Toronto Raptors Information
After Isiah Thomas was named the general manager in 1995, he quickly staffed the management with his own personnel, including the first head coach Brandon Malone (who was later reunited with Thomas in the Knicks organization in 2003). Isiah chose to build the franchise around Damon Stoudamire, a point guard out of Arizona. The Raptors' pick of Stoudamire was greeted with boos from those present at the NBA Draft at the SkyDome in Toronto, many of whom bought into the hype surrounding UCLA star Ed O'Bannon. However, Stoudamire proved to be the one bright point in a terrible first season as he won Rookie of the Year honors by averaging 19 points and 9.3 assists per game.
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The team record improved by 9 games from its inaugural season and attendance was rising. Analysts predicted a playoff-contending or even a championship caliber team in a matter of a few seasons. Marcus Camby who was drafted 2nd overall in the 1996 draft by the Raptors had a season to forget in his first season as a Raptor.
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All optimism evaporated when the team was hit by numerous injuries in early 1997-1998 season. Thomas, a brilliant player and skilled evaluator of talent but lacking in management skills, failed to stop the downfall of the team which led to the dismantling of the core players and resignations of the head coach Darrell Walker and eventually of Thomas himself. When Glen Grunwald was named to succeed Thomas in 1998, virtually nobody thought he could turn the team around, demonstrated by the booing from the crowd when he made his first appearance to Air Canada Centre for a speech. However, the players reacted by playing harder and Marcus Camby earned the first two triple doubles of his career in the last four games of the season.
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Grunwald showed his better management ability than his predecessor by trading Camby to the Knicks for proven veteran Charles Oakley, whose tough mentality and playoff experience helped the maturity of the young players. Many thought the trade would hurt the team, since he was trading away a promising prospect for an aging veteran. However, Oakley's leadership proved crucial to the success of the 1998-1999 Raptors. The coaching staff temporarily solved the lack of a true point guard by rotating Dee Brown, Alvin Williams and Doug Christie to play the position. This was an excellent move, as Christie greatly refined his defensive game and became one of the elite defenders in NBA.
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Alvin also showed improvement, on the offensive end. Kevin Willis, another veteran acquired from trade, solidified the center position. With those two holes temporarily filled, the team won more games than ever before. The new coach Butch Carter, besides doing an excellent coaching job, also helped develop the young players on the team, especially future All-Star Tracy McGrady. Although the team did not make the playoffs, many were optimistic with the brilliant performances from the Rookie of the Year Vince Carter and a much improved McGrady.
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Grunwald decided that the solution to the Raptors' lack of a true point guard and a strong front court presence would have to come from mature veteran players. He also knew that the aging Willis and Oakley would eventually have to play fewer minutes or risk injury. Thus, during the 1999 draft, he decided to trade first-round draft pick Jonathan Bender for veteran power forward Antonio Davis from the Indiana Pacers, who had been forced to play off the bench behind teammate Dale Davis. In the backcourt, Butch Carter rotated Carter, Christie, Williams and Dell Curry at the shooting guard position and Williams and Muggsy Bogues at point guard. Rotation of Antonio, Oakley and Willis in the front court and the maturation of both Carter and McGrady helped the team make its first ever playoff appearance. However, without significant playoff experience, the Raptors were swept by the New York Knicks in the playoffs.
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Progressive team improvements and the rise to fame of Vince Carter attracted many fans around Toronto, many of whom were not previously basketball fans. Increased attendance and change of fan base also helped contribute to the decline of the Toronto Blue Jays. This was also the first full season at the Air Canada Centre, after four years of games at the cavernous SkyDome.
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Playoff failures led Grunwald to replace Butch Carter with Lenny Wilkens, who was a Hall-of-Fame coach and player with more than 30 years of coaching experience. In addition, the team finally found a true point guard, when Grunwald signed veteran playmaker Mark Jackson to a 4-year deal with the team. The season marked the development of Alvin Williams as a clutch performer. He scored three quarters of his points in the 4th quarter during regular season. Jackson was later traded to give more minutes for Williams.
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As Vince familarized himself with the shooting guard position and played less time at small forward, Christie became expendable and was traded for small forward Corliss Williamson. However, he was a disappointment and was traded during the season for defensive workhorse Jerome Williams. The loss of former star small forawrd Tracy McGrady was also a factor in the Williamson trade. Although McGrady and Carter showed impressive improvement at the same time, much of the media and fan attention was focused on Carter, who dunked more often and thus was more entertaining to fans. Furthermore, McGrady's natural position is at shooting guard, the same position as Carter. Therefore, Raptors management decided to trade McGrady to the Magic during the 2000 offseason for a first-round draft pick in a sign-and-trade deal.
The Raptors inability to win on the road (11-30) and generally poor defense made Sam Mitchell's first year as head coach unimpressive. However, the home fans were generally entertained as the team managed to thrive off the often well attended Air Canada Centre putting up a record of 22-19 at home. Coach Mitchell was also mired in controversies off the court. Of note, point guard Rafer Alston in a post-game interview contemplated retiring after a tough loss, as he continued to butt heads with Sam Mitchell. Later in the season, Alston was suspended two games for "conduct detrimental to the team" for reportedly walking out of a scrimmage practice. In addition, Eric Williams requested a trade, unhappy with the lack of minutes he was receiving. Vince Carter's mother also made comments to the media about a "wrestling match" that took place in the locker room between the coach and her son prior to his trade