Some NBA franchises are inexorably linked. Boston and the Lakers, for example, have shared a decades-long tête-á-tête, leaving them both with intricately woven legacies of greatness. Other teams, like the Spurs and Hawks, are linked via the expansion of Greg Popovich’s elaborate coaching tree; Memphis and the Clippers are joined at the hip by their recent series of gruesome and emotionally-scarring playoff tilts.
Portland and Toronto’s fates have been intertwined in a far less traditional and mutually beneficial way. And goddamnit should Blazers fans ever be thankful for it. For the better part of 25 years, the Pacific Northwest’s piddling outpost of a franchise has leeched its sustenance from addled corpse of the Toronto Raptors. It’s not even a little bit outlandish to suggest that if not for the long-term ineptitude of Canada’s lone NBA team, recent Blazers history might not look like that of a perennial playoff participant, but rather something more closely resembling, say, the Raptors from 1y995 to 2013.
Numerous instances of the Raptors doing a dumb or downright inexplicable thing have pumped life into the Blazers; the effects of which are still being felt every time Damian Lillard cans a trey. You could argue that the last three franchise players in Portland have wound up there as a result of a Raptors’ GM* or player sufficiently and tenderly screwing the pooch.
Is it fair to say the Blazers, who have generally been quite good despite losing some key free agents, are in a worse place after four years of Raptors competence than they were before Masai Ujiri took over? Perhaps not. But then again, the 2012-13 Blazers were not paying Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard the combined equivalent of a max salary. Had they been, the Raptors of old very well might have been the team to offer multiple first-round picks in order to absorb them.
On today’s episode of Locked on Raptors, I spoke with noted Blazers supporter Corbin Smith about four moments of Raptors dumbassery that have positively affected Portland’s fortunes. He ranked them in order of how much they helped his beloved Blazers.
It is now time to dive into the definitive ranking of how furiously that quartet of pro-Portland events helped swat down the Raptors’ flailing attempts to achieve relevance before Ujiri showed up. If you’re a Raptors fan with a Blazer-head in your life, perhaps one you’ll watch Monday’s game with, demand they pick up the bar tab, or offer you some other small-but-meaningful token of appreciation. They owe most, if not all of their happiness to your favourite team’s rhapsodic awfulness.
#1 – The 2006 Draft
Portland got: A good, albeit insufferably boring franchise cornerstone; not Adam Morrison
Toronto got: Some pasta commercials; a historically bad first-overall pick; not even one rebound in seven years
Toronto has only controlled the NBA Draft board with the top pick once in its history. Rather than choosing first in a draft year boasting one or many sure thing prospects, the Raptors did so in 2006 — a year in which five of the top-10 picks compiled a negative Value Over Replacement Player rating over the course of their NBA careers. Andrea Bargnani is one of those players.
Even with Chris Bosh reportedly lobbying for the team take LaMarcus Aldridge, the Raptors opted to shop international. In Bargnani, they landed a dude who did just about everything on basketball court worse than Aldridge. Although, in fairness, Aldridge has yet to flash an ability to slide down to play small forward — a move Bargnani made when the Raptors traded for Jermaine O’Neal, not two years after shying away from a twin towers motif with Bosh and Aldridge, because they were stupid.
Of course Aldridge went to Portland with the second pick, where he went on to nine seasons of good-to-great production, four All-Star appearances and a handful of 50-win seasons, much of which came alongside fellow “guy the Raptors should have taken instead of Bargs,” Brandon Roy.
In having Aldridge fall to them, the Blazers didn’t only land a real franchise pillar; they dodged what could have been the worst pair of back-to-back drafts in league history. As Corbin pointed out during our conversation, a certain hero of the northwest would have probably been the top option had the Raptors done the intelligent thing and nabbed Aldridge.
