TrueHoop: TrueToronto

Are rising Raptors here to stay?

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
10:00
AM ET
By Seerat Sohi
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozanAP Photo/The Canadian Press/Darren CalabreseThe Raptors are rolling it back after taking the East by storm last season and looking for much more.
When the NBA playoffs began last season, the city of Toronto was brimming with excitement.

The team that was supposed to sacrifice its season to the draft gods in hopes of landing Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins, the one that traded away its most expensive player in early December, reached improbable heights in 2013-14 -- a franchise-best 48 wins, a No. 3 seed and sending one player (and almost a second) to the All-Star Game for the first time since Chris Bosh left for Miami.

Now Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri was dropping F-bombs in public. Maple Leaf Square -- a sports mecca outside the Air Canada Centre -- became “Raptors Square.” Fans flocked there during away games, noticeably more energized than the home crowd. Even Kevin Garnett thought so.

In the end, the Raptors’ first postseason run since 2007-08 ended on a dour note. Kyle Lowry’s last-second floater was blocked by Paul Pierce, and the Brooklyn Nets escaped Game 7 in Toronto with a one-point win. A comeback in the waning minutes, with all the momentum of an inconceivable season behind it, would be for naught.

To feel the spoils of an entire season culminate and evaporate this way, in the singular flash of one final play, makes for a heartbreakingly tough way to go out.

Especially when that could’ve been it. That one play might have closed the books on this fun, started-from-the-bottom (I’m sorry, I really am) run. With the contracts of several key contributors up for renewal, and doubts about the lasting power of the roster they’d ridden up the diluted Eastern Conference lingering, these Raptors could have just been another thread in the franchise’s long line of first-round flameouts. That’s the kind of thing fans were used to, anyway.

Faced with the tall order of not only retaining their good players, but keeping the club on an upward trajectory, the franchise with only seven winning seasons in 19 years achieved something decidedly un-Raptor-like: It succeeded. Lowry, the team's floor general and emotional leader, re-upped for four more years. Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez, who arrived in the Gay trade, stayed, too.

This was all pretty new to Toronto basketball fans. For almost two decades they had been constantly reminded of the long list of reasons not to play there: It’s too cold. Taxes are too high. Not enough publicity. And why doesn’t League Pass work? Canada, ugh. Fans operated under the assumption that things would always have to be this way. That’s why the reaction to Lowry’s return was met with a mix of awe, relief and gratitude.

Now, as the franchise normalizes, getting familiar with operating within the trappings of a regular playoff team -- the weight of expectations, balancing high hopes with definable limitations -- it’s no coincidence that phrases such as “internal development” and “continuity” reached a high point of concentration at Raptors training camp.

“You don't have to do so much of teaching, learning new things,” DeMar DeRozan said. “You start off from last year. Everybody already understands coach [Dwane] Casey, understand his philosophy. It makes it easier. All the guys that were here last year understood what it took for us to get to the point we were last year. We gotta take that next step as well if we wanna continue to be a great team.”

None of this is to say it isn't reasonable to pick at the Raptors’ offseason approach. They are, after all, locking in on this team for the foreseeable future. But while the notion of continuity-as-progress is often just hot rhetoric used to put a spin on standing pat, it might carry some real benefits for a developing team like Toronto.

[+] EnlargeKyle Lowry
Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty ImagesUnlike other top-line talents sent north, Kyle Lowry chose to stay. Will continuity pay off for Toronto?
“The seed is there a lot quicker than it was last year," said coach Dwane Casey. "I love some of the options we have at the end of the game now. We're farther down the road, working on more intricate things. Double team schemes, things like that. We're farther ahead from a defensive standpoint. We’re farther in terms of knowledge.”

In response to Casey praising his playmaking, DeMar tipped his hat again to team chemistry. "At the end, it's just personnel, understanding my teammates. If Landry's in there, he likes to cut. I'll make a move if the double comes, I'll look for Landry on the cut. I think it helps me more just to understand my teammates.”

