With each passing win, it becomes increasingly enjoyable for fans of the Toronto Raptors to look back on preseason takes that drastically underrated their favourite team. Some NBA minds had them as a middling playoff team. Others had them missing the playoffs altogether.
If you were one of those who believed the defending champions, who went 17-5 without Kawhi Leonard, would not crack the 8-seed, I would avoid Raptors Twitter because [Liam Neeson voice] we have a very particular set of skills. Skills we have acquired over a very long career of defending the Raptors on Twitter. Skills that make us a nightmare for people like you. If you concede that the Raptors are awesome now, that will be the end of it. We will not look for you, we will not pursue you. But if you don’t, we will look for you, we will find you and we will expose your bad Raptors takes via Twitter.
They gotta put this graphic in the banners at the end of the season pic.twitter.com/O00QFw7Sf3— William Lou (@william_lou) February 8, 2020
So, how was everybody so wrong? Obviously, there is not just one reason this team has burst through its perceived ceiling as if it was in Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator. Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet have grown as players. Kyle Lowry’s still got it. Nick Nurse is as good as anybody at pulling the strings. Guys on the fringes have popped. There are countless reasons for this team’s success. but I would like to offer another theory: the Bo Jackson Theory.
To understand the Bo Jackson Theory, a knowledge of Bo himself is essential. Of the athletes that played before my time, Jackson is by far the most captivating to me. An All-Star in both the MLB and NFL, Jackson was not a once-in-a-generation athlete, he was a once-ever athlete. There is nobody like him. He was the guy who could do this:
And then sometimes, just because he could, this:
He is a living legend. There are countless anecdotes and stories about the athletic feats of Bo Jackson, each more ridiculous and awe-inspiring than the last, and yet, he has given the world every reason to believe all of them. The athletic versatility that makes him such a storied figure is also the basis for the theory.
If you were to draft athletes for a tournament in which they competed in all different sports, a prime Bo Jackson would be the first overall pick. His unique combination of coordination and raw explosive athleticism lends itself to a variety of sports, and if you had to pick one guy to be successful across the athletic pantheon, you’d better have a damn good reason to not pick Bo Jackson.
So, what does this have to do with the Toronto Raptors?
Applying the Theory to the Raptors
Using the same idea line of thinking as the Bo Jackson thought experiment that I just outlined, I will use the rest of this piece to apply it to NBA teams, specifically the Raptors. If the NBA were to stop playing basketball for a season, and instead engage in an extended gym class-style tournament that consisted of all legitimate team sports, which team would emerge as victorious?
Basically, what would be the most successful at the widest variety of team sports? The Bo Jackson Theory posits that this team is a prime candidate for surpassing expectations and overachieving in the league.
Obviously, individual athleticism and team success are related, but they are not identical. If we were to tweak this theory slightly and apply it to a team, factors other than raw athleticism and individual greatness would also be assessed. For a team to be successful, they would have to also be smart and adaptable to adjust to the various sports. Toughness, hustle, and a competitive edge are essential as well, as an unrelenting desire to win is an advantage in any sport. A team-oriented approach is even more important outside of basketball, as few sports allow individuals to dictate the game as significantly as they do on the court. Athleticism, of course, remains important.
Oh wait, do the Toronto Raptors check all of these boxes?
This theory occurred to me during the first of two games in a row against the Indiana Pacers. The Raptors were down by 11 with less than three minutes remaining, yet somehow still won. Watch the highlights of the comeback — the comeback really ramps up at 2:20 in the video.
That’s not basketball anymore. That’s five guys battling and competing, giving every ounce of effort while remaining connected and smart. That transfers to any sport. This is not the only time that this has happened either. There have been multiple games that the Raptors have won games by being tough, smart competitors rather than by being basketball virtuosos.
The Toronto Raptors are this year’s Bo Jackson Theory team.
Go up and down the roster. The Toronto Raptors are built to compete. Kyle Lowry is the consummate winner, well versed in finding ways to win that most would not consider. Fred VanVleet’s calling card is toughness and is a team leader in his mid-20s. OG Anunoby is a gifted athlete who contributes to winning in ways other than scoring. Pascal Siakam? He essentially picked up basketball a few years before entering the NBA and made his money with hustle well before he became an All-Star starter. Marc Gasol thinks the game like few others and would undoubtedly be able to apply that guile elsewhere.
Moving to the bench, Norman Powell is a versatile athlete who has succeeded in a variety of roles with the Raptors. Serge Ibaka’s commitment to preparation is applicable to any sport, and his willingness to grow and adapt shows a smart, team-oriented approach that puts winning at the forefront. Terence Davis II has a football background and has used his grit and tenacity to play a significant role on a contending team as a rookie. Players like Oshae Brissett, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Chris Boucher all play an energetic style, and are great teammates.
Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office have established a roster of winners first, and basketball players second. At the helm is also the perfect coach for the Bo Jackson Theory. I have recently documented just how creative and innovative Nick Nurse is. He would certainly be able to apply his mind to other sports.
You could see Lowry and VanVleet chewing up yards on the ground in football, and there’s tailormade receiving options in Anunoby and Davis II (a literal stud wide receiver). If you were to play soccer, this team has the lungs and the team connectivity to be stay competitive regardless of their skill with their feet. Volleyball? I can’t think of many Raptors that would be afraid to hit the floor for a dig. Hell, Lowry and VanVleet seem to enjoy the odd headlong dive. Siakam, Anunoby, Boucher and Ibaka patrolling the net feels quite formidable.
