That the Toronto Raptors find themselves on the verge of something that’s never been accomplished before in team history is amazing when you consider they started the 2013-14 season 6-12.
After Wednesday night’s win over the Detroit Pistons, the Raptors now have 36 victories with 19 games remaining in their schedule, giving them a pretty good shot at the franchise record of 47 wins in a single season. Of those remaining 19 games, only six are against teams with a record of .500 or better and the final six see the Raptors facing off with Milwaukee (twice), Philadelphia, Detroit and New York (twice)—four teams with a combined winning percentage of .304 and falling.
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So, down the stretch, if the Raptors actually beat the teams they should beat—something they have done fairly consistently this season—they’ll land somewhere between 47 and 50 wins. Should they reach that milestone, they’ll be just the third team in franchise history to win 47 games. They will also have to be entered into the discussion of the best-ever Raptors’ teams.
So, just how legitimate is their case?
The 47-win plateau was first reached in 2000-01, when the Vince Carter-led Raptors finished second in the Central Division and went on to take the Philadelphia 76ers to seven games in the Eastern Conference semis, the franchise’s longest playoff run to date. The second time was in 2006-07 after a quick roster makeover by former GM Bryan Colangelo helped an average team capitalize on watered down competition to grab their only division title.
Beginning with those three teams—‘00-01, ‘06-07 and ‘13-14—as contenders, the ‘06-07 Raptors can be written off pretty quickly. They posted unimpressive overall numbers against weak competition and were bumped from the first-round by a Nets team that only went 41-41 on the year.
The real competition, then, is Vince Carter’s ‘00-01 team, which won’t come as much of a surprise to long-time fans. What may be surprising is just how tough a fight this year’s team puts up when you get into the numbers.
Take a quick look at the graphic above. Though this year’s Raptors allow half a point more per 100 possessions than the ’00-01 team, they score 2.3 points more. That 1.8-point difference in net rating may not seem overly significant, but it’s larger than the gap between this season’s first- and fifth-highest scoring teams. The 2013-14 Raptors also own a true-shooting percentage 2.9 points higher. All of which provides a few strong indicators that, statistically at least, this year’s team is better.
But factor in competition and it’s clear the ‘00-01 team had a much tougher road to 47 wins. In the East that season, the Raptors finished fifth behind three 50-game winners and a 48-win Knicks team. Within their division (the East only consisted of two at that point) there were four playoff teams: the 52-win Milwaukee Bucks, 46-win Charlotte Hornets, 41-win Indiana Pacers and the Raptors.
Conversely, Toronto and Brooklyn are likely to be the only teams from the Atlantic to win 40 or more games and make the playoffs this season, meaning the current Raptors, like the ‘06-07 team before them, have benefitted from inferior competition within their division, helping to pad both their stats and their win total.
The ‘00-01 team also gets the nod when it comes to talent. They ran out a starting lineup of Antonio Davis, Charles Oakley, Vince Carter, Mark Jackson/Alvin Williams and Morris Peterson/Chris Childs, with Jerome Williams, Corliss Williamson, Keon Clark and Del Curry playing major minutes off of the bench. The Carter-Davis-Williams-Peterson-Oakley core was a good mix of young talent and veteran leadership with Carter playing some of the best basketball in the entire league. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are a nice tandem in the backcourt—and both should have been all-stars—but neither is the superstar that Carter was. The current team possesses a deep cast of role players in Amir Johnson, Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas, but they lack the same type of veteran presence and depth that the ‘00-01 squad had.
Another thing to consider is just how important having a successful Raptors team was back in 2000. The Carter-led squad—and their memorable playoff battles with the Knicks and 76ers—helped put basketball on the map in Canada. They were the first Raptors team to win more than 45 games and the first to make the second round of the playoffs. Most importantly, they felt like a legitimate contender to win the Eastern Conference. The same cannot be said of any Toronto team since, including this year’s.
Ultimately, the anecdotal evidence outweighs the stats. The ‘00-01 Raptors are still the franchise’s best team. The season isn’t finished, though, and DeRozan, Lowry and company still have the opportunity to make people think twice about their place in history.
With any sort of meaningful playoff run, they could go down as the team that revitalized basketball in Toronto after years of frustration and losing. They’ve already made waves with one surprising turnaround this season. Who’s to say they can’t rock the boat again?