Twenty years ago, the NBA broke brave new ground north of the border with its first teams outside of the continental United States. Canada had not only one, but two expansion teams to call its own: the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies.
The Raptors launched with their “Barney uniforms,” rookie Lottery pick Damon Stoudamire manned the point and the team finished with a dismal 21-61 record. But the Raps’ inaugural season had its own “shock the world” moment when the team handed Michael Jordan’s Bulls a 109-108 defeat during Chicago’s historic 72-10 campaign. The Grizzlies moved to Memphis six years later, while polite and passive Canadian fans had little to cheer about aside from individual talents like Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh. While the club had no issue developing All-Star players, there was never any real collective team success, with quality depth and balance—until now.
On December 8, 2013, a struggling 6-12 Toronto team acquired Chuck Hayes, Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons and Patrick Patterson from Sacramento in exchange for Rudy Gay, Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray. Trading your leading scorer for players trying to find a role on the hapless Kings seemed like a tank move more than anything, but the transaction sent the Raptors on a 42-22 run, ending the year with a franchise-best 48 wins and an Atlantic Division title.
Was it luck or foresight? “It’s both,” says Raptors President and General Manager Masai Ujiri. “The part that I feel is luck is when you bring that many guys, you wonder, What is the chemistry going to be like? But we studied them so much, in terms of seeing, Hey, maybe they can be here? Maybe they can emerge into this? That’s part of the scouting and background work that we’ve done to determine a good fit, and they all fit in pretty good. We’re blessed that it worked out that way.”
What didn’t work out, however, was their first-round Playoff series in 2014 against the Nets, which they lost in seven games. Despite the profanities to Brooklyn, throngs of fans outside the arena, and record TV ratings, the Raptors fell short. Eastern Conference teams made plenty of moves during the offseason. LeBron James returned to the Cavs, who then acquired Kevin Love; Chicago picked up Pau Gasol with hopes of a healthy Derrick Rose; and Washington added veteran Paul Pierce.
Meanwhile, Ujiri focused on re-signing his own free agents in Kyle Lowry, Patterson and Vasquez. “Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing,” Ujiri says. “I think right now, we tried to build consistency with the team and let our young players like Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas grow a little bit.”
That growth has elevated the Raptors to one of the top teams in the League in offense, with five players averaging double digits in scoring, two over 9 per game and two more averaging 8 points per game. At the top is Lowry, leading the team in points and assists with 20.7 and 7.6, respectively, carrying his squad while All-Star DeMar DeRozan was sidelined for 21 games with a groin injury.
Regardless of Lowry’s play, it’s clear he feels the team success is greater than his 6-foot, 205-pound frame. “Me and DeMar, we accept everybody and everybody is one. We don’t think we’re better than anyone, and we know how important every guy on this roster is,” he says, proceeding to specifically name check players who aren’t in the rotation. His humility belies the fact he will be in New York for his first All-Star game in February. “I think for our team, it’s rare to have that focus, responsibility and that effort that we all give to each other.”
Two smaller but equally important moves have been key additions to the roster: the additions of forward James Johnson and guard Lou Williams, who have both fit right in. “The chemistry is the same as last year,” DeRozan says. “The new guys that came in hopped right along and got on with the same agenda, and that’s everybody playing for one another. Nobody’s bigger than the next person on this team.”
DeRozan’s comment is more than a sincere belief. It’s not just intricate handshakes, picking teammates up off the floor, or animated bench celebrations; the team demonstrates a genuine selflessness and desire as a whole to do better, superseding individual play. Almost in the way that Canadians are stereotypically nice and polite, the effusive respect and admiration from management, coaches and players is borderline comical.
Ujiri made more out of the Gay trade, flipping Salmons to the Atlanta Hawks for Williams and rookie Lucas Nogueira last summer in a steal of a deal. The 6-2 shooting guard has had no problem fitting in, regaining his scoring touch, averaging a career-high 15.1 points per game, and emerging as a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate. “It was easy for me—I always liked to be around guys that are very aggressive about winning,” he says. “Sometimes when you get on a team, you can get around a group of guys that are passive and say whatever happens, happens. That’s not the vibe that I got from this group. This group is going to make things happen and we’re going to work to the point we will will our way to a lot of wins, and I think it shows at this point in the season.”
Although the Raptors got off to a great start—dominating the Atlantic Division and leading the East for the better part of the first trimester—many basketball fans remained unimpressed with their performance. Johnson, a defensive stopper, is unfazed, agreeing that his team plays with a chip on its shoulder. “We’re always getting knocked,” he says. “When we’re winning, we’re not good enough, we’re pretenders. When we’re losing, ‘I told you they were going to lose.’ So everybody’s going to have their opinion, which is fine. But we have our own opinion, knowing that we are going to win games and take this as far as we can.”
The “us against the world” mentality is not restricted to opponents throughout the League, as the competitive spirit resides within the team itself. The reserves have dubbed themselves the “White Squad,” adopted from the white jerseys they wear in practice, priding themselves on being the best bench in the League.
“It started off last year as competitiveness in practice as far as the first unit going against the second unit,” Patterson says, “and carried over into training camp this year with the additions of Williams, JJ, [Greg] Stiemsma and the two rookies [Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira]. Every single time we have 4-on-4, 5-on-5, whatever drill that we participate in, it’s always the White Squad chanting, ‘White Squad, White Squad!’”
“We play with a lot of competitiveness out there, and it’s an overall fun competition that we look forward to every single day when we step on the court.” Johnson adds. “At the end of the day we’re all brothers, giving nothing but competitive nature in practice. It’s good for the game, especially when we think four or five of us from the second unit can start on any other team.”
The Raptors’ biggest challenge as a team is regaining their defensive composure. Head coach Dwane Casey is regarded as a defensive guru, but Toronto is floundering in the bottom third of the League in that category.
“We have to continue to get better,” Casey says. “I think people take for granted we won some games, but we’re nowhere near a finished product, ‘cause once we start having that mindset, we’re going to get in trouble. We need to get better in a lot of areas defensively.”
They were reminded of just that on a recent west coast road trip in which the squad finished 2-3, losing three games in a row to Portland, Golden State and Phoenix—the first time Toronto has endured three consecutive losses since the Gay trade. “We would’ve liked to and we could’ve done better,” Lowry says. “We got smacked a couple of games, but most of the games we were in it. We know we could play with anybody in the League, but we know that defense is going to win games for us.”
Win or lose, the fan support will be there. In what has become a mantra, a rallying cry and a manifesto, the franchise’s slogan of “We The North” has galvanized the country from coast to coast. Standing in the shadow of hockey in Canada, and all of America in general, the team did something distinctively un-Canadian prior to last season’s Playoff run: It stood up, proud of where it was, planted its flag and unabashedly let everyone know where it resided, challenging anyone to tread on its turf.
The campaign has taken the club from Toronto’s basketball team to Canada’s basketball team. Players have embraced it, fans have embraced it—even the Prime Minister has embraced it.
When asked about his expectations for the team come April, Lowry said, “We plan to be playing as long as possible. I plan to be getting tanned a little bit in Toronto.” At last check, tanning season in Toronto begins in June. When Lowry says “we,” the belief is that the Raptors are not only a balanced team with a 15-man roster, but a squad 35 million deep.
Now, 20 years later, whether it’s a sterling record, additional ESPN coverage, All-Star selections, Player of the Month or Coach of the Month accolades, it would appear that the true North is finally getting its due.