While the upcoming bubble plan emerges, the NBA’s off-mid-season has left fans looking back in time to get their fix of pro sports. Rankings and G.O.A.T. pronouncements are at an all-time high, as is the fervor of people’s opinions. While I can’t say I’m particularly stirred by the endless “Most clutch player” debates, one question has grabbed my attention: “Who is on the Toronto Raptors’ Mount Rushmore?” Using my ample free time, I curiously looked through other people’s answers and found the same four names popping up more than any others: Vince Carter, DeMar DeRozan, Kawhi Leonard, and Kyle Lowry.
The argument for each of the four is entirely valid, but it poses a question: what about Chris Bosh? What happened to his six years as the unquestionable face of the franchise in Toronto? What about his five All-Star appearances as a Raptor? A lot has changed in the ten years since Bosh left. A decade ago, championships were reserved for other teams, an All-Star Weekend in Toronto sounded like the setup to a dad joke, Lowry and DeRozan had not yet made basketball in May a normal thing, and Masai Ujiri had just been hired by the Nuggets. When you were in the then-Air Canada Centre, you’d look up into the rafters and see dozens upon dozens of banners, recognizing old hockey legends like Dave Keon and Darryl Sittler, along with historic Stanley Cup victories. Finally, you’d see the one piece of fabric with a bit of red on it: TORONTO RAPTORS ATLANTIC DIVISION CHAMPIONS 2006-07.
The last six years have brought the Raptors something the organization has sought throughout its whole existence: respect. When the team traded Vince, the weight of that quest was put on Bosh and his supporting cast. For a time, during the promising 2006-07 season, it seemed as though that lofty goal might just be within reach — that squad even won the franchise its first banner. Then the team hit a wall in the playoffs, and within three years Bosh was out of Toronto, bringing the era to its unceremonious end. So what was it that doomed the endearing, but ultimately flawed 2006-07 Raptors?
Following the team’s dismal 2005-06 season, new GM Bryan Colangelo completely revamped the roster, adding nine new faces to surround their franchise cornerstone. The new starting lineup consisted of Bosh, T.J. Ford, Anthony Parker, Jorge Garbajosa and Rasho Nesterović, with Jose Calderon, rookie Andrea Bargnani, Morris Peterson, Juan Dixon and Joey Graham coming off the bench. A few words come to mind thinking about that group —flash isn’t one of them. No, this was a cast of Emmy-less unknowns with clear on-screen chemistry, a collection of role players who knew their strengths and limitations.
“They might have the best talent in the Eastern Conference,” said then-Nuggets coach George Karl in March 2007. “Detroit has probably the best starters in the league,” he added, but maintained that Toronto’s collection of role players gave them “a chance to be a great team.” Shooting? Look no further than Parker, who I maintain would be making $30 million per year if he played in today’s NBA. Toughness? Allow me to introduce you to Garbo, whose drawn charges and big defensive plays earned his place in the hearts of all Raptors fans. Vision? Say hello to point guards Ford and Calderon, whose pass-first tendencies helped establish the team’s unselfish style of play.
And then, there was Bosh. It can be easy to forget just how good he was compared to other Raptors stars — he never reached the popularity of Carter, nor did he achieve sustained team success like Lowry and DeRozan. But he was an All-Star starter, a 23-year-old who was voted Second Team All-NBA. Bosh’s explosiveness, shooting range, and passing ability forced opponents into regularly throwing double-teams at him. On the defensive end, his quickness and long reach made him a constant shot-blocking threat. Bosh’s star was rising, and the whole league noticed. After a Raptors win over the Lakers in February 2007, in which Bosh scored 29 on 12-of-16 shooting, Kobe Bryant said, “I think he’s a legitimate candidate [for MVP] just because of what he’s been able to do with this team,” as per the Associated Press. If Kobe calls you a legitimate MVP candidate in February, you’re doing something right.
Motivated by a disappointing 2-8 start, the Raptors steadily clawed their way up the standings, piecing together an 8-8 record in December despite Bosh’s eleven-game absence. Then he returned, and the team clicked. They surged through the Eastern Conference standings with their run-and-gun style, winning 18 of their next 25 games, 12 by double-digits. The Raptors were rewarded for their monster January by sweeping the Eastern Conference’s monthly awards: Bosh won Player of the Month, Bargnani was named Rookie of the Month, and Sam Mitchell got the Coach of the Month. The Raptors kept on climbing, putting together win-streaks of four, five, and six games respectively, and ended up at 47-35 — good for third in the (predictably weak) East — and tying their best regular season record yet.
