Kawhi Leonard Toronto Raptors
Photo: NBA

The NBA might be a US-based sports league, but it still allows teams from Canada to compete if the situation is right. While it’s not quite as common as in the NHL, which makes sense as hockey is much more popular in Canada than basketball, the NBA has still had some Canadian representatives over the years. 

Beginnings

The modern era of the NBA saw Canadian franchises added to the roster in 1995. At this time, it was the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors. Obviously, the Raptors are still going strong today and managed to win the playoffs back in 2019. This was the result of years of hard work from the Raptors management, which finally caused a Canadian team to be extremely successful within the NBA structure. 

Of course, this success hides a question that quite a few people might have asked since we mentioned the two franchises that became part of the NBA. What happened to the Vancouver Grizzlies? 

Grizzlies

The Grizzlies actually only remained in Vancouver for six seasons. By the 2000/01 season, the Grizzlies had moved their location and turned into the Memphis Grizzlies. There were a number of reasons for this taking place. 

The first was that the Grizzlies never really performed at a high level. They only finished better than last once during the entire time they were located in Vancouver, and even then, it was second from last. Part of the reason why the Grizzlies were so poor was that they regularly lost money. It’s believed that the Grizzlies were losing around $40m per season during the time they were located in Vancouver.  

This is believed to be because of the lack of sponsorship that the team were able to attract. The team were regularly performing poorly, and not too many companies wanted to be associated with such a poor side. This in turn meant that revenue was significantly lower, and therefore it was difficult to attract better players to the team. 

It was almost a chicken and egg scenario – the team couldn’t perform, so they couldn’t bring in more sponsorship, which meant that revenues were low, so the team didn’t have the players in order to perform. Of course, the poor draft picks that the Grizzlies management made didn’t help matters, and when Steve Francis refused to play for Vancouver, it all but sealed the fate of the team. 

With attendances dropping, it was only a matter of time before the Grizzlies either folded or were moved to a new city. The average attendance dropped to less than 15,000 in the final season as a Vancouver team, though some of this was due to the NBA lockout. 

While there has been talk of a return to Vancouver for the NBA in recent years, there hasn’t been anything more than talk at this point. One example of this was that the Charlotte Hornets were a mooted option before they were bought by the league itself. While pro sports has certainly made a recovery within Vancouver, it still remains to be seen if any investor believes that there is the market for an NBA team in the city. 

Raptors 

The Raptors are a much different model from that of the Grizzlies. The management understood that it would take time to build up the franchise and that success early on would be difficult. As with most franchise expansions, it was difficult for the Raptors to compete in the early days. However, things changed slightly in 1998 when the Raptors managed to trade Vince Carter.

This impacted on the Raptors significantly, and attendances started to pick up. On top of this, they also managed to achieve a modicum of success. In 2000, 2001 and 2002, the Raptors managed to make it to the playoffs. While they didn’t achieve a huge amount, just making the playoffs so early on in their journey was a big deal.

This was the main difference between the Raptors and the Grizzlies. The Raptors managed to bring in a player who elevated the other players around him. This gave the Raptors the chance to lay a foundation in terms of following and sponsorship. The Grizzlies missing out on Francis, who would go on to win Rookie of the Year, is a pivotal moment. If they had managed to bring him in, then it could have laid a similar foundation for the Grizzlies to what Carter did for the Raptors.

The Raptors used this idea of building up the franchise over time and making sensible trades. The management understood that building solid foundations around high-potential youth players was the best way to achieve long-term, sustained success in the NBA. This is what led to the trade of Kawhi Leonard at the start of the 2018/19 season. His ability helped to lead the Raptors to their first NBA Championship. It was a bit of a gamble, but just like gamblers sometimes get lucky, the risk paid off. 

While Leonard left at the end of that season, the Championship was more than enough for the Raptors – especially as they continued their philosophy of growth by elevating Pascal Siakam to a more important role. Although the Raptors haven’t been as successful since Leonard left, there is hope for the future with the team. It’s expected that the Raptors will continue to be regulars in the playoffs and could challenge for the Championship in the future. 

What helps to set the management apart is that they understand that with the all-star lineups that are currently in place within the NBA, it would be foolish to try to go head-to-head with these. Despite the Championship win, the Raptors are still relatively new compared to other teams in the league. It means that they have to be sensible and manage expectations carefully.

If another team does make the move into Vancouver in the future, then they would do well to take a few leaves out of the Raptors’ book. With careful management, there is definitely space for two teams from Canada in the NBA.