As part of SB Nation’s Best Teams To Never series, we’ve already looked at the 2017-18 Toronto Raptors, one of the entrants in the tournament’s Flameout Region. However, there’s another Toronto squad that didn’t quite make the cut. Their absence is a fitting tribute because we’re talking about the 2000-01 Raptors, the team that was maybe one shot away from glory.
Before we get into why the 2000-01 Toronto Raptors could have won an NBA title, there’s an important distinction to make here. I’m not suggesting they absolutely would have won it — the eventual finalist 76ers and, for sure, the champion Lakers had some say in the matter — it’s just that the stars were aligning for the Raptors to make a magical run. The situation in Toronto was such, however, we didn’t quite realize how close they’d come at the time. And we had no idea yet of how far they’d be for the next 15 years.
To make the case, we’ll study the four main elements that put the Raptors on the path to contention: their star, their coach, their rotation, and the rivals that stood in their way. Let’s get to it.
On the Star
Vince Carter was scheduled to appear in the final game of his career yesterday on April 15th. It didn’t happen of course, but it marks the end of one of the more perplexing big-time runs in professional basketball in modern history. If you had told, say, Magic or Suns fans — let alone people from Toronto — that we’d still be watching Carter play in 2020, they wouldn’t have believed you. The length of Carter’s career (which has had whole bunches of forgettable seasons) has allowed not only the angry feelings in Toronto to dissipate, but for most to think only fondly of the man they used to call “Half Man, Half Amazing.”
But that’s neither here nor there now. What’s clear is this: Carter’s longevity makes it sometimes easy to forget just how astounding he was in his prime. And make no mistake, he was at his absolutely explosive best in 2001 in Toronto — before his injuries (however serious they may or may not have been) and before he started playing second (or third, or fourth) fiddle to his teammates. In considering the long range of his career, Carter may have always wanted to just have a good time in the NBA and fit in as one of the guys. In Toronto though, and at that young stage of his career, he was The Guy — and there was no way he could hide from it.
Carter’s numbers in 2000-01 tell part of the story here. Across 75 games, he averaged 27.6 points (with 46/41/76 shooting percentages), 5.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and, sure, 1.5 steals and 1.1 blocks in 39.7 minutes per game. But, as impressive as those numbers are, they really do only tell half the story. The other half can only be captured in the footage of Carter’s play. Watch along and then try to tell yourself there was anything he couldn’t do on the court.
My point here is simple: in a star-driven league, the team with the best player tends to win the day. In 2000-01, there is zero question that the Raptors had one of the best ten players in the league. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but there was no reason at the time not to think Carter would get the job done in Toronto.
On the Coach
Let me be clear up front: I have a lot of respect and sympathy for Butch Carter. He was thrown into a tough situation, tasked with coaching for a reeling organization with minimal hope on the horizon. Yet, he oversaw Toronto’s first real basketball success, and most importantly, he was one of the few (only?) coaches in history to really challenge Vince Carter. Butch is something of a punchline now — which, yes, he brought on himself — but he was crucial to the development of the Raptors from 1997 (first as an assistant) to 2000.
That said, Carter is no Lenny Wilkens. For the 2000-01 season, the Raptors needed stability, they needed a calm hand, and as was always the case in those early day, they needed credibility. They’d gained it on the court thanks to Vince and their veteran core (more on that in the next section); now they needed it on the coaching staff. To go from Butch Carter, a career assistant who never got a head coaching gig again after his implosion in Toronto to [checks paper] one of the most legendary coaches in professional basketball history is quite the jump.
Now, it could be argued that the Wilkens of the 2000s, much like a player nearing the end of his career, was not the coach he once was. There’s no denying he was not the right man to guide the suddenly declining Raptors of 2002 and beyond (or the mid-00s Knicks for that matter). Still, we’re talking about a guy who had played and coached — and player-coached! — in the NBA since 1969. Wilkens had seen and done it all, earned every accolade possible in his field, including a championship in 1979. One glance at some of the other top coaches of the day (Phil Jackson in L.A., Larry Brown in Philly, George Karl in Milwaukee, Gregg Popovich in San Antonio) makes it clear: to get to the title, a team needed to employ an experienced coach. The Raptors did just that, and it could have made all the difference.
On the Rotation
The Raptors of 2000-01 weren’t exactly deep, but like any well-constructed team of their era, they had the players necessary to make it through the regular season — and to fight hard in the playoffs. This starts with Carter, of course, and requires the leadership of Wilkens, but after that, the pieces fall into place quite clearly.
At the start of the year though, it didn’t seem like that would be the case for Toronto. They’d lost Tracy McGrady, they’d traded Doug Christie for Corliss Williamson (a huge mistake), and they’d moved on from Kevin Willis (for Tracy Murray and the as-yet-unproven Keon Clark). But the trade deadline brought some relief and a much needed infusion of energy. The Raptors moved Williamson (to explain this for new fans: he was Toronto’s first DeMarre Carroll) for the much-loved Junkyard Dog, Jerome Williams; and they jettisoned Muggsy Bogues and Mark Jackson, both of whom couldn’t guard anyone anymore, for Chris Childs, who still very much could.
