With the Toronto Raptors’ celebrating their 25th anniversary, and with the NBA season on indefinite hiatus, what better time to contemplate the franchise’s Mount Rushmore — the four most important and iconic Raptors of all time.
Having witnessed all 25 seasons, from the very first opening tip on November 3, 1995 until now, I’ve seen it all. The good, the bad, and the ugly (and the really ugly). We’re talking two and a half decades, countless players, a handful of All-Stars and only four slots. However, this isn’t as difficult a task as one might think.
The Raptors aren’t yet the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics — two storied franchises with truckloads of Hall of Famers. The Raptors are still relatively young in comparison. The team is old enough to drink legally, but there are still a lot of life experiences to be had. Consider last season’s NBA championship a graduation of sorts.
I’d say the first three players are quite obvious and should surprise no one. So much so that you can begin chiselling away right now. It’s that fourth spot that’ll prove to be contentious.
But before we dive head first into this, I’d like to lay out my selection criteria. For me to consider a player, he’d have to satisfy the following:
- Played at least five seasons with the Raptors;
- Contributed heavily to the team’s success and wasn’t just along for the ride; and
- Is viewed as an iconic Raptor, meaning when you think of the player, you think Raptors.
So here are my picks for the Mount Rushmore of the Raptors. Go ahead and disagree. I dare you.
The Mount of Four
2012-Present, 8 Seasons
It’s impossible to sum up Kyle Lowry and what he means to the Raptors in just a few paragraphs. A certain four letter acronym does do the trick though: G.O.A.T.
Yes, Kawhi Leonard is the best player to ever don a Raptors jersey. But Lowry is by far the greatest and most valuable — a designation I feel he earned long before he lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy. And just as no one can move him out of the post, no one is likely to move him from this mantel in Toronto.
Lowry is the little engine that could. A difference maker. The bulldog from North Philly. When he arrived in 2012 via trade, nobody could’ve predicted that he’d be the heartbeat and driving force for the Raptors for so many years. Especially since he was all but traded to the New York Knicks.
The quashed trade (thanks to owner James Dolan) ended up being the turning point for this once lowly franchise as Lowry helped usher in the “We The North” era of Raptors basketball — the most success the franchise has ever seen. So far, this era has produced a franchise-high 59-win season, a franchise-best 15-game winning streak, seven straight playoff berths, and the raising of the 2019 championship banner.
In his eight seasons as a Raptor, Lowry has made six All-Star teams and one All-NBA team. He’s also the franchise leader in 3-point field goals, assists, steals and win shares. But none of this even begins to scratch the Kyle Lowry surface. To truly understand why he’s so valuable, you have to look past the box score and watch him play every day.
Beyond his breakneck drives and killer pull-up 3s, there’s Lowry’s ultra-competitive nature and innate desire to win. He may not have the skills or athleticism of a Kobe Bryant, but he does have the mamba mentality. Whether his team’s up or down by 30, Lowry is going full tilt. His hard-nosed determination was on full display during the championship run, playing the majority of the games with a busted thumb.
There’s his pesky defense and timely charge-taking, fearlessly sacrificing his body and absorbing the full brunt of professional NBA players, whether they’re six or seven feet tall. Lowry even took three charges in this year’s All-Star Game!
There’s his selflessness. He’s had to adapt his game three times in the last three seasons for the good of the team. First in 2017-18 when DeMar DeRozan became more of a playmaker, thus taking the ball out of his hands. Then in 2018-19, he sacrificed some of his offense to become a facilitator for Leonard and Siakam. Finally, this season he morphed back into pre-2017-18 Lowry, being equal parts scorer and facilitator.
There’s his leadership — both off and on the court. The team followed Lowry’s hustle and energy throughout the championship run. Whenever Lowry got off to a hot start, everyone followed suit. Case in point, him scoring the Raptors’ first 11 points of championship-clinching Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
There’s his super court vision, his computer brain analyzing the floor and executing the offense simultaneously. Lowry is always trying to push the pace, looking up the floor for potential outlets or demanding the ball from the refs to speed up the inbounds. He tries to gain an advantage any way he can. While everyone else is playing checkers, he’s playing 3D chess.
The play that most exemplifies Kyle Lowry is what led to Leonard’s dunk on Giannis in Game 6 of the Eastern Finals. First, Lowry steals the ball from Khris Middleton to start the play. Then after dishing the ball to Leonard, he subtly nudges Giannis away so he can’t fully contest Leonard’s dunk. You have to watch the replay a few times to catch it.
Lowry is a winner who makes winning plays and always manages to find ways to help his team even when his shot’s not falling. He’ll no doubt be the first Raptor to get his jersey retired in Toronto.
2009-2018, 9 Seasons
I’ve never been a DeMar DeRozan fan — not as a player, at least. I could tell early on what kind of player he would be. That he’d never be the guy who could lead a team to a championship, despite all the work he put in to become the Man in Toronto.
