1997-98: New Arena Brings New Hope
It was a tumultuous season for the Toronto Raptors, but with a core of talented young players, a determined new general manager and ownership and the prospect of a new arena opening next February, Raptor fans should be optimistic about the future of basketball in Toronto.
The troubles started early in the season with a slew of injuries which kept Popeye Jones, Marcus Camby, Carlos Rogers, Walt Williams and Zan Tabak off the court and led to a 17-game losing streak in the first part of the season. Executive Vice President Isiah Thomas, whom many considered the heart and soul of the organization, severed his ties with the team and signed on as an analyst with NBC Sports. On Feb. 13, 1996, Schick Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire was traded to Portland along with Walt Williams and Carlos Rogers for Kenny Anderson, Gary Trent, Alvin Williams, a couple picks and cash, while assistant coach Butch Carter was promoted to the head job to replace Darrell Walker.
The Raptors were not done trading yet, however. On Feb. 18, Toronto sent Anderson, Popeye Jones and Zan Tabak to Boston for rookie point guard Chauncey Billups, Dee Brown, Roy Rogers and John Thomas. Following the trading deadline, the Raptors had become the youngest team in the league with an average age of 24.6. Toronto had five rookies on its roster, including 18-year-old Tracy McGrady, the youngest player in the NBA.
With such a young team, growing pains must be expected, but the Raptors did show heart and determination throughout the season. Toronto notched a win 102-93 win at Cleveland on Jan. 10 and came away with a 97-94 victory over New York on Dec. 27. The Raptors were 5-1 in overtime games this season and swept season series against both Golden State and Denver. In addition, Toronto beat Sacramento, Minnesota and Philadelphia in succession to tie the team's longest winning streak in franchise history.
Despite the Raptors' disappointing 16-66 record this season, there is enough talent on the court to look forward to next season. Guard-forward Doug Christie and forward John Wallace have become solid NBA scorers and led the team with 16.5 and 14.0 ppg, respectively. Christie also ranked among the league leaders in steals with 2.44 steals per game. Forward-center Marcus Camby, when healthy, can score, rebound and block shots. And Billups shows great potential as a multi-talented point guard.
The Raptors now had three first round picks from the 1996 Draft, three first round picks from the 1997 Draft and had three first round picks in the 1998 NBA Draft. Only three players -- Oliver Miller, Doug Christie and Sharone Wright -- remained from Toronto's 1995-96 inaugural season team. Yes, there had been big changes in the team's brief history in the league. But with the turmoil of the 1997-98 season behind them, the Raptors could focus on the future, look forward to the opening of Air Canada Centre, scheduled to be completed early in 1999 and continue to contribute to the growth of basketball in Canada.
Raptors coach Butch Carter and rookie Tracy McGrady found a reason to laugh in an otherwise disappointing season.