None of this is electrifying, nor is it certain. Schematic improvements, breakout seasons, freak injuries, inexpiable collapses, incremental improvements -- it’s all what-ifs before the first tip-off. Toronto could make good on its potential. Or maybe last season really was the high-water mark.

But just being in that position marks a cultural sea change, the beginning of a process that should long outlast this group of players. In a free-agency market featuring more player movement than ever, the Raptors -- for the first time ever -- look like an attractive destination.

Last year, Toronto overtook Chicago in population, making it the third-largest city with an NBA team (and that doesn't account for the rest of Canada). It touts one of the most energized fan bases in the league. Drake hangs out there a lot. Plus, Kevin Durant is signing with the Raptors in 2016. Seriously. Ask Drake about it.

Under the best of circumstances, the Raptors’ path from good to great still probably stops a few kilometers short of a championship. But success is a process, and improving the future requires investing in it.

“People always put a ceiling on all of us, as players. 'You only can be this good' or 'when you get this age, you only can be this good.' I don't look at nothing like that,” DeRozan said. “There's always something you can get better at, and you can take that same approach in life. There's always something out there that you can work on. I never could be great at everything, but I'm gonna work at everything to be good at it."

Having a ceiling is nothing to be cynical about. It’s just a natural byproduct of getting off the floor.

Seerat Sohi writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow her @DamianTrillard.

Kings of the north

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
10:00
AM ET
By Seerat Sohi
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Amir JohnsonDave Sandford/NBAE/Getty ImagesAfter nearly two decades of indifference, Canada is finally starting to embrace the Toronto Raptors.
There’s a Montana’s located about five minutes from my place in Edmonton. It’s a homely Sunday afternoon joint, the kind of place that usually broadcasts four different hockey games at once. Mid-March deviation from the NHL is never anything more than an empty nod to the the NCAA, so finding a booth to the tune of Raptors vs. Nets in the background was a signal I took with cautious optimism: The tide of Canada’s sports culture may be turning.

The Toronto Raptors have attempted to sweep the nation before, to varied success. Alternate road jerseys tacked with maple leafs and the moniker “Canada’s team” can take an organization only so far; certainly not the 3,000-kilometer gap between Toronto and Vancouver. It’s especially tough in Canada, where the zenith of sporting and patriotic fervor elicits images of Terry Fox, Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby’s famed Olympic goal.

Without a strong philosophy or a winning team, the Raptors have constantly lacked a force for fans to hitch their wagon to. The Vince Carter era is underscored more by his leaving Canada than it is his tenure in it. Chris Bosh didn’t think he could get NBA League Pass north of the border (he could). In their 19 years, the Raptors never eclipsed 47 wins. Since marketing themselves as Canada’s team in the 2008 offseason, they haven’t even made a playoff appearance.

Canadian NBA devotees outside of Toronto share a certain degree of passion for the Raptors but align themselves with a separate cause: LeBron vs. Durant, Boston vs. Los Angeles, Steve Nash vs. universe.

The Raptors don’t have the benefit of history. It’s easier for Lakers fans to swallow Kobe Bryant’s freshly penned albatross when viewed through a veneer of certainty, but Raptors fans have never been able to reference the team’s greatest hits album and think, “Yeah, we’ll trust you guys.” The smart money tells them to invest their emotions in a less precarious place.

The Raptors’ identity has always been “the Canadian team,” but like most forms of Canadian identity, no one really knows what that entails. But there are benefits to not having any preordained expectations to live up to.

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, one of the smartest basketball minds on the planet, has creative authority in an organization that is a blank whiteboard. On Dec. 6, with the Raptors looking at a 6-12 record after five straight losses, Ujiri traded Rudy Gay, the high-priced star wing brought in before last season’s trade deadline by the previous regime. The seven-player deal netted the Raptors Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, Chuck Hayes, John Salmons and a chunk of savings.