They almost certainly would have taken (Adam) Morrison, I’ll bet … There were a not inconsiderable number of people who wanted them to take Morrison anyway, as I recall. I’m not saying that would be good. It would probably be bad. – Corbin Smith, Locked on Raptors: Episode 217
Whether the hypothetical selection of Morrison would have altered the course of history enough to preclude Portland from landing the first-overall pick is beautifully unknowable. We do know, however, that rookie year Morrison was significantly more unfit for the NBA than Aldridge was. Not to mention, drafting Morrison might have made the pickup of Roy seem redundant. If not for the Raptors, is it inconceivable that the Blazers could have exited draft night with a haul of Morrison and, oh I don’t know, a slipping Bargnani? Hell no, it isn’t. It stands to reason then, that the 2006-07 Blazers would have been even worse than the 32-win wreckage they were that year. Perhaps they wouldn’t have even needed to defy the odds to win the draft lottery and select Greg Oden and his feet made of Triscuits.
Instead, the Blazers turned the 2006 Draft into a bankable two-man core who made Oden’s flop less damaging. Toronto got a C-list pitchman.
#2 – The Stoudamire Deal
Portland Got: A steady point guard who would help guide the team through years of perennial contention
Toronto Got: A decomposing pile of refuse; a coaching change; a fan favourite
Before Vince Carter, Damon Stoudamire was the face of hope within the Raptors organization. In short order, he’d also become the face of a problem that dogged the franchise until Kyle Lowry opted to re-sign in the summer of 2014. Before the CBA was updated, three-year rookie deals and nonrestrictive free-agency rules put consistently crappy teams at a disadvantage; their dependable regular season bed-wetting ensured high picks each June, while thrusting an abrupt time frame upon them to get their act together. Young teams almost universally suck. Becoming a desirable destination for a good young player in less than three years was an odious task — especially for an expansion team in the mythical land of Canada.
Naturally, the Stoudamire partnership soured as quickly as a fresh carton of milk you forgot to put in the fridge. Believe it or not, Isiah Thomas was once the Raptors’ main provider of stability; his departure in the early days of Stoudamire’s contract year left the guard hinting that he was planning an escape at season’s end.
Facing the prospect of losing the then best player in team history for nothing, Toronto pulled the trigger on a deadline deal, effectively hitting reset on whatever clout the team had built since entering the league. Admittedly, it wasn’t much. Glen Grunwald shipped Stoudamire, Walt Williams and Carlos Rogers to Portland for Alvin Williams (pretty good), Kenny Anderson (pulled the ol’ Alonzo Mourning) and Gary Trent (played 13 games in Toronto, has a very talented son). The Raptors also picked up a pair of first-round picks and a second-rounder that became Bryce Drew, Mirsad Turckan and Tyson Wheeler.
In an entirely relatable display of human frustration, head coach Darrel Walker resigned once the deal became official.
Now I would never besmirch the good name of Alvin Williams, a lovable try-hard who posted extremely late nineties/early aughts point guard numbers and hit the first “biggest shot in Raptors history” to close out Game 5 against the Knicks in 2001. But he was no Damon. Stoudamire’s Blazers numbers never reached the lofty bar he set in his first two seasons with Toronto, but they didn’t have to. He was free to be a more steadying leader-type for a team that went a combined 243-135 with two Western Conference Finals appearances in is first five full seasons with the club.
Toronto recovered nicely. Picking up Vince Carter at the 1998 draft helped dull the sting of the Drew-Turckan-Wheeler troika of misses. But what if the team had never alienated its first non-terrible player? Would Tracy McGrady have seen the potential in a Mighty Mouse-Carter-T-Mac big three and stuck around beyond his own three-year rookie deal? Might have that core been enough to lift Toronto past objectively crappy East champions like New Jersey, Indiana and Philadelphia during its peak years? Almost definitely, probably.
#3 – Stealing Hedo
Portland got: Snubbed; a 50-win season
Toronto got: A fat guy
This list wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t discuss both bad Raptors players who shilled for low-grade Italian food. Hedo Turkoglu was and still might be the highest profile free agent signing in Raptors history. For a fleeting summer, the move enraged Blazers fans and the organization after Turkoglu reneged on a verbal commitment to go to Portland, a decison that was reportedly informed by Turkoglu’s wife, who preferred the international and cosmopolitan vibe of Toronto to Portland’s artisanal bookstores and 300 days of rain.