Toronto’s run included a host of memorable moments, like Ford’s game-winning buzzer-beater against the Clippers, Bargnani’s last-second fall-away three which led to an OT win against the Sonics (lots to unpack in that sentence), and of course, Morris Peterson’s game-tying half-court catch-and-heave against the Wizards. Each of those endings displayed the team’s charming, persistent refusal to quit. But not every memorable moment was a positive one. In late March, when Garbajosa landed awkwardly and suffered what turned out to be a career-altering injury, the tone of the season changed. The Raptors continued to fight, bouncing back with a three-game winning streak, but a substantial hole opened up in the starting lineup. First Sam Mitchell tried plugging the hole with Juan Dixon, then opted to go with Joey Graham. With Garbajosa done and Bargnani out due to an appendectomy, the Raptors’ list of role players was shrinking. They managed to survive the final stretch of the season against a string of mediocre teams — the postseason, however, was not as forgiving.
In a poetic matchup, the Raptors’ first playoff series since trading Vince Carter pitted them against the New Jersey Nets and… Vince Carter. Raptors fans were fired up, wearing giveaway shirts that turned the ACC crowd into a sea of red. Then, the Nets took the court wearing perfectly matching red alternate jerseys — they’d stolen home-court advantage before the opening tip.
Playing with the poise and chutzpah of a team possessing plenty of playoff experience, the Nets simply outmatched the inexperienced Raptors, handing them a first-round exit in six games. Now, a number of factors prevented the 2007 Raptors from earning the same level of reverence as the Carter and Lowry-DeRozan eras. And it’s clear that series against the Nets exposed and magnified some of the team’s biggest flaws.
First, this was not a good series for Bosh. The player who had led the Raptors to their first division championship was showing worrying signs of post-season decline. In multiple games, early foul trouble kept him off the court for much of the first half, leaving Kris Humphries to fill in for the team’s leading scorer. When Bosh was on the court, his production dipped dramatically from his regular season numbers — his points per game dropped from 22.6 to 17.5, his eFG% plummeted from .502 to .401 and the team scored 6.2 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Granted, nerves could certainly have played a role and six games is a small sample size. And yet, Bosh’s play followed the same trends in the following year’s five-game series against Orlando, with his eFG falling from .499 to .478 and the team scoring 12.2 fewer points per possession with him on the court. He was unquestionably the star of the team, but just how capable a star was he?
Only a year and a half after being drafted with the fourth pick, Chris Bosh was handed the keys to the organization. Colangelo’s tenure with the Raptors was almost entirely Bosh-centric. He made every roster move to satisfy and complement Bosh, putting him in an almost LeBron-like role for the franchise. When he signed his three-year extension with the Raptors in 2006, Bosh said, “I’ve been dreaming of this since I’ve been playing basketball, to be ‘The Guy.’” What we’ve learned from the last decade is that Bosh really was most comfortable not as ‘The Guy,’ but as an overqualified sidekick. He had the talent to be the best player on a great deal of NBA teams, but what would be the ceiling of that team? As the Raptors’ alpha, the team never got out of the first round. In short: Bosh was very good, but it’s possible he didn’t have it in him to be the absolute best.
In fairness to Bosh, though, who was meant to be his sidekick? Who was the team’s second-best player? Ford? Parker? Both solid players, but certainly not top-three on a true contender. The Raptors’ strength was in the deepness of its roster, the skill possessed by its sixth through tenth men. But as we witnessed with the 2018 squad’s ‘Bench Mob,’ a team that relies on depth is not usually a good playoff team, as opponents shorten their rotation to seven or eight men. Good playoff teams are generally top-heavy — the 2007 Nets’ third-best player, for example, was Richard Jefferson, who easily would’ve been Bosh’s best teammate. The Nets’ two best players, Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, were both All-Stars. None of Bosh’s teammates were even in the All-Star conversation.
The big knock on Bosh’s time as a Raptor is that his teams never advanced past the first round. But Lowry and DeRozan could depend on each other to carry the offense if one was struggling. Even Vince had the comfort of the veteran Antonio Davis as his second banana. Bosh never had a clear number two option who could divide an opposing team’s attention. A collection of skillful role players can be successful in the regular season, but for the slog of post-season basketball, Bosh needed a teammate who could play aggressively and create his own shot.
