Through 11 games, the Raptors’ winning percentage is .273. In other words, they’ve won just 27 percent of their games. This is a galling number when we remember Toronto set a record just last season with a .736 percentage. In fact, if the season ended today — which, with the coronavirus still brewing, could happen — this iteration of the Raptors would be the fourth-worst squad in franchise history. This is a harrowing thought, given how bad past versions of the team have been over the 25 years before today. Fortunately, we’re only talking about 11 games, with 61 left to play, and much more history to write.
But that got me thinking about historical context and these current Raptors. Just how bad were the starts of the worst iterations of the team? How does this team now stack up? (And, unwritten but implied, when will the positive turnaround start — it’s got to be soon, right?) To get into all that, let’s look at the five worst Raptors seasons in franchise history by winning percentage and decide how the 2020-21 compares.
You may now be asking, why do this kind of analysis after just 11 games? But the real question to ask during such a bizarre run of play is this: why not?
5. 2005-06 Toronto Raptors
First 11 Games: 1-10
Final Winning Percentage: .329 (27-55)
This season was the nadir of the Rob Babcock era in Toronto, the year in which the team finally jettisoned the general manager who had traded Vince Carter for peanuts and drafted Rafael Araujo. The damage done in less than two seasons (Babcock was fired mid-year) was hard to take even after the Raptors almost immediately turned around the following season under new GM Bryan Colangelo. (It was all fool’s gold back then, but we wanted so much to believe in that 2006-07 squad.)
The 2005-06 season really did see the Raptors start the year with nine straight losses before they grabbed a Sunday afternoon win against an eventual title-winning Heat squad. (This was back when the Raptors still regularly played weekend matinee games and we could tell which squad had partied harder the night before.) Of course, let’s not gloss over the fact that this particular season was also the Mike James year, the season in which the journeyman guard decided to go ham for 79 games with career-highs across the board. It’s not often you see a team as weird as this version of the Raptors. Chris Bosh was clearly the team’s best player, but the rest of the roster was unable to do much with that fact.
In lieu of success, we got James’ freak 20 points-a-night campaign, the fostering of the legend of the Red Rocket (Matt Bonner), and the rookie years of Charlie Villanueva, Joey Graham, and the immortal Jose Calderon. Jalen Rose and Antonio Davis also passed by. In all, that this Raptors team started the year 1-15 and actually cracked .300 is impressive. And now to really drive home how bizarre this year was: the Raptors went on to jump the line and win the draft lottery — despite having only the league’s fifth worst record — opening the trapdoor on the Andrea Bargnani era.
4. 2002-03 Toronto Raptors
First 11 Games: 4-7
Final Winning Percentage: .293 (24-58)
In retrospect, it’s remarkable coach Lenny Wilkens hung around for this entire year, one that started poorly for the Raptors and just got worse as it went along. After finishing the season, Wilkens was let go the next day. (He was then somehow suckered into trying to whip the hapless Knicks into shape for a couple of years before finally retiring as one of most legendary figures in NBA history). I recall at least once newpaper column suggesting the Raptors let Wilkens go before he earned the dubious honour of most coaching losses in league history, but that idea didn’t take and poor Lenny did indeed hit that benchmark while in Toronto.
So what was the deal with this Raptors squad? Well, as you’ll recall, the team still had Vince Carter at the time, which on paper was a good thing. But this was also during the era some would cleverly describe as the Wince Carter era. The Raptors star played just 43 games that year while dealing with numerous ailments — it is beneath me to even try to recall those injuries here. (In November 2004, at the ripe old age of 28, Carter would go on to declare he didn’t want to dunk anymore.) Whether he intended to or not, Carter essentially held the Raptors hostage in 2002-03. They couldn’t win without him — not with Voshon Leonard as their second-leading scorer — but they couldn’t necessary rely on him either. That Toronto would then hire Babcock as the team’s new GM (a disaster), and Kevin O’Neill as their next head coach (a nuclear disaster), would spell the end of the Vince Carter era in Toronto — even though, yes, they did get one more full season out of him.
Anyway, into all of this sank Wilkens, who clearly didn’t have enough juice left in the tank to motivate Carter much. He also had no way of really squeezing any more from this roster (with the energetic but unskilled Jerome Williams ranking fifth in minutes per game). That modest 4-7 start was, in effect, as good as it was going to get.
3. 2010-11 Toronto Raptors
First 11 Games: 2-9
Final Winning Percentage: .268 (22-60)
As of late, I’ve wondered what it would have been like for this version of the Raptors to be playing in our current social media moment. To be fair, Facebook and Twitter were definitely things in 2010-11 — heck, this very blog was dutifully recording all of the team’s ups and downs (mostly downs) back then — but the latter in particular did not dominate the online landscape as it does now. The shaping of so much basketball chatter now happens on Twitter — with the sharing of memes, clips, and endless debates — that it would be a wonder to see how Raptors fans would have dealt with this particular squad in real time.
