By the time the New Jersey Nets are settled in Brooklyn and Vince Carter’s grown used to the orange color scheme employed by the Charlotte Bobcats, his seasons of wincing and whining in a Toronto Raptors uniform and all the bitterness they created will be long forgotten.
And just as the days of the lowly Phoenix Suns have given birth to potential NBA champions, the Raptors will shed the past and almost certainly emerge as what we glibly call a “contender.”
After all you don’t stop being the Toronto Raptors overnight. You can’t. You don’t forget names like Zan Tabak, Vincenzo Esposito and Acie Earl in the bat of an eyelash, and the mark of clumsiness they leave on a franchise doesn’t just wash away with a 47-win season and a first round loss in six games.
But even on the heels of a series that many will instantly forget, the Raptors are poised to become one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference, and probably sooner than most people think they can.
Two years ago, Sam Mitchell’s team put together a record of 27-45. This year, they bested that mark by 2o games, won an admittedly shoddy Atlantic Division and had the best winning percentage in the Eastern Conference after January 1st.
Mitchell may not even be back to coach the Raptors in 2007-08, but if Bryan Colangelo’s Phoenix North experiment continues to unfold as expected it shouldn’t make much of a difference.
Remember, a year before Colangelo’s Phoenix team won a franchise-best 62 games in 2005, they sputtered to a 29-53 mark with much of their current nucleus (Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudamire, Leandro Barbosa). Sure, they added Steve Nash that off-season, but if nothing else the fact that the Raptors orchestrated a turnaround of 20 games without inserting a two-time MVP into the fold is testament to the club’s strength, balance and simmering potential.
Ask a Raps fan and they’ll tell you point blank: losing to New Jersey after such an exciting season, watching Carter smirk with fists clenched in victory, all of it hurt. That “Wince” and his club may disband before Toronto ever gets another post-season shot at them is also tough to swallow, but the knowledge that the team is one with a future of astronomic possibility in NBA terms means current disappointments can be tolerated in exchange for future triumphs.
And they’re coming. It’s no coincidence that everyone from “Dr. Dunkenstein” Darryl Dawkins to 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell to commissioner David Stern himself were spotted at one of the six Raptors playoff games and the buzz around the team and organization is such that people who know basketball have already caught on.
If Chris Bosh and company can follow their breakout season with a 50-plus-win campaign, possibly under Mitchell’s rumored replacement, Suns assistant Marc Iavaroni, then most everyone else who gives a damn about basketball will be right behind them.
In the meantime, the secret’s out in Toronto and people who were always content to sum up the organization with “the Raptors suck” when Reggie Slater was the team’s most significant interior presence are now sporting Andrea Bargnani jerseys and claiming lifelong fan status.
The good news for them is that it could be a few years before their bandwagon jumping is exposed, because Reggie Slater’s don’t exist anymore in Toronto’s basketball universe.
Now it’s a young, deep and extremely talented core of players that for the most part have played just one year together since Colangelo imported seven new players prior to this season. Among them: T.J. Ford, Anthony Parker, Andrea Bargnani, Jorge Garbajosa and Juan Dixon.
Add them to the approaching prime of all-star Chris Bosh, the astounding play of back-up point guard Jose Calderon and the fact that everything Colangelo touches seems to turn to gold and you’ve got a few good reasons why a cohesive Raptors unit will be a tough one to break down.
Consider this: Colangelo successfully unloaded Rafael Araujo for Kris Humphries. For anyone that pays close attention, that’s enough said right there.
And for anyone not paying attention, don’t worry. Pretty soon the Raptors emergence will be obvious even to you.
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