Unless you’ve been completely off the grid for the past 12 months, there’s no excuse for you not to have noticed the Toronto Raptors having their best year ever. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but still— the sudden surge of success in 2014 caught many of us off guard. In a good way. Even some of the most casual members of the sport-consuming audience were beginning to come around to the idea of Toronto having a watchable team— and a good one at that. After making team-altering deal with the Sacramento Kings in December of 2013, it looked like the Raptors were headed into yet another era of infamy. More 20-35 win seasons, more lottery picks in the NBA Draft, and more time spent as an afterthought not only around the league, but in this great city (and country) of ours too.
Thank goodness the basketball gods didn’t allow such a downward spiral to take place. Instead, since the trade, we’ve seen the opposite. The team is winning, and in the moments when they do fall in defeat, the losses don’t feel quite the way they did before. Simply put, 2014 was awesome for the folks in Raptorland.
Not So Cruel Winter, F-Bombs, and Surpassed Expectations
Terrence Ross tied the franchise’s all-time scoring record in his 51-point outburst versus the Los Angeles Clippers. DeMar DeRozan secured an all-star spot and represented the team well in the game played best players that the Association has to offer. The Raptors unveiled their second Atlantic Division title banner and returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
Not enough for you? The Raps renewed their rivalry with the Brooklyn Nets in what was arguably the most entertaining series of first round, going the seven-game distance. Masai Ujiri added fuel to the fire by dropping an f-bomb towards those Nets that many people north of the border have grown to despise. Although the Raptors were defeated by a single point in the series clinching game, new hope for the future state of the team has been established. Quick side note— including the four regular season games played between division foes, the aggregate score was 1070-1070. Eleven games against a veteran team with title aspirations (and quite frankly, title expectations), and the Raps – who supposedly had no business being any good – held their own. The team was on national TV in the United States, and the fans who packed the arena inside and outside represented well.
The Birth of #WeTheNorth
2014 also brought us the birth of the #WeTheNorth campaign that has now grown to encapsulate pretty much everything about this new, prosperous time for Toronto basketball. Though the argument can be made that the slogan is grammatically inept, there’s no doubting that those three words now mean something to the team and fans alike. They almost represent a coping mechanism that we use to deal with the distance and neglect we feel in the NBA conversation. If I had a nickel for every time I heard some variation of “they’re sleeping on us” in relation to the Toronto Raptors during the basketball-themed conversation I had during 2014, I’d have enough money to buy about half of a nosebleed ticket for a 2014-15 Raptors home game. Another thing that coincided with the #WeTheNorth motto: ticket price increases. Supporting a playoff team comes at a cost. Ain’t complaining though.
Hot Summer in “The 6”
The summer of 2014 was a period that signified that the sudden success would be sustainable, at least for a bit longer. Kyle Lowry re-upped with a new contract (which looks like more of a bargain every single time I browse over the financial terms), proving that Toronto is in fact a city that can keep its star players around. Key role players Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez were also retained, as the team’s 2013-14 performance warranted roster continuity in some aspects. In terms of additions, James Johnson was brought back to Toronto to add wing defense to a team that desperately craved it against Joe Johnson and company back in early May. The relatively unknown (yet filled with potential) Bruno Caboclo was drafted 20th overall, and Masai Ujiri fleeced yet another team in a trade, sending John Salmons down to Atlanta in exchange for the lengthy young big man Lucas Nogueira and the dynamic scoring guard Lou Williams. Ujiri is a smooth criminal for pulling that one off.
“#WeTheFourth”, Ending the VC Conflict, and Sending Kyle Lowry to New York
A few months later, the 2014-15 campaign began, and the somewhat revamped Raptors picked up right where they left off. Capitalizing on a rather easy sequence of games versus weaker teams, Toronto got off to a hot start; going 13-3. November saw some moments where the Raptors were not playing to their full potential due to slow starts, but the team became prone to strong finishes to their games. The Raps guaranteed to fight every night. They were never rolling over. The games were seemingly never out of reach. Late surges of energy in Toronto’s games became the norm. #WeTheFourth became a thing on Twitter. The Raptors snagged the #1 spot in the Eastern Conference, and at the time of this writing, still hasn’t given it up.
November 2014 brought the conclusion to the “we’ll always hate Vince Carter” drama too. The 2014-15 campaign marks the 20th Toronto Raptors season, so the franchise has made a clear effort to pay homage to the franchise’s history (albeit short) with retro nights, and player tributes. When the man formerly known as “Vinsanity” paid the Air Canada Centre a visit with the Memphis Grizzlies, he was given one of the aforementioned tributes. It hit fans (and Carter himself) right in the feels. Although Vince is no longer the player he used to be, the resolution to the beef between him and the Toronto franchise – along with its fans – was a huge deal. This moment was definitely among the most positive of the 2014 calendar year for the Toronto Raptors.
No NBA season for any team in the league goes by without some adversity though. Not even the suddenly fortunate Raptors could avoid the trials that come with playing professional basketball. The early season misfortune came in the form of DeMar DeRozan sustaining an groin injury that has sidelined him for more than a month now. When the star swingman went down, it seemed as if Toronto would come crashing down to earth after finally getting a taste of accomplishment. However, the great teams find ways to adapt— and nowadays, it’s pretty easy to make the case for the Toronto Raptors being a great team. “Next man up” is the mentality that Dwane Casey‘s squad has stressed as of late, and such thinking has kept them as the Eastern Conference #1 seed.
In DeRozan’s absence, Kyle Lowry has emerged as the true “King in the North” (thanks, George R. R. Martin). Leading the team to an 11-5 record without his backcourt partner has led to raised awareness of Lowry’s worthiness of inclusion in the “best point guard in the league” conversation. Lowry being the heart and soul of this Raptors team cannot be stressed enough. After being snubbed from the Eastern Conference All-Star roster last season, Lowry has consistently made big plays to keep adding to the win column and keep turning heads around the league. A year after almost trading the star point guard to the New York Knicks, the time has come to ensure that the Villanova product is sent to the Empire State. Breathe— I mean to say that Lowry needs to be sent to New York for the 2015 All-Star Game. As a starter. He’s made the case for being the best point guard in the entire Eastern Conference, and he’s been the head of the snake that is the team among the best in the league in terms of winning percentage thus far in the 2014-15 season. He’s shown that he deserves the spot, and it’s up to the fans to get him in the starting slot come February.
Was 2014 really the best Raptors year ever?
Of course it was; at least up to this point. Including the postseason season series played versus the Brooklyn Nets, the Raptors finished 2014 with a 61-31 record. That mark is pretty darn impressive— especially when you consider that this same team won just 57 games in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons combined. The team is now on the cusp of contention, and the future looks bright. Fan support is greater than ever before, and now, when the Raptors come up in conversation, the topic tends to be positive. There’s still work to do, but the sudden improvement is nothing to poke fun at.
Happy 2015, everyone. Here’s hoping that this year brings more growth for Toronto’s beloved basketball franchise.