Surprise! NBA in Toronto might actually make it

By getting Antonio Davis to return, the Raptors proved you can go home again -- even in Canada.

Updated: August 3, 2001, 5:52 PM ET
By Marc Stein | Special to ESPN.com

They aren't exactly two of a kind, or separated at birth, or any other line to suggest that these are Siamese sports folks. They're simply an unlikely pair of like thinkers.

Antonio Davis
Davis had a breakout season just in time to get the big contract.

Juan Antonio Samaranch. Antonio Lee Davis.

The common thread: Toronto was neither's first choice.

Difference is, Juan is gone now. He picked Beijing over the seat of Canadian cool for the 2008 Olympics and then retired. The other Antonio? He went the other way last week. Reduced the mansion in Orlando to a summer home and established long-term, red-and-white Roots in the shadow of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Glorious news for the Toronto Raptors, if not free.

An entire league assumed for months that Davis, like all metric-fearing NBA giants, would bolt back to the States at the first opportunity. He wasn't even hiding his Magic lust. Yet the Raptors, capitalizing on Orlando's cap constraints and the absence of any other legitimate rivals, managed to do what few thought possible. They reached terms with Davis on a new five-year, $64 million contract.

Oakley
Oakley

A. Williams
A. Williams

That's not all, either. The Raps also got an oral commitment from Jerome Williams for seven years and $41 million, came to terms with Alvin Williams and dumped Charles Oakley and Zeljko Rebraca to chase away the luxury-tax demons.

Added up, under any numeric system, those are some weighty moves. Expensive, too, but the sort of questionable spending you can justify, given the potential payoff between now and next summer. Yes, we're talking Vince Carter. Suddenly, it isn't such a one-handed windmill that Vince will automatically drift back down into our airspace when he becomes a free agent.

Word out of the Carter camp is that No. 15 was "pleasantly surprised" to see the Raptors keep their own for a change. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but you get the distinct feeling now that Carter will, at the very least, take Glen Grunwald's call Aug. 1. That's the first day the Raps' GM can offer Carter a contract extension.

Antonio feels strongly they can be the best team in the East, and that did weigh heavily in his decision.
Bill Duffy, Davis' agent

Carter, like all rookies from the class of 1998, is eligible to tack six seasons onto his original contract between Aug. 1 and Halloween. Without Davis and the Williams lads, there would be no sense dialing the phone.

Yet even if Carter does wait, holding off until next summer, well-founded hope remains. Merely maintaining the team they had -- which, remember, came within one Carter jump shot of a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals -- comes across as major improvement in the wake of last July's Tracy McGrady defection.

Bringing back Davis, insists A.D.'s agent Bill Duffy, "will help them get over that stigma."

We could nitpik and point out that Davis didn't so much choose Toronto as he finally conceded that mystical Central Florida wasn't worth the dramatic reduction in salary. Or we could focus on the fact that Grunwald overpaid Davis and Williams, just for the right to stay on Carter's radar.

But we won't. David Stern's kingdom is already a poorer place having swapped heavenly Vancouver for (still searching for a remotely complementary word) Memphis. Some of us who only pretend to be Canadian don't even want to whisper about the domino effect of a Davis departure. Because we all know that would have sealed Carter's exit and -- loathe as we are to ever endorse a Dick Versace hypothesis -- inevitably torpedoed Canada's NBA experiment.

Don't forget that the forthcoming season will see the Raptors receiving a $2 million stipend from the league to deal with the up-and-down exchange rates. Also intriguing are the plans for NBA/Raptors TV -- a 24-hour digital basketball channel slated for rollout later this year. Strict broadcasting regulations prevent Canadian cable from offering ESPN or NBA.com TV to its viewers. The Raptors, with the league owning 30 percent, have thus hatched their own network to spread the roundball gospel.

Impressive, eh?

There are other favorable puck comparisons, too. The Raptors, who came in under the cap in every year of their existence, expect to dole out more than $50 million in salaries in the 2001-02 campaign. That'll be well over the expected $42.7 million cap ceiling but safely below the estimated luxury-tax threshold of $53-56 million.

The local religious institution, meanwhile, is forecast to spend between $55 and $60 million on nearly twice as many players. That would be the Maple Leafs, naturally, in a sport without a salary cap ... and thus the ability to start making actual transactions on July 1.

"Antonio feels strongly they can be the best team in the East," Duffy says of the Raptors, "and that did weigh heavily in his decision."

So, no, Toronto didn't get the Summer Games from the outgoing IOC president. This Antonio, though, wasn't a bad fallback. If he leads to keeping Carter in the Home And Native Land, what Toronto got is the next-best thing.

Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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By getting Antonio Davis to return, the Raptors proved you can go home again -- even in Canada.