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Maybe Toronto’s start isn’t an Extinction Level Event just yet

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Or how we learned to stop worrying about the Raptors and remember other awful starts by teams that eventually made the playoffs.

Toronto Raptors v Orlando Magic Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

As the Raptors busta’d out of the gates in the opening quarter last Monday against their modern rival, the Boston Celtics, Raptors Twitter was ablaze again with hope. There was probably also hope from non-Twitter users that also watch Raps games but I cannot verify this. A 17–5 start to the game begat a 32–23 first quarter — and it involved Pascal Siakam actually participating. Raptors fans decided this was the three-point catharsis that would put the season back on track. A possible Siakam-led evisceration of the Celtics, the team that just eliminated the Raps from the playoffs would be the perfect symbolic gesture to put this team back on the path to glory.

But to use lyrics from Busta Rhymes’ “Extinction Level Event”, things went flip mode from “Connect the four shots and guess who blew it from next door/Time after time we gonna shine again” to “Like the pain and suffering of about a million deaths” pretty darn quickly.

After the Raps shot over 80 percent from three in that first quarter, a new Raptor Killer emerged (on a team full of them). Peyton Pritchard tied things up with 7:50 left in the half as the Celtics cruised to an easy victory. Siakam had his best game of the season but still looked like someone who has forgotten how to dribble and who, as I wrote about last week, may be stuck in the wrong role.

So are the 2019 NBA champs extinct? Are they still the Raptors or mere plastic imitation Reptars? Or does this kind of thing just happen to playoff teams sometimes? Would it be comforting to read some historical examples, as a treat? Very well. As Busta, the rapper who played Reptar, always says: “I’m only here to present/And bring the impact of the extinction-level event/Sing the song of salvation.”

Without too many further interruptions from Reptar, here are a few teams that had really bad starts, went into flip mode, and eventually made the playoffs.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Clippers
I’m glad Melo is an NBA-level player again, but ooo-boy was he ever not in this uniform!
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Team: 2018-19 Houston Rockets

Started the season: 1–5

Final Result: 53–29, lost in the second round

Extinction Level Event lyric: Daryl Morey thinking he was going to rejuvenate Carmelo Anthony: “Then we hit you with the most significant time bomb/Ready to detonate at the slightest wave of a white arm/Best form of advice I could give is remain calm.” Daryl Morey firing Melo ten games into the season: “Yo, disregard your whole assignment.”

The year was still 2018 and the 65-win Houston Rockets had just come off a glorious, math-bending loss to the juggernaut of juggernauts, the Golden State Warriors, in the Western Conference Finals. Up 3–2 but having suffered the loss of Chris Paul, the Rockets would go to miss 27 consecutive 3s in Game 7 and lose the series. James Harden should have screamed “Anything is possible” in a post-game interview.

While I still believe those Rockets were one of the best teams to never win a championship, their follow-up season had me less interested. Those 2017-18 Rockets had been built around lots of Harden, backcourt support from Paul, a switchy lob finisher in Clint Capela, and a decent fleet of versatile defensive wings who could hit the open threes (until they couldn’t) spoon-fed to them by Harden and Paul. In the 2018 offseason, however, primary Kevin Durant guarder Trevor Ariza left for more money and a bigger role. Luc Mbah A Moute was injured in the playoffs and never really bounced back. And 36-year-old “Iso” Joe Johnson retired. The 2018-19 Rockets hoped to fill the gap by relying even more on P.J. Tucker’s fire hydrant body, and by signing longtime Morey target Carmelo Anthony.

Melo had just finished a campaign with the OKC Thunder which ended very badly. In the playoffs, the Utah Jazz demonstrated to the world that Melo could no longer defend anyone. They cruelly scrapped their offense to attack Melo in any and every situation. So, Melo might not have been the ideal replacement for Ariza’s defensive stopper role. The legendary scorer lasted just 10 games with the Rockets, helping them to a 1–5 start, including four blowouts by at least 18 points. The Rockets waived him, cobbled together a forward rotation off the scrap heap, and returned to being the best offense in the league (but never again reached the defensive heights of 2018 that helped them almost topple the most stacked team ever.)

Dirk’s Drunk Uncles.
Clutchpoints

Team: 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks

Started the season: 0–4

Final Result: 67–15(!), 1st seed, lost in the first round

Extinction Level Event lyric: Don Nelson ready to destroy his old team and helping to found the We Believe Warriors: “Never believe in your eyes/When my squad come through at an astronomically large size/Moving the mountains.”

To an even greater degree than the aforementioned Rockets, the 2005-06 Mavericks came very close to winning a title. They got to the Finals and went up 2–0 before Dwyane Wade’s first step and some supportive officiating doomed them to four straight losses and relegation to runner-up status. The 2006-07 Mavericks looked ready to keep the meltdown melting by extending that losing streak to eight straight games. They began the year with an 0-4 opening.

After that, though, it was the best regular season in Mavericks history. They won 67 games and had win streaks of 12, 13, 8, 17 and nine games, eviscerating the losing streak they started on. Still, we know how this ended. Dirk Nowitzki and co. ran into the We Believe Warriors, a team built in a lab by mad scientist (and former Mavs coach) Don Nelson for a single purpose: revenge on the Mavs. The team was stocked to the brim with Dirk’s Achilles heel: tough wings who could guard him on the perimeter. While this season was ultimately the inspiration for Dirk to grow his post game and counters on the way to a title for Dallas in 2011, the 2006-07 season was a delicious sandwich that unfortunately used extinction level events for bread.

