Christmas, otherwise known as the day on which we get to watch five NBA games through the haze of all-day alcohol consumption and over-eating, is a day so glorious it deserves its own themed content.
The Raptors don’t play on Christmas Day — a thing that some delusional fans will tell you is a bad thing, when it is in fact ideal — but that doesn’t mean they should be excluded from the annual tradition of counting down to the big day throughout the month of December. All month, we’re counting down the days before Christmas. Except instead of using low-grade chocolate to mark the days, we’ll use a joyful Raptors-related stat or fact nugget associated with the corresponding day. If this sounds silly, that’s because it probably will be. But it’ll also be festive, merry and celebratory of all the things that make the Raptors as enjoyable as a plump Christmas goose.
This is the Raptors Advent Calendar. If you’ve caught up on the first eight days, check out Days 16 through 9 right here.
Seventeen games. That’s just over one-fifth of an NBA season. It’s a large enough sample to start drawing conclusions from. It’s also the number of games the Raptors lost from November 6th to December 9th 1997 to make up the franchise’s worst ever losing streak. By sheer force of weirdness, even the crappiest team should stumble into a win in any given 17-game stretch. Being so inept as to have a losing streak approach adulthood is to reach an elite level of awfulness.
Since the ABA-NBA merger before the 1976/77 season, just 24 teams have had a losing skid of 17 or more games. Since that year, 1,139 single seasons have been played by NBA teams, meaning the 1997/98 Raptors are in the top 0.02 percentile of being completely ass in league history. (The Clippers have four 17+ game losing skids, Philly has three, and somehow Vancouver made the list two times in just six seasons).
As far as month-long swoons go, the Raptors’ was relatively defensible. It was just year 3 of the Toronto basketball experiment, and the team had yet to amass much in the way of talent. While the average margin of defeat on the streak was 11.9 points — about the same point differential of this year’s Bulls — they also had a bunch of coin flips go against them. From November 22-30, they lost games by four, one, five (in double OT), two and six points. That’s a Thunder-like run of bad crunch time luck.
John Wallace led the team with 18.1 points a night during the streak — all while not attempting a single three-pointer from the small forward position. Damon Stoudamire posted averages of 17.7 / 3.8 / 8.4 over those 17 games, but dragged the team down with a horrendous -13.1 NET Rating over that span. If not for the heroics of Popeye Jones, the streak could have plummeted to an even deeper abyss — he posted a team-best -2.6 NET Rating in 11 games during the streak, averaging 25.7 minutes of action. Oliver Miller’s -8.8 in six games was the next “best” mark on the roster.
December 10th brought the end of the streak, making this coming Sunday a morose anniversary of sorts. Squaring off against a 5-12 Sixers team in Philly, Stoudamire tried his darnedest to prolong the slide to 18 games, shooting 3-of-15 on the night for just 10 points. In fairness, Might Mouse did rack up 14 assists, many of which, one can assume, went to Walt Williams. Surpassing the Raptors-career outputs of either Williams acquired for Vince Carter eight years later, Walt turned in what has to be one of the best single-game performances by a Raptor ever: 39 points, six rebounds, three assists and a block on 11-of-18 shooting, 6-of-8 from three point range. It ranks 42nd among all single Raptors performances in Basketball Referecne’s game score metric, but considering the circumstances, you’d be excused if you wanted to vault it into the top-25.
So, happy Walt Williams Shitkicking the Sixers to End a 17-game Losing Streak-versary on Sunday, I guess. Thankfully the Raptors are no in danger of needing such a momentous performance any time soon.
NBA Internet folks would have loved themselves some Raptors-era Anthony Parker. During his three year stint in T.O. upon returning from over a half decade abroad, Parker staked a claim as quite possibly the third-best shooting guard in team history behind Vince Carter and DeMar DeRozan. Sad as that might seem, Parker was legit. Over three seasons with the Raptors, Parker averaged 11.9 points, 4.0 boards and 2.6 assists while shooting a before-his-time 40 percent from deep on three attempts a game.