And I was right.
For whatever reason, DeRozan has always been lacking in the ability to take over games at the highest level. Despite his bag of one-on-one tricks, he can be game-planned around, making his attacks predictable. On top of that, he’s long been a huge liability on defense. And worst of all, in the biggest moments for the Raptors, he’s often been nowhere to be found. Sadly, our final memory of DeRozan in a Raptors jersey is him getting himself kicked out of Game 4 of the 2018 semifinals vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But this is not entirely his fault. When Chris Bosh left for Miami, DeRozan was thrust into a role he wasn’t ready for. He was handed the keys to the franchise before he learned how to drive. He did everything he could to fill that role. Not even I can dispute that DeRozan is one of the all-time great Raptors. He’s more than deserving of one of the four spots.
At nine seasons, DeRozan holds the mark as the longest tenured Raptor. In that time, he made four All-Star teams and two All-NBA teams. He’s also the franchise leader in points, games, minutes, two-point field goals and free throws. And he was a huge part of the franchise’s “We The North” resurgence.
Even though I didn’t like him as a player, I’ve always admired him as a human being. His willingness to improve his game every year, his character, and his loyalty to Toronto all mean something to Raptors fans. DeRozan stayed when others left. He was proud to be a Raptor and to represent Toronto. There’s something to be said about that.
Finally, his willingness to speak openly about his mental health struggles has no doubt helped many others who are dealing with similar issues. It truly speaks volumes about the type of person he is.
1998-2005, 6.5 Seasons
Vince Carter was the Raptors’ first superstar.
People who say that Carter put the Raptors on the map aren’t exaggerating one bit. And it didn’t even take winning a single playoff game. All it took was one magical February night in Oakland in 2000 when he became the centre of the basketball world. Long before the dunk contest, Carter was making highlight reels with his ferocious and insanely-athletic in-game dunks. But on this night, he put on a display with an array of dunks no one had ever seen or even dreamed about before.
If Carter’s dunk contest put the Raptors on the map, the epic battle with the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2001 Eastern Semifinals pushed the team further into the NBA consciousness. He went toe-to-toe with MVP Allen Iverson all series long, trading blows, highlights and game-highs. But, as we all know, Carter and the Raptors came up one basket short.
In his 22-year career, he’s played for eight different organizations. But the Raptors were his first team and the one he spent the most time with. When you think back on Carter’s career, I believe he’ll be most remembered performing mid-air magic tricks in a purple #15 Raptors jersey.
Not only did Carter put the Raptors on the map, he more than likely kept them there. While the Vancouver Grizzlies toiled and eventually lost their franchise, the Raptors succeeded and persevered largely because they tied their team to the right guy. Flashy, confident, clutch, jump-out-of-the-gym athletic — a young, up-and-coming franchise couldn’t have asked for a better superstar.
Of course, Carter’s time with the Raptors ended on a sour note. While there was blame on both sides, there was no excuse for what Carter did. He basically quit on the team. No one could really fault him for wanting out, but to pretty much stop trying while still in uniform is not a good look.
Time, though, has healed all wounds to the point where fans actually want him back on the team. That won’t happen, nor should it. But I can see him signing a one day contract, à la Roy Halladay with the Blue Jays, to retire where he started — as a Toronto Raptor.
1997-2006, 8 Seasons
This will probably be a surprise pick for a lot of Raptors fans. And to that I would say, you probably never saw him play. Many would consider Alvin Williams a role player, but he was much more than that.
It’s true. Williams never made an All-Star or All-NBA team. Nor did he ever finish a season averaging more than 14 points per game. But like Lowry, his value and greatness go way beyond his daily stat lines.
He was the precursor to Lowry in so many ways. Williams was the original heartbeat of the Raptors. He was often out-skilled by his opponents, but he was never once out-hustled. A killer on the court, he possessed that same Philly, hard-nosed, never-take-a-possession-off determination.
He was a facilitator first, scorer second — always making sure his teammates got theirs before he got his. So much so that he holds the number four spot in franchise assists.
And much like Lowry, Williams constantly gave up his body on both ends of the floor. But despite all the bumps, bruises, soreness and strains, nothing could stop him from playing. From 2000-03, he was the team’s iron man, playing in 242 of a possible 246 regular season games. Williams put his body through such hell for the team, especially his knees, and played through so many injuries that he eventually could no longer stay healthy.
Williams also had a big hand in the Raptors’ first real success. Along with Carter and Antonio Davis, he helped the team to its first ever playoff berth in the 1999-00 season, which began the first of three straight playoff appearances.
Williams also hit what’s still one of the biggest shots in Raptors history, icing Game 5 of the 2001 first round series vs. the Knicks and clinching the franchise’s first ever playoff series victory.