Bending to accommodate the wishes of his wife was about the only admirable thing Turkoglu did with the Raptors. After being a key member of Dwight Howard’s best Magic teams, Turkoglu’s numbers took a steep dive with Toronto, as did the juice in his give-a-shit meter — a truth that was obvious as early as the opening week of the 2009-10 season, during which it was reported that Turkoglu had been dealing with fatigue. Across the board, it was the worst season Turkoglu had turned in since his early days in Orlando. With his help, a listless, Bosh-less roster played its way out of a playoff spot down the stretch. Hedo was dealt for Leandro Barbosa after the season, Bosh went to Miami, and the Raptors dove head-first into the Young Gunz / Linas Kleiza era.
Portland, with the Turkoglu bullet unwillingly dodged, rolled to a 50-32 season as Aldridge and Roy entered their primes. Future stud Nic Batum started to get some run as well. An entirely defensible first-round exit at the hands of an impossibly likable Suns team was a fine result for a team that narrowly missed out on the joy-sapping Hedo experience.
Need proof of how demoralizing the Turkoglu ordeal was for Toronto? This comically awkward clip was a by product of Hedo’s BEST day with the team.
#4 – The Ben Uzoh Game
Portland Got: A franchise-changing point guard.
Toronto Got: A franchise-changing point guard.
“Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.” – Samuel Beckett.
It’s a true shame the famously nihilist playwright died 23 years before the Raptors became the real life embodiment of his coined phrase. On the final day of the 2011-12 season, Toronto entered the Theater of the Absurd after spending 17 years entrenched in run-of-the-mill sadness.
A scene setter: heading into a match-up to close the lockout-shortened season, the Raptors and Nets shared a 22-43 record, and thus, equal odds in the upcoming draft lottery — sixth-highest in the league, tie-breaking coin-flip pending. Because we’re talking about a Nets team from this decade, however, New Jersey did not own their pick; by virtue of a trade for missing piece Gerald Wallace, the pick was set to convey to Portland if it landed outside of the top-three.
The Raptors were involved, so naturally the Blazers ended up the beneficiary of that night’s calamitous events.
Judging by the rosters both teams fielded, neither was interested in picking up win no. 23. This was a game in which the Nets got 39 minutes out of Johan Petro, a 4-of-17 shooting line from MarShon Brooks, and a scoreless 20 minutes of Deshaun Stevenson during which he was a -32; a Springfield-worthy display of suckitude.
Toronto countered with a seven-man rotation that is likely the worst the team has ever fielded in a single game — four of which never played a solitary NBA minute after the final buzzer sounded. José Calderon, DeMar DeRozan and yes, Andrea Bargnani, were among that night’s DNPs. Never have the Raptors so dedicated themselves to the tank.
By now, die hard Raptors fans know what’s coming. Ben Uzoh, now of Nigerian national team fame, completed a 12-point, 12-assist, 11-rebound triple-double that wasn’t enough to earn him another NBA job, probably because it came against Sundiata Gaines. Solomon Alabi used his final NBA minutes to post career-highs in points (11) and rebounds (19!). Panamanian Sensation Gary Forbes joined the list of players to lead the Raptors in shot attempts, achieving an 8-of-21 line that wasn’t nearly inefficient enough to derail the Raptors. With what is probably the most somber 31-point win in franchise history, the Raptors’ lottery odds were sewered. Instead of having the sixth-most balls in the hopper, the Toronto slipped to eighth in the pecking order.
With the sixth pick, Portland took Damian Lillard. Terrence Ross went to Toronto at eight, incensing some fans in the moment, and others as the slow passage of time revealed him to be the lesser of the Lillard-Harrison Barnes-Ross run of selections. If not for Uzoh and friends, Portland may have ended up drafting Andre Drummond (probably the consensus eighth pick at the time), sentencing themselves to years of toil, despair and getting owned by Jonas Valanciunas.
Unlike other assists the Raptors’ have thrown Portland’s way, though, The Uzoh Game didn’t plunge the franchise into a period of nuclear winter. That summer, the Raptors dealt for Kyle Lowry, who if you haven’t heard yet, is Over Everything. Ross was a useful if enigmatic player, good enough to earn a second contract hefty enough for the Raptors to net Serge Ibaka at last year’s deadline.
April 26th, 2012 turned out to be an ultimately positive pivot point in Raptors history, but not before looking like another one-sided intersection of fates between two franchises bound by a bizarre shared history.
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