The connection between lacrosse and basketball is an underrated one. (Box lacrosse is virtually a more physical version of basketball — with sticks as well, of course.) Based on the way Toronto plays, I would certainly think they would benefit from the added physicality and gain an edge. To get even more gym classy, let’s picture European handball. I envision just beautiful ball movement by the Raptors, with cutters flying around making life hell for their defenders. Baseball is a little harder to project, but Lowry framing pitches as a catcher and arguing every ball and strike until he gets a pivotal call late in the game just feels right.
The way that these Raptors have found ways to win aren’t just reserved for basketball. So much of what they do is transferrable. I believe it is indisputable that the Raptors are a good Bo Jackson Theory team. To determine whether or not they are the best in the NBA, we must compare them to other squads to see how they stack up.
Assessing the Rest of the NBA
To do so, I’ve taken six teams to examine. Two that score well on the Bo Jackson Theory scale, two that score poorly, and two in the middle. I’ve also decided to keep it to playoff teams, because, I mean, nobody cares where the Suns sit on these rankings.
Let’s start with the lower end. Perhaps the biggest disparity between basketball ability and Bo Jackson Theory possibility lies with the Houston Rockets. James Harden relies on very specific basketball ability to propel the Rockets, the way he so meticulously manipulates the rules and creates points is only for the basketball. His play style also does not allow his teammates to think the game on offense — they either stand still, or they shoot. Even Westbrook, truly an otherworldly athlete, has been guilty of tunnel vision and an individualistic approach, not suited for a variety of sports.
The Philadelphia 76ers, for all their athleticism, also grade out poorly. They have refused to adapt and change, stubbornly trying to succeed in a flawed manner. Their effort levels vacillate from game to game, as does their team chemistry.
Moving on to some teams in the middle. For this tier, we go to the top of the NBA standings. The Lakers, though they possess perhaps the prime individual Bo Jackson Theory candidate in LeBron James and a unibrow sportin’ goliath in Anthony Davis, the rest of their team leaves much to be desired. Davis and James are a formidable duo in any realm, but if you trot out Javale McGee, Dwight Howard, Jared Dudley, Danny Green, Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma in any sport that’s not basketball, there is very little fear. In fact, that squad inspires little fear in basketball nowadays as well.
I also have rated the Bucks lower than some may expect. Obviously, Giannis is a force of nature, and I think he would succeed on a soccer pitch or in a boardroom, or anywhere else you could think of. Beyond Giannis, the team is a little specialist heavy. Kyle Korver, Brook Lopez, and George Hill are little more than shooters at this point in their careers. No one has called Khris Middleton a tenacious competitor. Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton drive up their rating to an extent, but certainly not close to the Raptors’ level on the Bo Jackson Theory scale.
Now, on to the big boys. Funny enough, the two teams closest to the Raptors in my thought experiment are also the two teams closest to them in the Eastern Conference standings — the Celtics and the Heat. In South Beach, Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler are peak Bo Jackson Theory guys — athletic, tough, and heady competitors. A prime Iggy also would have been near the top, and still maintains some of the athleticism and all of the brain that made him that way.
The Raptors gain their edge, however, in their depth. Beyond Derrick Jones Jr., the athletic versatility of the Heat begins to trickle off. The Raptors, however, run deep with athletes who could conceivably excel at various sports. Also, we must address Jimmy Butler’s tendency to destroy locker rooms. Although Miami’s chemistry is intact now, Butler is nothing if not volatile, and the adversity that this team might face could bring that out of him.
The tightest competition for the Raptors in this thought experiment came from the Boston Celtics. They are deep like the Raptors and tough like the Raptors. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart are competitive, versatile athletes who can find an edge in various sports. Smart in particular is somebody who I would want in any sport if I valued winning. Semi Ojeleye is built like a semi truck, and certainly could leverage his bulk in various athletic fields.
It is too close to call between the Raptors and Celtics with the perimeter players. I believe that the Raptors gain their edge, however, at point guard and centre. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet as a unit are more versatile, tough, and smart than Kemba Walker, Brandon Wanamaker, and Carson Edwards. At centre, the team-first approach and IQ of Ibaka and Gasol gives them just the slightest edge in the pantheon of team sports.
As a result, this makes the Toronto Raptors the Bo Jackson Theory team of the 2019-20 NBA season.
What Does This Mean?
This designation certainly does not guarantee an NBA title. It barely even guarantees playoff success. It is, however, a recipe for exceeding expectations in the regular season. The team most suited to the Bo Jackson Theory will always outperform preseason predictions and will win games that they have no business winning, often doing so in unconventional manners. If you can identify that team in the preseason, may I recommend betting the over?
The Raptors don’t have a player that can shoot like Steph Curry. There is nobody who can handle like Kyrie. No Raptor manufactures points like James Harden. It is that lack of specific basketball ability that can cause a Bo Jackson Theory team to be underrated. The versatility, resourcefulness, and will to win of the Toronto Raptors, however, was clearly undervalued. As a result, their success was unexpected, but I would assume that the Raptors enjoy filling the win column as opposed to the highlight reels.
Going in to the playoffs, precedent makes it clear that you need more than just versatile athleticism. It certainly does not hurt, however. When the playoffs get ugly, the Raptors have shown that they are a team that can find a way to battle and sneak out wins that just don’t make sense by competing. Maybe, just maybe, the Raptors can combine their winning qualities and basketball ability to do that 16 times in the playoffs.