Since the trade, the Raptors have evolved. They’re more than just that team north of the border. Rather, one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference, outscoring opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions, sixth in the league since Dec. 8. DeMar Derozan is a candidate for most improved player, Kyle Lowry is having a career season. While Tyler Hansbrough’s tenacity appeals to the conservative hard-hat West, Toronto waxes poetic on DeRozan’s silky smooth post repertoire. Now, if only they retained Mickaël Piétrus. …

[+] EnlargeBanners
John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SportsThere isn't much good NBA history in Toronto. But these Raptors are using that to their advantage.
The Raptors’ offense is simple, yet not unlike the San Antonio Spurs', the wrinkles make it effective. It’s hard for opponents to stymie pick-and-rolls when Amir Johnson is so adept at slipping screens; or maybe it’s Patrick Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough discretely floating into open space. Vasquez delivers pick-and-roll passes like it’s pizza for Hedo Turkoglu. DeRozan has transitioned from an abysmal passer to one who’s slightly above average, taking whatever the defense throws at him in stride -- be it in the form of a 30-point barrage or a cerebral read-and-react outing. While other squads would develop complicated tactical maneuvers for the various types of coverage DeRozan is prone to seeing now, the Raptors rest their laurels on just knowing where to be. It has paid off. The Raptors’ offensive rating has gradually increased with their chemistry, peaking at 112 in April.

Toronto is bringing back the dearly missed purple dinosaur jersey as an alternate next season, marking the first time since 2006 that a Raptors uni won’t be accentuated by Canada’s red and white. The Raptors’ latest rebranding effort, featuring an advertising campaign and a #WeTheNorth hashtag, skews dramatic with its fire pits and snow-filled arenas -- the climate is hyperborean, though DrakeWeather.com can tell you it’s not that cold in April -- but it works because of the substance behind it. Finishing the regular season with a franchise record 48 wins and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Toronto is brimming with excitement to face the Brooklyn Nets in Round 1.

If a deep playoff run is really as imminent as some fans hope, the Raptors might just permanently latch onto a semblance of identity, something to get fans across the border to tune in on Game 1 of 82, not in a mid-February win streak. After all, if memories breed fandom, Raptors fans have few that aren’t accompanied by a I-missed-the-good-cable-in-America-esque sting.

Canadian sports culture will always be defined by the nation’s dispersed Hockeytowns but it’s still a heady time for hoops fans north of the border. Just ask the slew of portable basketball nets swarming driveways in suburbs all over Canada, some of them flanked by the occasional patch of ice: Nike has yet to produce the preeminent “Be Like DeMar” commercial but Canada’s basketball culture is growing with this team; by no explicit maneuver, Canada’s team.

Seerat Sohi writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow her, @DamianTrillard.

At the movies with Patrick Patterson

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
9:33
AM ET
By James Herbert
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Patrick PattersonTom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports
Patrick Patterson was walking into “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” when he learned he'd been traded for the second time of his four-year career this past December. He went in and watched it anyway.

Things have been going well for him since. Unlike some American-born NBA players, the 24-year-old power forward has enjoyed Toronto. He's also liked the change of on-court environment, from a Kings team scraping the bottom of the West to a surprising Raptors team that's still holding onto the No. 3 spot in the East. His game has improved, too -- he was shooting a career-low 41 percent from the field and 23 percent from 3 with the Kings, but has improved to 48.5 and 42.3 percent with the Raptors, respectively.

In the midst of all the change, he's still found some time to hit the local cinema. We asked him his thoughts on his latest movie-goings.

Would it be fair to call you the Roger Ebert of the NBA, with how you seem to go see pretty much every movie?

You could. I’ll take that. Every movie that comes out, I have to see. I’m a big movie fanatic. I’m a big movie guy, movie critic, movie buff, whatever you want to call it. I have to be in the movies, I have to see what’s out, I have to see what’s going on. There’s so many type of movies out there that at the end of the day, you can’t see 'em all, but you try to. And that’s what I’m trying to do right now, especially on my off- and downtime.

Are you a harsh critic?