In 2006/07 he had TJ Ford and José Calderon to contend with, but there’s a real argument to be made that Parker was the second-best player on one of the five-best teams in franchise history (see article #23). That year — his first in the NBA since 1999/2000 – Parker shot 44 percent from outside, led the team with a 59.6 True Shooting percentage, finished third in scoring (12.4 PPG) with a chintzy 15.8 usage rate, and ran away with the team’s plus/minus title. If he was at his peak today, there would absolutely be a “Parker is actually better than DeRozan” take living on the internet. It would be wrong, just like that Khris Middleton over DeMar thing is, but it would exist; Parker would be NBA Twitter spank bank fuel.
Evidently, the appreciation of Parker goes beyond North America. In doing some cursory research for this post, it’s come to my attention that Parker is the all-time leader in grainy highlight videos set to hokey ass songs, usually about flying and/or having wings. One can only assume these musical samples were chosen unironically.
Exhibit A – Fuck R. Kelly, by the way.
Exhibit B – Another song about flying.
Exhibit C – Chris Cornell should rest easy knowing his song about individuality has been used to memorialize Parker, a player with an utterly unique NBA career path.
Exhibit D – It’s Celine! And it’s another banger about wings and flying!
Exhibit E – You didn’t think there wasn’t one of these for his Toronto days, did you? Shouts to JT.
I don’t really have anything to add. This is one of the most fulfilling and strange YouTube rabbit holes I’ve ever gone down. Anthony Parker was great. The song choices for his highlight videos are better. Parker wore #18, FYI.
Perhaps noh the team’s plus/minus title, led number encapsulates everything that was wrong with the Raptors’s offense from 2015-2017 than 19. Despite much of the league embracing a pacier, spacier, more free flowing style of play, Toronto stubbornly stagnated, averaging just 19 assists per game over the two seasons preceding this year’s offensive overhaul. Actually, it was just 18.5 in 2016-17 and 18.7 the year before that — forgive me for rounding up for thematic purposes. In their 56-win year, 18.7 nightly dimes was good for 29th in the league, beating out only the LA Kobes; and in winning 51 games last season, Toronto finished dead last in assists, more than a full assist per game behind the 29th-place Suns.
It’s a simple counting stat, but the Raptors’ aversion to assists was the most pronounced symptom of what ailed the team’s offense when it mattered most. Culprits were all around. Dwane Casey and his staff installed a pick-and-roll heavy system engineered to get DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry buckets above all else. You can picture it now — a Raptors big comes to set a screen, DeMar uses it to get into his office 10 feet from the rim, or Kyle uses it as a launch pad for a pull-up three or drive to the rim; all the while a collection of unreliable role guys stands and watches. It was an offense tailored towards the two guards, largely because the two guards the only guys who could be trusted to not heave up an ill-advise floater on a clunky drive. By the time the playoffs wrapped, Toronto’s stars were openly commiserating over the lack of dependability surrounding them. On the flip side, maybe the onus should have been on Casey, Kyle and DeMar to incorporate their underlings in January so they’d be groomed to not suck come May. This chicken or egg argument would prove to be the shittiest part of the Raptors off-season, at least in internet circles.
Those concerns seems so distant now. Through 22 games, this year’s revamped Raptors are passing the ball like it’s a dutchie going to the left hand side. Just five times this year have the Raptors failed to reach that magic number of 19 — last season’s mode total — in the assist column. After eclipsing 25 assists just nine times a year ago, they’ve done it 11 times in the last month and a half. It’s fucked up, really. With last night’s 30-assist outing against the Suns, the Raptors now have three games in 2017-18 that would have been season-best ball-moving performances.
The reasons are many. DeRozan and Lowry are willingly deferring — Kyle’s at a three-year high for assist percentage, and is racking up the most dimes per-36 he has since 2012-13, when he had yet to take up his position residing Over Everything. DeMar’s play making numbers (5.1 assists per-36, 22.9 AST%) are dwarfing his previous career-bests. And who could blame them for passing more?! Jakob Poeltl’s scoring every time he receives a pass on the roll, CJ Miles is treating this season as his own personal three-point contest, and OG Anunoby’s drives are already more refined than anything Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll or even PJ Tucker ever cobbled together. Casey’s loosened the shackles, and his team has made quick work of the adjustment process.
Regression will probably (maybe?) set in at some point, and the early season strides will ultimately mean nothing if Toronto’s offense pulls a hammy and comes up lame in the post-season. But at the very least, one thing is clear through 22 games: these Raptors refuse to have their story told by the number 19.