2003-2010, 7 Seasons
When I think of Chris Bosh, I think of him as a member of the Miami Heat. Yes, Bosh was drafted by the Raptors. And yes, he was the face of the franchise for the majority of his seven seasons. But it felt like his time as a Raptor was more of a jumping off point for his career. His real success and prominence came as a member of the Heat with whom he won back-to-back championships.
I wasn’t a huge Bosh fan. He was a good player and was plenty skilled. But I thought his offensive numbers and five All-Star appearances were largely the product of someone having to score on a bad team. And even though he was billed as the Raptors’ number one guy, I never bought it. I always thought he’d make a good second or third guy on a championship team, which is why his third-fiddle role on the Heat was tailor-made for him.
But just like DeRozan, Bosh was given the number one role before he was ready. After Carter was traded in Bosh’s second season as a Raptor, the go-to guy spot suddenly became vacant. And so it was handed to Bosh by default.
Overall, the Chris Bosh era was largely forgettable. In his seven seasons, the Raptors were mediocre and sometimes less than that, only reaching the postseason twice and losing both times in the first round. They never broke 50 wins and averaged just 36.
Bosh wasn’t the dominant, put-the-team-on-his-back player Raptors fans wanted him to be. But at the same time, he shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. Through horrible drafting and roster construction, he had little to no help around him. Plus there’s the “Head coach Sam Mitchell” factor too.
Despite everything, Bosh still played a big part in the history of this franchise and should at least be considered for a spot on the Raptors Mount Rushmore. For me, he falls just short.
2018-2019, 1 Season
There is no one quite like Kawhi Leonard.
An absolute killer on the court, Leonard only cares about one thing: winning. All the other stuff is just noise — noise he doesn’t listen to or even acknowledge. While players like James Harden cry over regular season MVPs, he continues to quietly go about his business, collecting rings and Finals MVPs.
Kawhi brought a business-like attitude to the Raptors, a much-needed steady and calming presence that wrapped around the entire team like a zen blanket. He’s the rare player who actually elevates his already high-level game in the playoffs, when the pressure is at its peak. Kawhi is unflappable and always under control. It’s just the way he’s wired.
When I woke up on that historical July morning to discover that DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl had been traded for Danny Green and Leonard, I’ve never been more elated as a Raptors fan. Why? For one, because he’s perhaps the second best two-way player in the world after Kevin Durant. Two, because I was already a huge Leonard fan, having followed his career from his rookie season, so I knew exactly what he was capable of. And three, because for the first time, the Raptors had a legitimate shot at reaching the Finals.
As I said, while Lowry is the G.O.A.T. Raptor, Kawhi Leonard is the absolute best player the franchise has ever seen — and maybe will ever see.
Still, having spent only a single season as a Raptor, amounting to just 84 games including the playoffs, Leonard does not meet my criteria for Raptors Mount Rushmore. But since the one season he did play was so overwhelmingly the greatest season in franchise history, culminating in the Larry O’B, I still had to consider him. It would be insane not to.
The 2019 NBA Championship and Kawhi’s impossible four-bounce shot to seal the second round series vs. the 76ers will live in Raptors and NBA history forever. But for me, his likeness won’t be carved into the side of Raptors Mount Rushmore.
2005-2013, 7.5 Seasons
Calderón is not the most skilled Raptor of all time. Nor was he the most athletic. But try as they might (and they did try), no one could permanently dethrone Calderón from his starting point guard spot. Not T.J. Ford. Not Jerryd Bayless. And for a while, not even Lowry. Every single time Calderón was relegated to backup duties, he played his way back.
Jose is the franchise leader in free throw percentage and was the leader in assists until Lowry passed him earlier this year. He’s also top 10 in several meaningful categories, including games played, minutes, points, field goals, 3-point field goals and steals.
Calderón is one of the longest tenured Raptors, spanning 7.5 seasons. Only DeRozan, Lowry and Morris Peterson have played more games. He was a team player if there ever was one. He sacrificed playing time and his offensive game to serve the team time and time again. And you never once heard a peep out of him. Calderón put his head down and let his game do the talking.
Finally, Calderón was Mr. Consistency. You always knew what you were getting from him — a boat load of assists, 90 percent plus from the charity stripe, and 100 percent effort.
2016-Present, 4 Seasons
He has the ring. He has the MIP. He has the All-Star starter appearance. But he doesn’t have the longevity. Not yet, anyway.
Pascal Siakam’s unprecedented improvement and meteoric rise last season helped the Raptors win their first ever championship. Then somehow, he managed to improve his game dramatically yet again. In addition to his All-Star team nod this season, he’s accumulated career numbers across the board, including scoring almost 24 points per game, and was on pace to be named to his first All-NBA team.
Siakam’s Raptors legacy is still in its infancy. But it’s growing rapidly. I could easily see him knocking Williams off of the mountain in the next few years.