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Way ahead of his time? Isiah Thomas on his attempt to implement small ball with the Toronto Raptors

Isiah Thomas was the Toronto Raptors' part owner and Executive Vice President from 1994 to 1998.
Toronto Raptors head coach Isiah Thomas

Isiah Thomas

The ability to play small ball in the NBA usually leads a team to success. It’s common to see 6-foot-6 point guards throwing lobs to 6-foot-9 centers. Sometimes that 6-foot-9 center brings the ball up with comfort. It’s an interesting thought that just 15-20 years ago, teams were trying out various roster tweaks to try to stand out from the pack. Interestingly, Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas was one of the pioneers of small ball during his stint with the Toronto Raptors.

Raptor Two

In 1994, Thomas became part owner and Executive Vice President for the Raptors, then an expansion team. During those times, Thomas recalled that the default makeup of a power forward hinged on his physical prowess. Meanwhile, the guard would complement the four while the center focused on defense. Given how boxed the mentality was back then, Thomas concocted a roster to shake up the game.

During that time, what I talked about with my scouting staff and also our ownership group at that time was that we have to find a way to change the game and really affect things out on the floor. We came up with what we called the Raptor Two. And Raptor Two basically had to be a power forward that could also have guard skills, he had to be able to switch the power forward and the shooting guard and not lose ground,” Thomas said, per Scoop B Radio.

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This sounds like the exact philosophy of teams these days. They want the frontcourt to be more mobile and versatile. Ideally, power forwards can comfortably step up to defend those quick and feisty guards.

Trades

To make his vision come alive, Thomas pulled the trigger on several trades and implemented the philosophy while drafting players. Those who tuned in to Raptors games in the late 90s to the early 2000s were witnessing the future of basketball.

One of the first trades that I made was for Doug Christie. The game was getting smaller, we had eliminated the power forward position and made it a very skilled position, so I’ll fast forward then I’ll take you back to McGrady. The thing that I left Toronto with was Stoudamire, Camby, Christie, McGrady, and they drafted [Vince] Carter, that was the blueprint,” Thomas said.

The Raptors’ roster has some similarities with how teams are assembled nowadays. Think of the Boston Celtics squad headlined by Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — two-star players with similar builds but different tendencies. They somehow mirror the Carter-McGrady combo.

Camby seems like the crux of this roster makeup. While he could stand his ground against a traditional center, Camby was mobile enough to guard other positions. Think of someone like Chris Bosh or Evan Mobley.

It’s a pity that Thomas never got to fully implement his vision. His stint with the Raptors lasted just four years. Still, there’s no reason to think that Thomas failed to maximize his stay. He laid the good foundations that the organization used as a jump-off point to turn the team into a playoff contender in just a matter of years.

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