Something is wrong with the Toronto Raptors.
To the most casual of NBA observers, this statement is fairly obvious. Their inability to win consistently can be attributed to any number of their current deficiencies.
The failures of the 2008-09 season, however, are based upon something far more complex and deep-rooted than simple lack of talent, effort, or effective coaching.
To date, the Raptors have claimed victory in only one playoff series. A series won seven seasons ago. At 33-49, the Raptors have just posted their ninth season below the .500 mark. Moreover, fans are now being confronted with an even more disturbing dilemma; the tenuous state of Chris Bosh’s future in Toronto.
To be clear, this article will not argue whether or not Chris Bosh will leave before or after his contract expires in 2010. Rather, Bosh’s situation serves as a mere microcosm to a greater force that seems to be working against the Toronto Raptors organization; the city of Toronto.
The main problem that led me to this conclusion was a simple stat—the Toronto Raptors can’t keep anyone on their team for more than five consecutive years.
The next logical question has to be: Why is this happening?
To clarify, the claim that no player has played in Toronto for five or more successive seasons is not entirely accurate. Since the franchise’s inception, the Raptors have had an underwhelming five players who have played five or more consecutive seasons in Toronto: Alvin Williams (nine), Morris Peterson (seven), Vince Carter (six), Doug Christie (five), and most recently, Chris Bosh (six). Of those five players, only one is currently in Toronto.
The Raptors were able to squeeze six seasons out of Vince Carter, at one point enjoying three straight playoff appearances and their sole playoff victory. In the end, his superhuman potential and star qualities were overshadowed by his melancholy attitude and a string of questionable injuries.
Then there is the alarming laundry list of disgruntled stars, who prematurely departed on the quickest train heading south of the border. Toronto lost Marcus Camby after two seasons, Tracy McGrady after three, and by now, most people have forgotten that Chauncey Billups spent but a single season with the Raptors.
Toronto’s first draft pick and ‘Rookie of the Year’ winner Damon Stoudamire stayed for the duration of his rookie contract but left at the first opportunity having logged just three seasons of play.
With this kind of track record, Toronto cannot expect any kind of tangible, consistent success.
Consider for a moment, the San Antonio Spurs. With eleven straight trips to the postseason, four of which resulted in NBA championships, the Spurs are the measuring stick for both consistency and success.
During the 1990s, the Spurs roster consisted of several key figures who had been in San Antonio for an extended period of time. Most notably, David Robinson, who would end up playing thirteen consecutive years, Vinny Del Negro, who played eight, and Sean Elliott, who contributed eleven (he spent a year with Detroit in 1993). Avery Johnson managed to play six seasons in a row, with Malik Rose adding seven of his own.
The Spurs current roster reflects more of the same kind of stability, with franchise player Tim Duncan logging eleven successive years, Bruce Bowen with eight, Tony Parker with seven and Manu Ginobli with six.
San Antonio has been able to secure the key components to their franchise and in doing so, have enjoyed unbelievable success.
Why then, can the Raptors not do the same?
The most glaring answer might be that most athletes enjoy winning and tend to be keen on staying in places where they have the opportunity to do so. But the Raptors have won a respectable amount of games and even an Atlantic Division title in 2007-08. Their problem has been winning on a regular basis; something no team could muster the ability to do with the kind of losses that the Raptors have endured.
A desire to win on a regular basis was not a convincing enough argument for me, particularly because the Raptors lost so many stars so early. The chance for success should have seemed imminent and yet players abandoned ship at their first opportunity.
This led me to consider the New York Knicks.
The 21st century has not been kind to the Knicks. The squad began to slide in 2000-01, despite boasting a very stable roster. Between the years 2000 and 2005, the Knicks managed to make it to the playoffs only twice; both were first-round exits.
During this five-year period of mediocrity, the Knicks were able to keep the important pieces of their franchise together. Allan Houston played for each of the five seasons, as did Charlie Ward and Kurt Thomas. In addition to this, Latrell Sprewell and Othella Harrington each chipped in four consecutive efforts.
What does this suggest?
First, consistency does not ensure success. You need to keep enough of the ‘right’ talent in order to win at this level.
More importantly, however, I argue that it suggests that people were more likely to stick around in New York, even if it meant losing. Teams that lose on a regular basis will ultimately be rebuilt and players will eventually want out but I think it’s quite clear that a place like New York is on a longer leash than Toronto.
Unfortunately, I do not have access to any of the Raptor players, past or present. I would love to have the opportunity to have a candid conversation with Tracy, Marcus or Vince and ask them how much playing in the city of Toronto figured in their decision to leave. It is, after all, thousands of miles away from any place that most NBA players call home.
It cannot be said that location is the only reason why the Raptors have not secured the pillars of their franchise. That being said, I believe being in Canada has been a very costly disadvantage, ultimately hamstringing the organization's ability to secure their stars and compete for an NBA title.