Contrary to what teams like the Wizards might lead you to believe, draft picks in the 20s are important. Hitting on picks in the bottom third of the first round isn’t just a luxury that lucky teams stumble into. Under an increasingly suffocating salary cap, finding guys who can play after 9pm on Draft night is essential to healthy roster building. Fail to pick up young and cheap rotation players, and you just may go the way of the Grizzlies or Clippers or Wizards. Star talent is what makes a team good, but you wouldn’t construct a tower in which all the weight is concentrated at the top — that’s how teams … and probably construction workers … die.
Masai Ujiri has a firmer understanding of the value of picks in the 20s than most. And in this season of Raptors rejuvenation, his pick-hugging is paying off in a big way. Since starting off his Raptors tenure by selecting Bruno Caboclo with pick no. 20 in 2014, Ujiri has amassed quite possibly the most impressive collection of 20-or-later picks in the NBA in Delon Wright (20 – 2015), OG Anunoby (23 – 2017) and Pascal Siakam (27 – 2016). We could go further and shout out Masai out for taking Jakob Poeltl and Norman Powell as well, but that would A) run counter to the theme I’m aiming for here and B) be unfair to the rest of the GMs who draft in a similar range as Masai each year.
Compare the Raptors’ recent drafts to the three clubs mentioned off the top, Memphis, LA and Washington. Like the Raptors, all three are (or were) built around a pair of stars slightly below the league’s super-elite tier (you could argue Chris Paul was a top-7 guy at some point during his Clippers run, but then you’d be stepping on my point). All three have either been hurt or completely mutinied by their lack of depth at some point or another in the post-season. Here’s who those teams have picked in the first-round since 2014:
Memphis – Jordan Adams (22 – 2014), Jarell Martin (25 – 2015), Wade Baldwin (17 – 2016)
Washington – Jerian Grant (19) [traded for Kelly Oubre Jr.]
Clippers – CJ Wilcox (28 – 2014), Brice Johnson (25 – 2016)
OK, so fine, the Wizards picking Grant then trading him and two second-round picks for Kelly Oubre Jr. ended up working out. But if you’re wondering why the Wizards have been forced to pay dudes like Ian Mahinmi, Jody Meeks and Tim Frazier to fill out the roster, the answer lies in the fact that Grant/Oubre is the only first-rounder Washington hasn’t pissed away on short-sighted moves in the last four years.
With the Clippers, you can even go a year back to their 2013 selection of Reggie Bullock (25) to further flesh out Doc Rivers’ track record of drafting like butt. Did ill-timed injuries play more of a part than a shitty bench did in the eventual demise of the Paul-era Clippers? Probably. But could they have pushed through in say, 2015, had their bench not consisted of Jamal Crawford, Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis and Spencer Hawes? If only LA hadn’t traded those 2011 and 2012 first-rounders … or that 2019 one they shipped out for Jeff Green.
Memphis, quite frankly, is boned whenever Marc Gasol and Mike Conley cease their combined goodness. That Martin — he of the 7.7 PER this year — has started 12 times for the Grizz this season isn’t a badge of honour for the front office. He’s one of those guys stuck in between NBA and G-League level; he just happens to be the only non-disaster Memphis has taken in the first round in years.
All this 20s drafting plight should enforce the appreciation Raptors fans surely have for Ujiri and his front office. For moments over the last couple seasons, it’s been tempting to want to cash in some youth for reliable veteran depth. But with patience has come wonderful results. Toronto’s not out here drafting Josh Who Dis? or RJ Hunter or Kevon Looney with its precious sub-lottery picks. In Wright, Siakam, Anunoby and the rest of their picks, the Raptors have assembled one of the deepest and upside-laden middle thirds of a roster in the league.
Now, if only the original no. 20 pick could slide his way in. What an unexpected present that would be.
As we can see with the Raptors on December 4th, 21 games is about enough of a sample to get an accurate gauge on a team. At the quarter poll, these Raptors are deep, committed to altering their offensive principles, and still very much powered by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Each season has its ebbs, but for the most part, this is the team we should expect to see for the next few months.
