Which Team Do the Raptors More Closely Represent: The Early-2000s Pistons or 'Grit N Grind' Grizzlies?

One listener wondered if this era's Toronto Raptors were similar to the early 2000s Pistons but Ben Golliver and Andrew Sharp weren't so sure.
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Trying to decipher this era's Toronto Raptors has proved about as difficult as solving a Rubiks Cube with a blindfold on. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have established themselves as all-stars and led the Raptors to their most exciting period in franchise history but how much is that worth if they can't break through the barricade in the Eastern Conference known as LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers? 

On this episode of Open Floor, Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver discuss what to think of this era's Raptors. One listener questioned if these Raptors resembled the early-2000s Pistons that won the championship in 2004. Golliver and Sharp weren't convinced.  

(This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Andrew Sharp: The Thunder whooped the Raptors' ass last night (Dec. 27) and we've been late on the Raptors bandwagon which is good because it allows us to discuss this with a little more perspective. I watched OKC-Toronto. Kyle (listener with a question) says: I feel like someone needs to intelligently defend my Raptors here, unlike that bozo from a few weeks ago who emailed in and tried to compare them to the most competent sports franchise of the past 25 years: the San Antonio Spurs. And that was a rough experience for Golliver and he's just getting over it.

And Kyle says 'To me, the comparison is the early 2000s Pistons. A solid team with no real transcendent superstars but a good organization with solid depth and pieces that work well together. The only difference is that the Pistons were lucky and they missed Jordan's Bulls whereas the Raptors are stuck with LeBron.' So what do you think? 

Ben Golliver: Well, first of all, I was a little rude to the last Canadian who emailed in and I've been catching a lot of heat for that so I'm gonna tone it down a little bit. First of all Kyle, I like your tone, I like your approach, I like the fact that you're granting that the Raptors are not on the Spurs' level. I do hate to break it to you though, you're still guilty of overrating the Raptors' place in the league. That Pistons' team was very unique in terms of teams that actually win the title. They're completely the exception to the rule.

I also think that fact skews how we remember them because that was a team that I believe may have made four conference finals in a row or something close to that. The conference really for a while basically ran through them. They didn't have the major transcendent stars like he mentioned but they've got some guys that are going to be knocking on the door of the hall of fame. And I just think that they had a level of dominance and control and stylistic and matchup advantages that, at that point in time ...

Sharp: That's a really good point.

Golliver ... the Raptors just don't have.The Raptors just aren't on that level. The East is never going to go through Toronto during this era just like it's not going to go through Boston this year. So I have a better comparison for you for the Raptors and you tell me if you agree or not.

Sharp: Wait before we do, I just wanted to say that I appreciate your love for the mid-2000s Pistons.

Golliver: It's not love. Maybe begrudging respect. 

Sharp: [Laughs] OK, that's a better way to put it. We sort of bag on them all the time and certainly, it was probably the ugliest era of NBA basketball of the last 40 years. However, whatever you want to say about the Pistons, they were elite in their one skill. Like they played defense and they just like bodied people every night for like three years and they did have more talent than people give them credit for. Like they had three or four or five all-stars depending on the year and Chauncey Billups was really solid and the biggest difference for me when you look at the Raptors is that the Raptors are good at everything but they're not really great at anything. The Pistons were definitely great at some of the uglier aspects of basketball for a couple years there. 

Golliver: For sure. So along those lines, when I look at the Raptors I see a time that, like you said, is good, is complete, is functional. They're going to have a nice extended window here of contention. Their highs just aren't very high, pretty ugly Eastern Conference Finals, they'll be lucky to get back. But they are in the mix. They have stars that I think are rightfully considering themselves underrated, guys like Lowry and DeRozan probably are right to feel snubbed. They've got an insane fan base. They have a pretty good identity that 'We the North' stuff has really stuck and you've got to give them credit for that. And they're kind of in their own little bubble where it's them vs. the world. And to me, all those characteristics basically make them the Memphis Grizzlies, like the 'Grit N' Grind' Grizzlies of the Eastern Conference. Like when you look at like Marc (Gasol) and Mike (Conley), their overall tenure in terms of level of playoff success that they had, they made one Western Conference Finals, there were lots of first-round exits. There's lots of high raised hopes when they're playing really well and then hopes get dashed a week later. They had really solid complementary pieces.

Sharp: Oh man.

Golliver: To me that is sort of who they are. And those Grizzlies teams, that's why we like them, they're fun. I mean you probably liked them more than I did but they're not going to last and endure in the same way that those Detroit Pistons team did. And I hate to break it to Canada but this Raptors group isn't really going to have a legacy in the bigger picture. They're obviously going to be remembered as the best era of Raptors franchise history no doubt but I don't really think they're going to be cutting through in like 2030—hopefully if we make it that long as a society—we're look back and say 'Oh the Golden Era of the Raptors, 2015-2018. They just really did it' I just don't think we're going to do that, I'm sorry. 

Sharp: You know, you really took the wind out of my sails on this one because I was all set to put a positive spin on the Raptors because I was watching them—they were losing to the Thunder—and it was one of those games that kind of made you do a double take and kind of wonder if they have enough firepower to compete with the best teams in the league, particularly in a playoff series. So that's No. 1. But I was thinking about it and even as they were losing I was thinking, you know they...like re-signing Lowry and DeRozan is gonna allow them to continue to win 50 games every year for the next year or two, three and they will have strung together a crazy successful run of like six or seven years here which sort of solidifies culture in that organization and around that team.

I know because one of the reasons the Wizards struggle to have real fan support and have consistent excitement about the team in the city is that they do sh-- like come out this year and piss away any momentum that they would have had, frustrate fans and people just kinda check out The Raptors don't do that and what that's allowed them to do is sort of build this culture around the team where fans are fired up about every game. Players come in there and they get better. And it's really cool and that's why I think there's more value than sometimes we acknowledge in like paying Kyle Lowry $30 million a year, even though he's not good enough to get them to the Finals. But then you come through with the Memphis comparison and we were saying all the same things about the Grizzlies a couple years ago and now it's gotten super dark. I don't want to go too far, the Raptors still have sort of a complicated future but I do think that that like, even if they can't make the conference finals, this is still like a very real success, provided that they can manage the transition better than a team like the Grizzlies has.