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The Raptors had the prototype pace-and-space team (until their coach ruined it)

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Did Kevin O’Neill break what could have been the ahead-of-their-time 2003-04 Toronto Raptors team? Yes, Kevin O’Neill did.

Raptors v Pacers Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

I’ll admit it. I’m annoying when it comes to defending coaches.

When L’Affaire Casey was raging, I was always in Dwane’s corner. Yes, the Raptors didn’t get where they needed, and sure Casey had his faults — but I’ll argue to my grave that on balance those Raptor teams were all better because of Casey, not worse.

When people were flipping out about Sam Mitchell, I was the guy hand-stitching a tea cozy with the phrase: “It’s not the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmys and Joes.”

Hell, I was a Butch Carter stan too, even when Doug Christie was wearing a black headband. And I didn’t blame Brendan Malone (and Darrell Walker, for that matter) one bit for wanting to build a winning culture, even if I did think he could have found ways to play the kids a bit more.

In general, if you want to find someone for a bitch session on why Coach X, who, by the way, has decades of pro and college level basketball experience to your… [checks notes] none, is a dolt for not getting fat James Johnson more minutes? I’m not your guy.

Buuuuuut, if you want to rip one Kevin James O’Neill a new one? I’ll bring the beer and wings — stay two metres away from you — and have at it.

It wasn’t just that the Raptors were bad that year under O’Neill (33-49, tied for 22nd in what was then a 29-team league) that made me hate him forever. I’d seen mediocrity before.

It wasn’t just that he was an extreme micro-manager. At that point in the NBA disempowering players was seen as a good thing as often as not.

It wasn’t just that O’Neill was a joyless, intense, task-master with the charisma of a bowl of warm tapioca, although I do hate those types. It’s never been clear to me why we celebrate someone whose main character trait is that they’re incapable of having a good time, or letting anyone else have a good time in the name of what? Winning? Professionalism? Fear of losing control?

What it was, was that Kevin O’Neill strangled all the joy out of the game of basketball. In his one year in control, his Raptors team played some of the ugliest basketball the league had ever seen.

To be fair, part of this was by design. Back then, the Raptors had a reputation for being, let’s say, lenient with the opposition. Coming in to the 2003-04 season, Toronto had only finished in the top half of the league in defensive rating twice in their first eight years. The year before they had finished 26th under then-head coach Lenny Wilkens (of course, a season earlier they were ninth — Jimmys and Joes anyone?).

O’Neill was brought in because he had a reputation as a top-notch defensive mind. He’d spent the previous two years on the bench of the Detroit Pistons, and before that a year with the New York Knicks — three teams that all were top-10 in defense.

To O’Neill’s credit, the Raptors were better — both overall, where they added nine wins, and on defense where they soared to seventh overall. It was the highest ever mark in team history to that point.

The problem was on the other end. Toronto dipped to the second worst offense in the NBA, scoring at a rate lower than any team in Raptor’s history — including the inaugural expansion model.

O’Neill had his team play slow, with the Raptors ranking 27th in pace. They also never got to the line — finishing 29th in free throw attempts — which is indicative of teams that are rarely on the fast break, and who take a lot of late-clock shots when opposing defenses are most effective.

In short, it is a style befitting a team that feels it is operating at a severe talent gap and has to gunk up a game to compete.

Given the Raptors opened the season starting an “end-of-career” Antonio Davis, a “one-foot-out-the-door” Vince Carter, Jerome Williams, Alvin Williams, and Michael Curry, and whose top reserves, by minutes, were: Milt Palacio, Lamond Murray, Morris Peterson, and a rookie Chris Bosh — this strategy makes some sense.

If that was the totality of the O’Neill experience, even with his highly unpleasant personality, I probably could have shrugged it off. But that wasn’t the totality of the Kevin O’Neill experience.

Not by a long shot.

On December 1st, 2003, then-GM Glen Grunwald, realizing his 8-8 team needed a boost, traded Davis, Williams and Chris “Practice is too early” Jeffries for Jalen Rose, Donyell Marshall and Lonny “Meathooks” Baxter. (Side note: While Masai Ujiri is the greatest executive in Raptors’ history, Glen Grunwald was really, really, good at the job too.)

Until that point, Toronto had reached the ninety point mark just once in regulation — and that was in their 90-87 opening night win over the New Jersey Nets. Toronto had scored fewer than seventy points five times. It was brutal. Trust me, Kevin O’Neill’s Raptors made the mid-90’s Knicks look like the Steph Curry Warriors.

Then the new horses rode into town.

Given they were at the end of a road trip and only had a couple of games before heading out again, O’Neill cautioned fans that it would take time for the new players to figure out the Raptors’ way of doing things.

