So my television went through a hot tub time machine yesterday afternoon, all the way to the year 1999. Ok, so in actuality I just tuned into Raptors TV on my day off from work and they were showing a retro game from 1999 featuring the Toronto Raptors against the Los Angeles Lakers. Although I actually remembered this particular game and the end result I couldn’t bring myself to turn the game off. The Raptors were in Los Angeles playing a prime Shaq Diesel, Rick Fox, Brian Shaw, Glen Rice as well as youngster Derek Fisher, among others. Kobe Bryant wasn’t dressed for the game, but he and his afro did make a few cameo appearances during timeouts.
Watching an absolutely lethal Vince Carter operate with a youthful and reckless abandon was of course painful to watch. To make matters worse Carter even toughed out a fairly hard foul from none other than Shaq and after heading to the dressing room for some repairs Carter actually made it back onto the floor and amazingly played even harder. Tracy McGrady was getting some playing time off the bench and showing all of the early signs that a star was looming underneath that long and scrawny body, he made a few dazzling plays.
But this isn’t another if we could’ve only kept Marcus Camby, Chris Bosh, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Damon Stoudemire/Chauncey Billups (what, you were expecting Kenny Anderson?) though seriously, to say Toronto hasn’t been a talent magnet would be a lie. The thing I wanted to discuss was something that was so visibly evident while watching and clearly missing from today’s version of the Toronto Raptors – toughness.
The Raptors were not pushovers for one second of the game, not even the huge frame of Shaquille O’Neal could push around or intimidate a Raptor without some form of retribution. No, Colton Orr didn’t jump onto the court and pound somebody into oblivion but when Vince Carter was hammered by Shaq and sent to the floor, there was somebody else in his ear after it occurred – his name was Charles Oakley.
Outside of the hard foul on Carter, Shaq was relatively “well behaved” and while watching the game it was refreshing to see a level of compete, a level of disdain for our opponents and a measure of grit and toughness that I have honestly not seen from the Raptors in years. Our toughest player last season (in terms of action shown) was Jay Triano – need I say more? When I heard we were on the brink of adding (supposedly) Tyson Chandler and Matt Barnes I was excited more for the intangibles, edge and toughness they would hopefully bring to the team. In our best years the Raptors were a collection of veteran defensive minded big men who played with an edge (in 1999 led by Butch Carter) with solid wing play (Carter and McGrady) and strong overall athleticism.
Our roster against the Lakers in 1999 featured tough, strong and fierce competitors in Antonio Davis, Kevin Willis, Charles Oakley, Doug Christie, Alvin Williams and Dee Brown. Needless to say we weren’t pushed around and Vince Carter’s defence didn’t look so porous when he was being helped by the rugged Davis, Oakley and Willis. Our bench even included the little general Muggsy Bogues and the sharp shooter Dell Curry.
Fast forward to the 2010/2011 Toronto Raptors and the level of compete and intensity is cranked down about 100 km/h (or for Bosh, 60 mph) when compared to that 1999 team. A part of me thinks the game has changed and the league no longer values the intangibles that an Oakley, Davis and Willis could bring. Look around the league and try to name a player or two that are even comparable to the above mentioned trio of big men. Outside of Reggie Evans, the Raptors roster is certainly void, and around the NBA the names aren’t exactly abundantly clear – maybe Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Andrew Bogut, Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, Matt Barnes or Kenyon Martin?
But if there was one area where I think we can all agree we need to address, and address it now, is our team toughness. Colangelo obviously agrees as he was almost successful in retooling the roster by adding the aforementioned Tyson Chandler and Matt Barnes. It would’ve almost been like adding Antonio Davis and Doug Christie all over again, and it would’ve been well received, Barnes would have assuredly become a huge fan favourite in Toronto given his blue collar style of play. No offence to Reggie Evans (and maybe he comes into camp in shape this year) but a guy playing a tough, hardnosed style for 8-10 minutes a night just isn’t enough for this current roster.
Andrea Bargnani, Amir Johnson, Sonny Weems, Demar Derozan and Ed Davis should be forced to watch these old ballgames and almost be mandated to incorporate some of the edge and toughness shown from that group into their own games. I watched Demar Derozan in the summer league a few weeks back and he looks noticeably bigger and stronger, his handle still needs work but he was being very aggressive at both ends of the floor. I am not saying he will ever develop into this type of player, but he honestly reminded me a lot of a young Tracy McGrady with his raw athleticism and lean frame – this was also reaffirmed slightly after watching the retro 1999 game versus the Lakers.
It’s hard to question Bryan Colangelo’s insistence on turning the Raptors into a more European centric model, as the best American born players simply do not want to commit their prime playing years to the city of Toronto, do I need to go into examples? Even role players or aging veterans weren’t exactly lining up to come here as we had to bribe Antonio Davis, Charles Oakley was on the last legs of his career and Kevin Willis was running out of options elsewhere. But for the Raptors to truly start competing on the highest level again in the future we will have to look to our past and regain an element that has been lacking for far too many years whether of the European or American variety – balls.