1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, Basketball, Sports

The Raptors Super Team that Never Was

Every so often I think about a Raptors team that could have existed in an alternate history of the Raptors, in which they potentially contend for a championship in the early aughts with players they acquired through the draft and trades, but whom they traded away over the course of what now looks like a very short-sighted period in franchise history.

Consider this starting line-up:

  • PG: future Finals MVP and likely future Hall of Famer, Chauncey Billups, a Raptor from February 18, 1998 to January 21, 1999
  • SG: Hall of Famer Vince Carter, a Raptor from June 24, 1998 to December 17, 2004
  • SF: Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady, a Raptor from June 25, 1997 to August 3, 2000
  • PF: ???
  • C: future DPOY Marcus Camby, a Raptor from June 26, 1996 to June 25, 1998.

Those players were all on the same team for 1 day in June 1998.

  • Camby was 24 when he was traded
  • Billups was 22 when he was traded
  • McGrady was 21 (which helps explain the trade demand)
  • Carter was 27.

Starting with Camby, the Raptors traded away every single one of those players over the next six and a half years. In two cases they didn’t have a choice, but in the other two they did. And, had they made different decisions, maybe the Raptors have a different history.

If you add Antonio Davis to that lineup, isn’t this team going to contend? (I understand the Raptors acquired Davis for a pick that came in the Billups deal. We’re speaking theoretically.)

If someone had the innovative idea to play 21st century basketball, Doug Christie (also on this team at the time) could start with Carter or T-Mac moving up. (I understand that both allowing zone and removing hand-checking was necessary for this change.)

But if the Raptors could just find decent PF, I put it to you that this starting line-up could have contended in a few years in an eastern conference that sent the following teams to the finals, to mostly get their asses kicked:

  • the 1999, 27-23 New York Knicks (4th in their division)
  • the 2000 Pacers (6th in SRS and Net Rating)
  • the 2001 Sixers (7th in SRS, 4th in Net Rating)
  • the 2002 Nets (5th in SRS and Net Rating)
  • the 2003 Nets (4th in SRS and Net Rating)
  • the 2004 Pistons, who were excellent defensively but in the bottom third in offense
  • the 2005 Pistons (6th in SRS and Net Rating).

I think this starting lineup could contend in that world. (Notably because three of those teams heavily relied on players in this lineup!)

I understand the maturity concerns at the time but that’s why you have to coach players and give them time to grow. Would this starting lineup actually contended in the east in, say, 2003? I have no idea, but they would have been better than the actual 2003 Raptors.

They traded Camby the day after they traded for Carter. Camby was 24 and the Raptors believed the team they would be building around McGrady and Carter needed veteran leadership. So they traded Camby to the Knicks for Sean Marks (yes, the Nets’ GM) and the 34-and-a-half Charles Oakley.

During the next, lockout-shorted season, a so-so Knicks team went on a playoff run. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Ewing went down and Camby’s role grew. By Win Shares and VORP, he was the Knicks’ most important player in their run. Over the rest of his career, Camby would be 1st Team All Defense twice and 2nd Team twice. In 2007 he was DPOY. He led the league in Blocks three times, which is tied for the 5th most all time, and he led the league in BPG four times which is tied for the most ever with Kareem and Mark Eaton. He also led the league in Defensive Rating only a few seasons after he left the Raptors. I think people who started following the Raptors after Vince got good, or when they won their first division, or once Lowry or Leonard arrived just don’t know how bad this trade was.

The next player they got rid of was the 22-year-old Billups, who lost his spot in the lineup and so seemed like he was expendable. Obviously it took Billups a long time to find the right spot for him but, once he did, he became part of a legendary Pistons team that made six straight Eastern Conference Finals and back-to-back Finals. Obviously he won the Finals MVP, but he also made NBA 3rd Team three times, 2nd Team All Defense twice, and finished 5th in MVP voting in 2006. The Billups trade is a win for the franchise only because the team he was traded to gave up on him.

Whatever feelings you have about Carter and McGrady defensively, this lineup would have had two of the best defenders at their positions of the aughts, one of whom was also, briefly, one of the best 3-point shooters in the league.

The McGrady trade might have happened regardless. He has expressed regret since but it’s arguable this situation couldn’t have been resolved, given his age. However, if the front office could have only known what would happen with McGrady on the Magic, I think they might have tried harder to figure out how to keep him. Instead, they go one 1st rounder, which the managed to trade away within less than a year.

By some metrics, his 2002-03 season is one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history, and led the league in PER, Offensive Win Shares, BPM and VORP. He finished 4th in MVP voting in back-to-back seasons, and he made two 1st Team All NBAs, three 2nd Teams and two 3rd Teams. At his peak, he was far better than Carter (though Carter’s cultural impact is greater). He also basically invented efficient guard basketball of focusing on layups and threes, though he was mocked for it at the time. And injuries only really started to derail his career in 2005-06 (when Billups and Camby were peaking).

Lastly, Doug Christie would not have started for this team once Billups figured stuff out. But Christie, who the Raptors traded shortly after McGrady, made three 2nd Teams All Defense and one 1st Team. He led the league in Steals once, as well.

A better coach and a non-minus at the PF position, with Christie as a 6th man, and a decent bench and this team is in contention, I think. And every so often, I remember that and get a little sad, even with the championship.

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