The 2010-11 Raptors were a deeply theoretical team. Before the season started they lost their one star, Chris Bosh, to the Big Three version of the Heat. They also got out of their disastrous deal with Hedo Turkoglu, which was a miracle at the time — but also served to emboldened antsy GM Colangelo to try a few more things. He signed Linas Kleiza (who was never healthy); traded Marco Belinelli (who would play for years to come) for Julian Wright (who would not play for years to come); he moved a second round pick for David Anderson (who?), then packaged him with Marcus Banks (who he had traded for the year before) and Jarrett Jack (who he had signed to keep the now-departed Bosh happy) for — of all players — Jerryd Bayless and Peja Stojakovic, who played two games for Toronto before getting waived, joining the Mavericks, and winning an NBA title. It was a lot, is my point.
There are more transactions to account for here, more moves done with the notion of helping the Raptors win more games. More winning did not happen though. The Raptors started 2-9 and basically played at that pace the rest of the year. The light at the end of the tunnel was the first round pick they’d earned in the sign-and-trade deal with Bosh, which turned into the fifth overall pick in 2011 and brought the squad Jonas Valanciunas in 2013. Leading up to that moment though — the arrival of JV — was all theory. The only tangible thing I can believe about these Raptors: had Twitter been more prominent at the time, we would have all been loudly airing our despair.
2. 1995-96 Toronto Raptors
First 11 Games: 4-7
Final Winning Percentage: .256 (21-61)
It’s hard to get too down about this entry. The 1995-96 version of the Raptors was indeed the very first one in history and, unless you’re the Vegas Knights of the NHL, most any expansion team is not likely to be good right away. What’s worth remembering now about that first season is the promise held by these Raptors. The idea of professional basketball had come to Toronto and while it would take many years to gain any real traction in this city and country, it would eventually all work out. Yes, luck was involved in that, but we still have to acknowledge: it had to start somewhere.
Despite losing seven games in a row after a win in their debut, these Raptors tried their best. They were led by eventual Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire and that counted for a lot too. That individual honour, along with a win over Michael Jordan’s nigh invincible Bulls that year, were probably the two highest points of the season. In one sense, we were grasping for the thinnest of straws; in another, we were over-the-moon excited to have NBA basketball in our city. Like I said, it’s hard to get too down here. I will add though, that much like this current version of the team, there was a feeling of transition to this first squad. The only other players (besides Stoudamire) worth keeping were Doug Christie and Tracy Murray, and most of the rest were not even long for the NBA. In this, it was clear the Raptors’ collective eyes were set firmly on the future.
1. 1997-98 Toronto Raptors
First 11 Games: 1-10
Final Winning Percentage: .195 (16-66)
That inaugural season optimism and positive progression in year two gave way to a crashing and crushing reality by Toronto’s third year. The 1997-98 season remains the Raptors’ worst year, a complete mess any way you want to look at it. The team began 1-10 over their first 11 games and that actually hides the true horror: they opened the season with a record of 1-19. That’s one win through a whole quarter of the season. We can now take solace in the fact that no matter how dark things get today, this (or most any other) Raptors squad will not touch how grim things were back in 1997-98.
Just how bad was it? After getting hung out to dry by Isiah Thomas, the off-court face of the franchise, the Raptors’ on-court face of the franchise, Stoudamire, forced his way out of town via a trade to Portland. Meanwhile, Toronto abandoned Damon’s ostensible replacement, Chauncey Billups, by dumping him to Denver after just 29 games. The squad would go on to fire head coach Darrell Walker mid-season (promoting Butch Carter to his first and only NBA head coaching gig), after he had entirely lost the team and seemed to be making a point of destroying the spirit of rookie Tracy McGrady. In all, Christie was basically the team’s best — or at least most consistent — player. As a result, the Raptors finished the season much like they began it: by going 1-16 over their final run of games on the way to being the Eastern Conference’s worst team by far.
Ironically, the rest is now good history. After this year-long slow-motion disaster, then-GM Glen Grunwald tip-toed onto the floor to address the Toronto crowd and apologize for the fiasco the fans had just endured. A year later, he’d have one of the league’s brightest stars and oversee the franchise’s first taste of sustained success — which only managed to save basketball in Canada in the process. What a turn of events.
There is perhaps a lesson here. As noted, these 2020-21 Raptors are, after a mere 11 games, the fourth-worst team in franchise history and a squad in the midst of some sort of transition. But we can afford to take a longer view nowadays — one that accounts for the remaining games of this season and gaze into the many seasons to come.