The Toronto Raptors - Underdogs of the NBA
Fresh off Superbowl 52 and watching my beloved Philadelphia Eagles finally win the big game, my fandom will shift focus to my hometown Toronto Raptors, whom I’ve been loyal to since however long I’ve been watching basketball, which is definitely over 15 years. The 2017 Eagles played the role of the Underdogs. Their star QB Carson Wentz was having an MVP-type season before tearing his ACL on December 10th in Los Angeles, which I was in attendance for. The odds weren’t in our favour if you were to ask Vegas or any sports analyst who had a collective thought to offer up as to what the future of the Eagles was going forward for their season. For the rest of the season, the Eagles were underdogs in all but one game (Week 16 vs the Raiders) and the common denominator was Carson Wentz. Never mind the fact that the team had lost other core pieces of the team, but that didn’t stop the non-believers from adding fuel to the fire.
In the NBA, the Raptors have always been known as “that team in Canada,” or “that team that doesn’t matter” in whatever capacity in which they’re addressed throughout American media. Being the only basketball franchise in a country of 32 Million, which is still primarily a hockey country, the Raptors have their own problems gaining traction in the respect column from Canadians as a whole, but that has changed over the years since their improbable 7-game playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets in 2014. That series started a trend of making the playoffs repeatedly the following years to the point where it’s just expected that they make it to the postseason now.
As a Raptors fan, that’s still hard to believe sometimes. I can give one hard sneeze and be sent back flashes of a 4-19 start and multiple double-digit losses in a row. They were dark times that flash of bad Jay Triano coaching and heartbroken Chuck Swirsky calls, not to mention the putrid rosters that were ‘supposed’ to elevate Chris Bosh and a then young DeRozan who really hadn’t made anything of himself.
Without going into the history of how we got to this point, the fact is that the Raptors have consistently been a great team in the East without having a superstar player (although DeRozan’s play in this season is challenging that), an elite head coach (Casey’s pretty good), and a stacked roster. No one jumps out at you and says to the average fan that they’re a must have for their Fantasy teams. The Raptors aren’t always going to be a go-to team you run with on NBA2K. We’ve always been the fanbase that screams that we need “one more piece” in order to compete, but with so many people saying that Canada isn’t a desirable place to play ‘because of the cold’ (like New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, Detroit etc. don’t exist), the excuses are running thin. With notable names having played in Toronto in recent years by the likes of Rudy Gay, DeMarre Carroll, and currently Serge Ibaka, players are not adverse to wanting to play in Toronto like they used to.
DeMar DeRozan has been part of the 2-headed juggernaut to carry the team in years past, but for the first time in his career (maybe the 2nd), the team has been fortified from top to bottom to be put in a position to compete at a high level consistently, especially when it matters. Yes, regular season success is great, and with 7 rounds of playoff experience, including an appearance against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016, you’d think that they’d be on the radar for the forseeable future. In the famous tone of Charlie Murphy (RIP), Wrong! Wrong!
Boston, Cleveland, and Washington have really always been the staple teams to be discussed when it comes down to ‘who can win the East and advance to the Finals.’ The Cavs; we’re witnessing (haha) their collapse and what looks to be the 2nd post-Lebron era looming. Boston has a hot-shot coach in Brad Stevens and one of the youngest and most talented rosters that oh, just happened to acquire Kyrie ‘Uncle Drew’ Irving and Gordon Hayward, to vault themselves as the ones to dethrone the King, and I mean, I get it. Boston is an esteemed franchise which has a rich history of success on its resume. Washington is only mentioned because they have star power and no one wants to say Toronto, which brings me to the Raptors. If any year they should take a look at the model for success that the Eagles ran with, it’s by embracing being the underdog. The whole city of Philadelphia, and its fans, clung to the label and it unified the locker room to the point where they were able to bring in their first NFL championship since 1960, and their first Superbowl overall.
I can be positive that everyone in the East is tired of hearing that LeBron is the be-all and end all of the conference. It’s true; in order to get to the Finals, you have to take down the King. It’s especially evident in the AFC for Tom Brady and the Patriots. You have to go through the best to be the best. Toronto has been stewing for a while. One thing about Canadians is that we’re pretty damn passive. It’s not a good thing, but it’s our thing. Don’t ask, it’s just in our engrained DNA for the most part. We’ll shout things like “Fuck Brooklyn”and “We don’t give a shit about ‘It’” in the playoffs and be bounced gracefully, but we’ll always come back with that same energy until we ourselves grow tired of being that whimpering kid asking why people don’t like us.
After being swept by the Cavs in the ’16-’17 season (completely wiped from my memory, if I’m being honest), Masai Ujiri called for a culture reset. What was working when it didn’t matter wasn’t working when it did, and that needed to change. With a retooled offence, an aggressive defence, and a selfless environment hovering over the organization, for the first time in its franchise, the Raptors actually looked poised to make a deep run that has some people thinking that June basketball is a possibility. Now, barring any major injuries, because God loves to throw those hurdles in there, anything is possible.
This year’s Philadelphia Eagles are examples of that, but it’s not about a group of players going down, it’s about the attitude of the organization as a whole and the collective will that each person has in order to assert themselves in a position to win. The Raptors have put themselves in a position not for ‘win-now,’ but for steady growth so that when they want to win, they’re doing it in a consistent fashion.
Time will tell as to how the success of this ‘culture reset’ will result, but at the beyond halfway mark of the season, the Raptors have improved in their efficiency and are winning games against good teams – contenders, I should say. They deserve to have more respect in the NBA, and for them not to have a Christmas game while having two multiple all-stars on the team in the city that just held one of the best all star weekends, that was a big slap in the face, and the top dogs of the team let the NBA know it. They’re all about to “prove ‘em,” and where the expectation is for the Raptors to falter right out of the gates in April, I think these guys from the North have other plans that stretch past the expiry date a lot of people have already plotted out. We’ll all know soon enough.
That’s My Word & It STiXX