Those two new additions joined Charles Oakley and Antonio Davis, Toronto’s much-respected and all-rugged frontcourt, to further bolster the team’s toughness. Taken together, it really is hard to overstate how effective Oakley and Davis were back then, despite their ages and semi-undersized stature. In the frontcourt, meanwhile, the Raptors had go-for-broke Alvin Williams and their other young gun Morris Peterson, a proto 3-and-D wing before we knew what those were. To mix in some more scoring off the bench there was also Dell Curry, providing Toronto with high-level shooting, the in-and-out game of Tracy Murray, and the aforementioned Clark, who was still finding himself at the time. (There was also the combined contract albatross of Michael Stewart and Eric Montross, but we don’t need to get into that here.)
By turn of the century standards, this was how you built a solid NBA team. And when it got time for the playoffs, the Raptors’ eight-man rotation had the intangibles (know-how, tougheness, experience) and the talent (personified by Carter and their skilled role players) to go all the way. Yes, they’d have to go through Allen Iverson, the Bucks’ big three at the time, and, of course, Shaq and Kobe — but why not dream big, right?
On the Rivals
This is where the picture becomes a bit blurry for the Raptors of 2000-01. Toronto headed into the 2001 playoffs as the five-seed with a record of 47-35, then a franchise-best. Their net rating at season’s end — a reasonable indicator of a team’s effectiveness — put them just outside the top ten overall in the league. There’s an argument to be made, however, that the team’s makeover at the deadline pushed them up the rankings as a defensive unit while maintaining their top ten status as an offensive power. Toronto’s net rating for the final two months of the season did indeed jump up to 4.2, good for seventh overall — way ahead of 14th-ranked Philly, and right there with the Bucks (third) and Lakers (fourth).
To be clear, there’s no doubt the ‘01 Raptors could have beaten the 76ers. We don’t have to waste any more time thinking about it. If Carter’s last-second shot in Game 7 goes down, Toronto wins and the entire trajectory of the franchise is changed. But how much does it actually change? What about the other teams vying for the title at the time?
The obvious next team to get to is the 2000-01 Milwaukee Bucks. (Can you imagine if the Raptors-Bucks rivalry had actually started back here? Oh, what could have been.) That squad was led by a trio of talent: Sam Cassell, Ray Allen, and Glenn Robinson, all three of whom could take over games with their dynamic offensive skills. They also had the enigmatic Tim Thomas (how else to describe him, really?) and decent role players (Ervin Johnson, Lindsey Hunter, etc.) Thanks to that overall talent, the Bucks were an elite offensive team but they lacked dearly in the defense department. And despite his pedigree, their head coach George Karl had been known to melt down when the lights were brightest.
Nevertheless, the Bucks finished the season 52-30, good for second in the East (behind the Sixers at 56-26, by the way). They jumped into the playoffs, easily wiped out the Magic, and then got into a protracted battle with the Baron Davis-led Hornets, beating them in seven games. Afterwards, they narrowly lost to the Sixers in seven as well. So, while Milwaukee won the regular season series against Toronto 3-1, it stands to reason that all three of these teams — the Raps, Bucks, and Sixers — could have played each other to a standstill over and over again. There’s no guarantee the Raptors come out on top, but if you roll those dice a few times, Toronto’s name definitely comes out on top at least a third of the time.
Out west the story is different, yet also the same — there really are only two other teams to consider. The Spurs and the Lakers of 2000-01 were the clear class of the West, with only the Kings coming close (their time to shine was really 2002). But knowing what we know now — and based on what actually happened — there is just no way the Lakers weren’t making it to the 2001 Finals. They steamrolled every team in their path that post-season on the way to a perfect 11-0 Western Conference run over the Blazers, Kings, and Spurs. Could the Raptors have stood a chance?
On paper, the Raptors and Lakers’ non-star players match-up fairly well. Los Angeles had Ron Harper, Rick Fox, Horace Grant, and the deadly Robert Horry; the Raptors had Williams, Davis, Oakley, and Curry. If nothing else, Toronto would definitely be giving up a lot in size, but not a ton in heart. The real question, though, is whether or not Carter alone could have powered the Raptors past Shaq and Kobe. (This is where McGrady would have really helped.) And in truth, we can narrow this down even further: could the combined might of the Raptors have stopped 2001 Shaq? The Sixers couldn’t do it, and they had one of the best defensive centres of the era, Dikembe Motumbo, on hand to play him straight up. Ultimately, even I have a hard time answering this question in the affirmative.
Still, given where the Raptors were in 2001, just six years past their creation, it would have been something to see them take that early step into the Finals. A couple breaks go their way, and who knows what could have happened next.