Yeah. At times. For movies that are supposed to be like it, you know, the movie, and it’s a letdown or if you have top actors, well-known actors and they have subpar performances or the writing isn't as good as it should be when you have those type of actors in your movie, I’m gonna be a tough critic. 'Cause if you have a certain type of actors in your movie, it’s supposed to be unbelievably amazing, so you can’t let down movie fans.

Anything let you down recently?

Kevin Hart’s “Ride Along” let me down. Extremely, extremely let me down. But I can understand, just like he had won the All-Star [Celebrity Game MVP] and he absolutely didn't do anything, so that just shows his power with the social media and the fans. No matter what type of movie he puts out, people are gonna see it. But as far as “Ride Along” goes and Kevin Hart, that was a big letdown for me.

I know you saw the new “300” movie with the team. What’d you think of that one?

Wow, that movie. It’s just like the first one but a lot more blood, a lot more fighting, a lot more battle scenes. More solid visual effects and more CGI, but overall it was a great movie. I can’t decide if it was better than the first one or not, but I’d definitely put it up there close to it.

What would you give it out of 10?

Out of 10? I’d give it a solid seven out of 10.

When Kyle Lowry didn’t make the All-Star team, you tweeted he should've --

I stick up for my teammates, man.

Everybody thought he was a snub.

He was, he should've made it.

So who or what movie was the Kyle Lowry of the Oscars?

Man, I was actually surprised that “American Hustle,” I don’t think they won anything. Except for maybe costumes, maybe? Maybe costume design, it was either them or “The Great Gatsby.” Maybe “The Great Gatsby” won costumes. [Ed: “The Great Gatsby” did indeed win Best Costume Design; “American Hustle” didn't win any of the 10 categories in which it was nominated.] But there was an award that I felt like "American Hustle" should have won, or at least they should've won one.

Did you really love that movie?

It was a great movie, it was a phenomenal movie. And I'm happy that the other movies won, but I felt like “American Hustle” probably should have had two, at least. Two Oscars. That’d probably be the Kyle Lowry of the Oscars.

What’s your favorite movie in the last little while?

“12 Years a Slave.”

So you’re happy that it won Best Picture?

See, I didn't think it was gonna win. ’Cause, with all due respect, not trying to seem racist or prejudiced, it’s a movie about slavery. It’s an African-American, black movie. So I didn't think it was gonna win. I was thinking “Wolf of Wall Street” or “American Hustle” was gonna win because that can go with anybody. Anybody can feel that type of movie. I really didn't think “12 Years A Slave” had a chance, and then when they announced that it had won, I was just extremely ecstatic and happy for all those people involved in that movie.

So probably “12 Years A Slave” was a fantastic movie that I've seen recently; also “American Hustle,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” all those were phenomenal movies.

All the ones that were nominated, pretty much.

All the ones that were nominated were phenomenal movies, so the Oscars definitely picked the right ones.

James Herbert is a contributor to ESPN.com. Follow him, @outsidethenba.

Toronto's new national agenda

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
10:56
AM ET
Murphy By Blake Murphy
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
RaptorsDave Sandford/Getty ImagesThe Raptors have struggled to tap into their national identity in almost two decades in Canada.
The Toronto Raptors began their journey in the NBA in November 1995. The feelings of inferiority among the fan base were born just two and a half seasons later.

Damon Stoudamire was the first draft pick ever made by the franchise and the face of NBA basketball in Canada up to that point. But after two losing seasons with the expansion team and faced with another, the point guard demanded a trade. He wanted out.

He wouldn’t be the last.

Tracy McGrady left in 2000 in search of an opportunity to become a franchise player. Vince Carter, credited with putting the Raptors on the map during his six-year stint, famously followed. Chris Bosh never fully embraced the void left by Carter and was all too happy to ditch Toronto for Miami seven season later, burning bridges on his way out as he complained about getting the “good cable” and that “it’s all about being on TV at the end of the day.”