It quickly became obvious that not doing things the “Raptors way” would work better.

Using a starting lineup of Rose, Carter, Marshall, Alvin Williams and Bosh, with Peterson as his top reserve the Raptors “exploded” for a season high 95 points in a win in Philly while knocking down a season-high seven 3s on fifteen attempts. Toronto would go on to win five in a row, and come within a last-second Carter three of forcing that sixth game to overtime.

Before the trade, Toronto had averaged a mind-boggling seventy-eight points a game — for an offensive rating of just 94.7 — two full points worse than the worst offensive team that year, the Chicago Bulls.

In the six games before O’Neill was able to grind his micro-managing style into the players, the Raptors averaged almost 102 points per game, with an offensive rating of roughly 110.1 — which over a whole season would have been good enough for third in the league. Small sample sizes abound, sure, but what made the offensive improvement seem, if not real, then at least plausible, were two under-lying numbers: pace and three-point attempts.

In the first sixteen games before the trade, the Raps had been averaging barely over 82 possessions a game, and had taken a shade over 12 threes a game, making just 30.8 percent. Those numbers would have ranked last, third last and last over a whole season.

In that magical six game run? Toronto’s pace leaped to 92.4 possessions a game (6th), they took 18 threes a game (tied for 5th), and hit them at a blistering 47.2 percent pace (obviously first, and obviously unsustainable, but after the trade, the Raps hit threes at a 36.4 percent clip, which would have been good enough to finish tied for 4th in the NBA).

Overnight, Toronto had become a modern pace-and-space team before we even really knew what that was. With Marshall taking six threes a game, and dragging a big out to deal with him, Toronto suddenly had ample space for Carter and Rose to attack (when they weren’t putting up threes of their own), which in turn gave room for Williams and Bosh, two players who tended to operate from the mid-range, to do their thing. Add in Peterson’s long-range shooting, and the Raps had stumbled onto the blueprint to unlock a totally different game of basketball.

While nobody would confuse the Raptors with the incoming “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns, Toronto had the personnel to at least ape the approach — Carter, Marshall, Peterson, and Murray all shot above league average on a respectable number of threes (for the time). Rose didn’t hit them (31.1%), but was willing to take them, and while Chris Bosh rarely shot threes, he hit them too, along with free throws at a high enough rate that a more flexible coach could have experimented with him as well. While we’re at it, maybe that same coach would have freed second-year wing Roger Mason, a good shooter and a passable on-ball defender and handler, too. (Mason would go on to a ten-year career and shoot 38 percent from beyond the arc).

Imagine, if O’Neill had embraced this high-flying offensive team. Even if all those Raptors did was squeeze into the playoffs (a possibility, even after their defense slipped to league average), to become an entertaining loser to Indiana or New Jersey. It could have changed everything. Carter would have been Air Canada again, Bosh would have come up in a winning culture, and Grunwald would have had a clear blueprint to work with.

But after that sixth game, a loss in which the Raps surrendered 114 points, O’Neill had clearly had enough. He slowly began to squeeze the life out of the Raptors team. Kevin O’Neill was going to play his way, damnit!

By the time of the coach’s infamous lamp-smashing incident in Phoenix — caused by Jalen Rose breaking his hand the game before — the Raptors had topped the 90-pace mark only four times.

The result of turning his back on the team he’d been gifted with to play a uniquely ahead-of-it’s-time style was crushing. Toronto, which had scored at least 95 points in five of those six games, would top that mark only six times in regulation for the rest of the year. After that fun mini-run, they played just .400 ball until Rose got hurt — and then totally cratered afterwards (though, yes, even I can’t blame that entirely on O’Neill).

I can’t understate how much like manna from heaven that six-game stretch was. Remember, the Raptors had averaged 78 points a game before the trade. Suddenly, they looked like one of the best offensive teams in the league. And the way they did it, by creating space for Vince Carter to be Vince Carter again, by letting Donyell Marshall play the stretch-four role he had been born to play, by giving room for old-head Rose to play his (admittedly inefficient), but delightful herky-jerky one-on-one game. By letting kids like Bosh and Peterson run the floor — it made me fall in love with Raptors basketball again.

Then Kevin O’Neill took it all away, because he was a frizzy-haired man with a Napoleon complex who thought it made him look tough to admit he smashed a hotel lamp.

We’ve covered how the Rose injury changed Raptors history, but to me, what really changed history, what truly kept Carter from ever again being “Air Canada”, and sent the Raptors franchise into what ended up as basically a decade in the wilderness was a head coach too stubborn and pig-headed to realize what he had — and for that I’ll always hate Kevin O’Neill.