Individual players need far more time in the oven in order to be probably measured. The portrait you draw after 21 games will — in most cases — differ entirely from the one you’d whip together a year or five later. Of the three Raptors to have played exactly 21 games with the club, this assertion holds true. OG Anunoby won’t be stuck on 21 for long (like.. 20 more hours), but it’s clear that he’s only scratching the surface of an immense store of potential. It may take him 10 times the number of games he’s played to know exactly how high OG will ascend. Julyan Stone … well … that’s why I said “in most cases.” His 21 games were more than enough to peg him as the fringe player he was and is. Number three on the Raptors list of 21-gamers, though … well, damn — wouldn’t it have been nice to get a longer look.
Nando de Colo, the spoils of the highly notable Austin Daye trade, is a guy whose NBA career is a whimsical what-if. It’s easy to forget that the 30-year-old French guard was a teensy part of the Raptors’ 2013/14 revival. Wanna guess how many times de Colo broke double figures that year? I’ll give you a second.
Uhhhh … two … apparently? The best of which being a 12-point, 4-assist outing against the Knicks on April 16th, 2014. He even played a scoreless 3:47 in Game 1 against the Nets that April — a stretch that stand as his final minutes in the NBA … for now.
de Colo’s decision to split for Europe was ultimately a smart one on his part. With the Raptors he was buried underneath Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez (although maybe he shouldn’t have been behind the latter). By sticking with Toronto, he would have forfeited one of the most overstuffed trophy cases in EuroLeague history — a collection that features a EuroLeague title, a Final Four MVP, an MVP, two All-Euro First Teams, a Second Team and a scoring title, all in just three seasons.
The dude cooks. So much that it almost makes you wonder what type of role de Colo might have eked out had he stuck around for the Raptors’ golden age. Could he have taken over for Vasquez and rendered the Cory Joseph signing unnecessary? Or would Nando have remained over-matched by NBA physicality, winding up as nothing more than a Vasquez clone? With just 21 games of tape, there’s no real way of knowing.
Believe it or not, de Colo is still property of the Raptors — at least in NBA CBA terms. He’s currently a Raptors RFA — meaning they can’t trade him or anything, but can match any offer some other team may toss his way one day in the future. Unless that team goes bonkers, Toronto could probably hang on to him pretty easily in this intensely hypothetical scenario. de Colo’s contract with CSKA Moscow runs through 2019. Could de Colo return to the NBA as a 33-year-old in-house replacement for Lowry once his deal expires? Let’s mark that one down as: probably. Because why not fill the shoes of the best point guard in the league with the best point guard in another league?
Not gonna lie. I’ve lost my train of thought with this one. Just consider today’s entry a lengthy reminder that Nando de Colo does in fact exist, and could conceivably add to his 21 games played with the Raptors some day, assuming the Earth hasn’t been scorched by the time his deal in Russia is up.
Rudy Gay most definitely isn’t the most popular Raptor to have ever worn the number 22 — that honour goes to Alvin Williams in 1998 — but he’s indisputably the most important. His acquisition during the 2012/13 season remains one of the most desperate attempts by a GM to save his job in recent NBA history. Bryan Colangelo must have known it was never going to work. Gay and DeMar DeRozan were virtually identical players at the time. And it’s not like their combined talent was overwhelming enough to cancel out the awkwardness of their fit; at the time, both guys were known more for being actively not good than anything else. BC pulled the trigger anyway, all but handing the keys to his office to Masai Ujiri in the process.
In 51 games as Toronto’s no. 22, a miscast Gay averaged a terribly inefficient 19.5 points a game. Who knew a 49.7 True Shooting percentage was even possible for a team’s first option? Gay, a noted offense-first player, was worth -0.5 offensive win shares in his time with the club — a full 2.9 fewer win shares than he chipped in on the defensive end per Basketball Reference. Don’t worry, I thought it was a typo too.
In its own way, though, the brief Gay era was an experience that should be cherished by Raptors fans to this day. It was like a gift that leads to inevitably cooler gifts down the road; you don’t get Bop It! X-Treme without mastering its simplistic brother first. We all know the good the trade of Gay to Sacramento brought to Toronto. Patrick Patterson was a key cog for years; Greivis Vasquez became Norman Powell and OG Anunoby; John Salmons fetched a year of Lou Williams and the treasure that is Lucas Nogueira media availability sessions; Chuck Hayes was the father you wish you had; the Raptors stopped sucking at long last. Lost in the bounty of good tidings Gay’s exit brought, though, is the fact that his time with the Raptors wasn’t universally bad.