Those kind of remarks infuriate Canadian basketball fans. Sonny Weems also criticized the cable service. Antonio Davis worried about his children learning the metric system. And Othella Harrington, believe it or not, said the cream in the center of Vancouver’s Oreos tasted funny.
[+] EnlargeAndrew Wiggins
Sam Forencich/Getty ImagesWill Andrew Wiggins, the pride of Canada, wind up in Toronto?

Each player who has left the country had his reasons, but whatever the rationale, the takeaway was often the same: Canada isn’t a place an NBA star can be happy.

Perhaps that’s why Steve Nash’s stretch with the Phoenix Suns resonated so much with Canadian fans. While technically born in South Africa, Nash grew up here, became the player he is here. If the Raptors’ stars wouldn't embrace the country, perhaps the country could embrace one of its own.

In January 2007, the Raptors, months away from their lone division title, hosted Nash’s Suns and staged a 15-point second-half comeback. But Nash scored 13 points in the final seven minutes, sending the crowd into a frenzy with each basket. He was burying the home team at the Air Canada Centre and ruining a chance to upset one of the league’s elite teams, but the fans loved it. He wasn’t some visiting player. He was one of us.

The dream, then, became to have Nash play in Toronto -- Canada’s greatest basketball export leading what was now Canada’s only team. Canadian fans went crazy in 2012 as then-general manager Bryan Colangelo tried to lure his former point guard home as a free agent. That effort ultimately proved fruitless, but it showed a clear desire among local fans to embrace one of their own.

Jay Triano, a Canadian who served as the Raptors’ head coach from 2008-11, has seen it firsthand.

“I felt it was an honor to be in that position,” said Triano, the coach of Canada’s national team and the only Canadian-born head coach in NBA history. “I think players are happy to be in the NBA. There wouldn’t be extra pressure, but maybe extra demands on their time.”

As it stands, Jamaal Magloire is the only Canadian to have played for the Raptors, in a one-season, 34-game victory lap in 2011-12.

That could soon change. A record nine Canadian players can currently be found on NBA rosters, and it’s hardly a coincidence. Guys like Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett are a product of the first generation to grow up with basketball in this country, and the hope is that more Canadians in the league “will drive more athletes out to the playground and grow that basketball culture,” as Rowan Barrett, assistant general manager of Canada’s men’s team, put it.

When Nash won his second straight MVP award, Andrew Wiggins was 11 years old. Now the Kansas freshman is the unquestioned face of Canadian basketball, and the new homegrown product Raptors fans have chosen as their savior. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri is reportedly enamored with the idea of bringing the kid from Thornhill -- 25 minutes away from the Air Canada Centre -- to Toronto, too.

Perhaps most importantly, Wiggins seems to want to play here. When asked in July who he’d most like to be drafted by, Wiggins said: “I would like to say the Raptors. I want to play for them.”

If attracting and retaining players is difficult, building around a home-grown potential All-Star who wants to play for you is an absolute best-case scenario.

Trading Rudy Gay on Dec. 9 was viewed by fans as a sign that the Raptors were doing what they could to make that happen. The team is still too talented to tank properly, especially given how putrid the Eastern Conference is, but more moves to push them higher in the draft lottery may be coming.

“One thing I can say is we won’t be stuck in the middle, we won’t be in no-man’s land,” Ujiri said last week.

Nineteen years after the birth of the NBA in Canada, basketball’s presence in Canada probably isn’t as large as what was expected. This is unquestionably a hockey country, making the experience of a Canadian basketball fan a peculiar one. Perhaps that’s why, despite being smaller in numbers, Raptors fans are regarded as one of the most rabid and passionate groups in the league. Outcasts in their own country and afterthoughts on a league scale, they’re ready to put everything into a winning team or, failing that, a top Canadian player, as we saw with Nash.

It feels almost cruel, then, that the 2014 NBA draft is dangling a potential merger of those two interests above their heads. But given how things have gone in the first two decades of Raptors basketball, even a 25 percent chance at Wiggins is worth dreaming on.

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