Ford, Bosh, Garbajosa combo could have, if Ford and Jorge stayed healthy, been the bedrock of a Top-4 seed team in the East. Gay never got a chance to find himself in Toronto, and Green and Gasol will both end up being short-term stays. Still, the fit of this team is pretty awesome. Any team with Gasol, Green and Garbajosa would be a handful defensively, Ford and Gay could both initiate the offense, while Gasol and Garbo could carve teams up from the high-post. It’s a little lacking athletically and doesn’t have a true superstar, but would you want to play them in a seven game series?
Toughest Roster Decision: None, unless you have an irrational love for Gary Forbes?
2) TEAM M
Tracy McGrady, Jamario Moon, Shawn Marion, Donyell Marshall, Oliver Miller (Total VORP: 20.2, Peak: 13.5)
I have to do a little dancing at point here again, but I feel like McGrady could handle it, don’t you? This team has great size (yes, helped by the fact I stuck a 6’8” guy at point), and has plus passers at every position but shooting guard. Also Moon was better than you’d think. The perimeter defense would be insane — whose scoring on McGrady and the Matrix? It also has two frontcourt guys who deserve to play in the modern game. Donyell Marshall was truly ahead of his time, a flame-throwing four, who also had a post game, and would punish smaller defenders tasked with running him off the line. The Big O is probably my fave addition here. Quite apart from what the Raps current conditioning staff could do for him, Miller would thrive today. He could shoot (enough), was a fantastic passer, and somehow had the quickness to switch out on guards and not get embarrassed. He had the Boris Diaw starter kit and a couple of years where he put up a pretty legit Diaw impersonation. The only thing that keeps this team from being number one is that the Raps had young McGrady, and a slightly past his prime Marion. Otherwise? Woah.
Toughest Roster Decision: Jamario Moon’s peak VORP (2.6), is actually third best on the team, behind T-Mac and Marshall. I almost left him off though because of positional concerns. Sorry Darrick Martin.
1) TEAM C
Jose Calderon, Doug Christie, Vince Carter, Keon Clark, Marcus Camby (Total VORP: 43.3, Peak: 16)
Peak Vinsanity gives us the best single season in Raptors History, his breakout, 2001-02 where he averaged 27.6/5.5/3.9 on 55% TS, made him, by Box Score Metrics, the best offensive player in the league. Surrounding him is the best supporting back-court, Doug Christie — a two-way terror who I wish younger Raptors fans could have seen more of (he was tied for third best Peak VORP), and Jose Calderon, at his best a flawless offense-running machine who could shoot the lights out. Clark and Camby would swat everything, and had the athleticism to blow up pick and rolls all day (plus, imagine Camby as a dive-man in today’s pick and roll game). The spacing here is a little tight — Clark would probably have to play in the dunker’s spot on offense, but that’s a small thing to quibble with when you have an engaged VC, who, lest we forget, was also good on defense when he tried.
Toughest Roster Decision: DeMarre Carroll has one truly valuable Raps season on record, and I wondered if the team might be better with him as a small-ball four — to goose the shooting — but decided the loss of defensive utility wasn’t worth it.
So there you go, the greatest letter in Raptors history is C. Which, given the history of the franchise, seems like a low grade, but only just, right?