A 24-27 record in a vacuum is quite ass. It’s the stuff of 14th-overall picks. But for the Raptors to rack up a .471 winning percentage with Gay was to improve on their winning percentage in the post-Bosh era by 15.2 percentage points. The team’s 18-15 stretch following the trade — a span that featured two five-game win streaks, represented the best basketball produced by the franchise since the upstart 2006/07 season. Going 6-12 to start the next season may have proven everyone’s suspicions about the Lowry/DeRozan/Gay core true, but Gay undeniably brought a buzz with him that left the day Bosh went to Miami.
On a personal note, I had fallen out of touch with the Raptors during the Linas Kleiza days. I was in university, none of my friends cared about basketball, and the Raptors didn’t do a damn to convince me to keep them in my sports rotation. It wasn’t until the Raptors traded for Gay — who I knew to be flawed but also still had affection for as one of the guys I’d wished the Raptors had taken instead of Andrea Bargnani — that I was roped back in. I remember watching the Raptors beat the George/Hibbert/West Pacers in overtime in Gay’s second game and wanting to buy back in so freaking hard (Gay’s 9-of-25 shooting line was far less offensive to me then than it would be today). Of course my attention was already beginning to wane again in the lead-up to the December 8th, 2014 trade that cemented my support for good. Without Gay, though, the team never would have had it at all. My fandom can’t be the only one that followed this route during this time period.
And hey, if I was the lone dumbass who thought Gay might actually bring the Raptors back to respectability, then at the very least you have this website and the podcast as a result of my reignited fandom. See, Rudy did provide something good.
The 2017-18 season represents the Raptors’ 23rd year of existence. With their recent run of playoff appearances and general non-shittiness, Toronto is inching closer to being more good than bad over the course of its run. They’ll almost certainly make the playoffs this April, an accomplishment that will move the Raptors into double-digits in terms of post-season’s played. Going 10-of-23 is far less bleak than the 5-of-18 mark the franchise held before the Rudy Gay trade changed everything. Still, there’s a ways to go before the Raptors’ franchise index on Basketball Reference doesn’t incite post-traumatic, Mike James-addled flashbacks. Despite averaging 50 wins over the last four years, the Raptors are still 179 games under .500 as a team as of December 2nd (799-978). Without an understanding of where you’ve been, it’s substantially harder to appreciate the present. With that in mind, here’s a quick-fire ranking of each of the Raptors’ 23 seasons from best-to-Alonzo Mourning.
#1 – 2015/16: Pretty easy. 56 wins. Kyle Lowry makes All-NBA Third Team. They win a seven-game series for the first time ever, then win another. Conference Finals, two home wins over LeBron. That year ruled. #2 – 2013/14: The Renaissance. Everything is unexpected and fun. Terrence Ross scores 51 points in a game. Screw Paul Pierce. #3 – 2000/01: Peak Vince. Antonio Davis named an All-Star. Deepest playoff run for the franchise to that point. The climax before the prolonged decay into misery. #4 – 2016/17: DeMar DeRozan earns All-NBA Third-Team. Lowry’s best season before he got hurt. Deadline trades! A playoff series win in under seven-games. Lowry and Serge re-sign. #5 – 2006/07: A return to the playoffs. Chris Bosh becomes Chris Bosh. All the weird Euro dudes end up being pretty good. Sam Mitchell even wins Coach of the Year! #6 – 1999/00: The first taste of not sucking. Vince literally dunked his arm. #7 – 2001/02: A late-season, Vince-less win streak gets them into the playoffs. The last taste of relevance for almost half a decade. #8 – 2007/08: It starts to get sad from here on out. A nondescript 41-41 record. A first-round loss to Orlando that no one remembers. #9 – 2014-15: The honeymoon phase of 13/14 ends. Lou Williams shoots all the dumb shots. Washington sweeps the Raps away like a pile of crumbs. Screw Paul Pierce. #10 – 1998/99: Lockout-shortened, giving the Raptors fewer chances to disappoint. A respectable 23-27 record. Vince’s first season — it is very good. #11 – 1995/96: Inaugural seasons are immune to crushing depression. They beat the 72-10 Bulls. #12 – 2012/13: OK this is getting impossible already. They traded for Rudy Gay, which led to good things later? 