This Bulls squad’s entire coaching staff was well above 8’ tall.

Team: 2004-05 Chicago Bulls

Started the season: 0–9

Final Result: 47–35, lost in the first round

Extinction Level Event lyric: “We about to completely destroy all the whack bull.”

It was 2005 for the rest of us, but to the Chicago Bulls it was only the year 6 A.J. (After Jordan). Scottie Pippen had just retired after a not-fun reunion tour, and the Bulls had yet to win more than 30 games in a season since their god retired. It was still very much all anyone talked about in terms of the Bulls, and losing their first nine games didn’t help. Baby Bulls Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry were now in their fourth year and still not very good. Year 6 was looking very much like years 1–5. Renowned Shaq fighter Scott Skiles was in his first full year as head coach. He vowed to instill a defensive mentality, yet that seemed like all bluster and no blocks early in the season.

But then the Bulls became fun! Young, versatile, two-way players like Kirk Hinrich, and the rookie trio of Luol Deng, Chris Duhon, and Andres Nocioni were perfect for the scrappy identity Skiles was trying to impart. Meanwhile, Ben Gordon and Curry gave them just enough scoring. And former Raptor Antonio Davis was the team’s chill dad mentor. While these Bulls didn’t return Chicago to his Airness’ glory days, they were the beginning of a three-year span in which they acted as a plucky, defensive, Eastern Conference Playoff team. They signed four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace the next year. The year after that they won 49 games and got out of the first round. In the process, Hinrich and Deng became important players for the Bulls franchise, bridging the gap to the even-better Tom Thibideau era.

Nets Introductory Press Conference
When Russia tried to steal the 2014 NBA Championship.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Team: 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets

Started the season: 10–21

Final Result: 44–38, lost in the second round

Extinction Level Event lyric: “The dawn of global emergency/La la la la laaaa la la/The moment where we all come together as one unison.” Here we have the Russian-owned Nets almost forming a super team, and the Raptors being back in the playoffs — but this time with cooler branding!

First, a couple other teams deserve to be talked about: Charles Barkley’s 1996-97 Suns started 1–15 and made the playoffs. The Pre-Shaq 2003-04 Miami Heat started 0–7 and still nabbed the 4-seed with a scrappy roster featuring a rookie Dwyane Wade and prime Lamar Odom. But I wanted to go out on a moment that can both chill and warm the hearts of Raptors fans. That is the point of this article after all. Your hearts may be cold right now, but maybe they’ll be warm at some point this season.

It was certainly a warm July in Brooklyn. Fresh off 49 wins and an excruciating seven-game first-round playoff loss to them Bulls we just talked about, the Nets pulled off a staggering trade to acquire some really big names: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry. All they had to do was trade away the entire future of the franchise in the form of four future first round draft picks. The team also acquired Shaun Livingston and a Russian spy, codename: AK-47, who was clearly a muppet version of Ivan Drago from Rocky IV (or also known as Andrei Kirilenko). This is a long list of famous NBA names to add to a 49-win Nets team built around Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, and Joe Johnson.

The high price in draft picks was concerning, but it was the cost to build an immediate championship contender. Then, as it happens, everyone got injured. Pierce and Garnett took major steps back and were no longer star level players, Kirilenko didn’t really fit, couldn’t stay healthy, and retired after the season, Lopez played just 17 games, and Williams stopped enjoying the game of basketball. In all of this, rookie coach Jason Kidd couldn’t figure out how to make this team work — until he did! Brooklyn somehow rebuilt their identity on the fly, platooning Garnett and Duke rookie Mason Plumlee as small-ball centres, while using Pierce as a power forward, and relying on Joe Johnson to pick up the scoring slack that was dropped by… everyone else.

Raptors fans remember how this one ends. The birth of Jurassic Park, We the North, playoff DeMar, not playing Jonas Valanciunas, Masai Ujiri’s punk-af swearing, Kyle Lowry getting blocked at the buzzer by Pierce. On the Brooklyn side of things, their playoffs ended in the next round, unceremoniously against the Heatles. Garnett and Pierce moved on to end their careers elsewhere and Brooklyn still hasn’t won a playoff series since. They were the big plastic dinosaur that year.

Toronto Raptor GM Masai Ujiri addresses fans
“Local man fined $25,000 for saying “F*** Brooklyn.”
Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images

We can now look back on that season and that trade as Brooklyn’s extinction-level event. The Nets stood at a crossroads and decided to go all-in for a championship. It was a debatable move at the time, and the result was a worst-case scenario that fundamentally altered the franchise for the worse. It took them the rest of the decade to recover and become a normal NBA team again.

The Raptors may be arriving at this same crossroads from a different place, but the crucial nature of the franchise’s next move weighs heavy. Do the Raptors (through trade, or adjustments, or chemistry, or magic) right the ship and make the playoffs? Can Aron Baynes be our Carmelo Anthony (fire him!)? Do they win 67 games (or whatever the shortened season equivalent is) and get humiliated in the first round? Does some or all of the team’s scrappy, versatile core of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam become a small part of the next Raptors team?

Or does Toronto trade all our draft picks for James Harden, P.J. Tucker, and DeMarcus Cousins (or whomever) only to have them crumble into dust before our eyes? History (and really smart, incredible stats) suggest these are the only possible outcomes. Regardless what happens with the Raptors season — and more importantly, which direction the franchise heads this season — it’s important to remember all the teams we’ve forgotten who have done this before.

And that Busta Rhymes was the voice of Reptar.