Here’s an excerpt pulled from an AP recap of New Jersey’s 102-81 Game 4 victory, just to properly illustrate what Bosh had to work with: “After three straight poor starts, Mitchell inserted Bargnani into the starting lineup in place of Joey Graham — even though Bargnani … hadn’t been playing well, either, since returning from a 14-game absence after an appendectomy … He shot only 5-of-18 in the first three games of the series.” Let’s get this straight: Joey Graham started at small forward for the Raptors in their first three games. After watching Graham score a total of 6 points on 2-of-12 shooting through these three games, Sam Mitchell decided that Andrea Bargnani, the recently injured seven-footer who’d scored a total of 15 points through three games, had played his way into the starting lineup.
Factor in that Nesterovic and his 3.4 points per game was Toronto’s starting centre at the time, and you come to realize that the Nets’ defense only needed to pay attention to three, sometimes four players at a time. Coupled with the thin Garbajosa-less frontcourt rotation, the lack of a shot-creating second option for Bosh meant the defense could throw everything at him without being punished. So maybe Bosh was never meant to lead a team deep in the playoffs, but it can’t be ignored that the construction of the Raptors at the time was flawed from the get-go.
Where did that fault lie? As any Raptors fan will tell you, Toronto’s position as the lone Canadian team made it an almost universally undesirable destination. In just twelve years of existence, Raptors fans had already watched Damon Stoudamire, Tracy McGrady and Vince flee the city. The Raptors were never in the mix for the biggest free agents, and even the mid-tier free agents seemed repelled by the thought of playing in Toronto (see: John Salmons). The highest-paid player on the ’06-07 roster? You guessed it: Rasho Nesterovic!
(A fun, related anecdote: the one player the Raptors managed to sign from a different NBA team in the 2006 off-season, Fred Jones — later traded for Juan Dixon — didn’t even intend on signing with the Raptors. Jones had originally accepted a qualifying offer from the Pacers, but Indiana then unexpectedly rescinded the offer, forcing him to look elsewhere. “We were behind the eight-ball,” said Jones’ agent, according to ESPN. “Other situations were not available that would have been available because time had elapsed.” Sounds like he was thrilled to be a Raptor!)
The point is, any Raptors front office was in a tough spot. In order to add talent, GMs had to make trades (assuming the players actually reported to the team [see: Alonzo Mourning]), build through the draft and scour the international leagues. While Colangelo certainly had his duds, he was effective in his first year with the team at constructing a roster around Bosh despite the stigma surrounding playing in Canada. He plucked Garbajosa and Parker from the Spanish and Israeli Leagues, made the initially criticized but ultimately beneficial trade of Charlie Villanueva for Ford, and unloaded franchise icon Rafael Araujo for the actually playable Kris Humphries. Speaking of Araujo…
The late Rob Babcock left his successor a bit of a mess. On the one hand, he was responsible for the signing of Calderon, which helped set the table for Colangelo. On the other hand, he famously drafted Araujo one pick ahead of Andre Iguodala, and selected both Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham over Danny Granger. The Raptors were, of course, trying to fill Carter’s shoes, and it’s certain Iguodala or Granger would have helped out in that department. Not that Colangelo was batting 1.000 in the draft, either — Bargnani, who was initially a solid scoring seven-footer off the bench (with worse rebounding numbers than the 6’6” Anthony Parker), was drafted the pick before LaMarcus Aldridge.
Colangelo, and even Babcock, circumvented their disadvantage in free agency by surrounding Bosh with skilled players from overseas, and managing to make a few solid trades. If the Raptors had drafted Iguodala in ’04 or Granger in ’05, however, Bosh would’ve had a proper second option, and Sam Mitchell wouldn’t have been faced with the unfortunate decision of deciding between starting Graham or Bargnani in the playoffs.
As has long been the case in Toronto, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Whether it be on Bosh for not being a true alpha, on Raptors management for not finding their proclaimed Batman a Robin, on the sheer bad luck of Garbajosa’s injury, on the city of Toronto for being north of the border, on Babcock for making some truly baffling draft picks, or on Colangelo for going a bit too far with the whole “Next Dirk” thing — the outcome was the same. When there are so many things to blame, perhaps it makes the most sense to blame none of them specifically and simply say the truth: the 2006-07 Raptors just weren’t good enough.
Things are different now. Unbelievably, the Raptors have become a model organization, and the red banners in Scotiabank are actually starting to catch up to the blue. In a few years, at least a couple red jerseys will be added to the rafters — though not Bosh’s number four. Ultimately, Bosh’s time as a Raptor served as his growing pains, a stop on the way to his golden run in Miami. Likewise, the Bosh era in Toronto serves the same purpose in the history of the Raptors: a period of growing pains before eventually moving onto bigger and better things. In the long run, his departure was a mutually beneficial breakup. The Raps just, you know, took a bit longer getting back on their feet.