34 wins is the 11th-best mark in team history. Yeah … that’s factual information. #13 – 1996/97: The remaining season that least makes me wanna drink bleach. #14 – 2011/12: Bargs has his “13 Games.” The pain of losing Bosh evolves into resignation that everything sucks. #15 – 2005/06: Bosh breaks out. Mike James’ chase for 20 points a game was like a beautiful car accident. They win the draft lottery — and it works out super well. #16 – 2008/09: Hope springs when Jermaine O’Neal comes to town. By season’s end Shawn Marion is on the roster. #17 – 1997/98: A 16-win season is somehow not the lowest-point in Raps history, but it’s close. Damon gets traded, Darrell Walker immediately quits. How did this team not relocate? #18 – 2003/04: It’s unbelievable that the Kevin O’Neill year isn’t the worst. Raps score 97 points/100 possessions. They go 33-49. KO gets canned. #19 – 2002/03: What the hell happened? Vince getting injured and Voshon Lenard being second on the team in scoring the hell happened. Jelani McCoy starts TWENTY-FIVE TIMES. A 24-58 record at least lands them Bosh. #20 – 2009/10: Fat Hedo. Bosh’s best season is cut short by injury, then he leaves. #21 – 2010/11: Enter the post-Bosh era. They win 22 games and still only get the 5th-pick. #22 – 2004/05: Vince gets traded for the Williamseses and Alonzo Mourning does a very dickish thing. Hope is lost. Inexplicably, the team hands on to some of its fan base.
That got dark. But the uplifting news? Season no. 23 should firmly slide into the top five, with an outside chance for it to take the top spot if things break perfectly. The ghosts of Raptors future promise to be significantly less harrowing than the ones of the last 23 years.
It seems fitting to start off the giving season by reflecting on one of the greatest gifts Masai Ujiri has ever provided to Raptors fans — the second-round pick that became Toronto’s very own no. 24, Norman Powell. It’s been a checkered start to Norm’s third season. Opening the year as Dwane Casey’s undersized starting small forward, he struggled to fit in — an odd occurrence considering his seamless entrance into the starting five might have saved the Raptors from losing to the Bucks in the playoffs last year. In the first 11 games of the year, Powell shot just 42 percent from the floor and 31 percent from deep. Kinetic energy oozed whenever he’d touch the ball, but he’d fail to channel into anything useful. Over a five-game stretch from October 21st vs. Philly to October 30th in Portland, Powell shot a combined 7-of-29, and failed to hit a three for four of those games before draining a pair against the Blazers. Powell was off. Having been consistently outperformed by the rest of the Raptors’ young children, Powell’s pre-season status as the best of the non-olds looked wobbly.
Powell has since rebounded from his early season woes. On the year he’s scoring in the 72nd percentile of players in spot-up situations per NBA.com, with what one can only assume is an upward trajectory as he rediscovers his peak form as a slasher, and catch-and-shooter. Anecdotally, he seems to have tamped down his urges to drive headlong into set defenders, and is instead making use of his killer first step to carve into opponents caught recovering from the Raptors’ newfound ball-movement bonanza.
He’s coming off the bench now, which … who knows. Before the season, it seemed like Powell’s “bouncy Wes Matthews” playing style was perfectly suited to starting alongside a bunch of ball-dominant teammates. He’s now balling out as a bench creator since returning from a hip-pointer four games ago, and that also makes a lot of sense. Powell’s strengths are such that you can talk yourself into his fit with pretty much any four players. Whether he finishes the season as a starter or reserve is probably a 50/50 proposition.
As his numbers creep back towards where preseason expectations probably projected them, those late-October questions about his upside or ability to fulfill his newly-signed extension should fade into memory. In their place can enter a renewed appreciation for the gift that Powell is. Since the Raptors swindled Milwaukee to land him, he’s already saved the Raptors’ asses in the playoffs twice. As a second round pick of whom nothing could be expected at the time, those two rescues have already put him into the gravy zone. Expect him to keep on dishing it out through the holiday season and well beyond.
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