The criticism Bryan Colangelo has received of late got me thinking: Are we as fans unrealistic in our expectations of the Raptors? Taking Colangelo’s tenure out of the equation, the Raptors are 341-529 (39%). Under Colangelo the Raptors are 183-227 (45%), so relatively speaking the franchise has done much better under Colangelo than it has under his predecessors. The brief taste of playoff success that the Raptors achieved under Glen Grunwald isn’t there, but the record and consistency of performance is greater under Colangelo. Yet it doesn’t feel that way, does it?
Between 1999 and 2002, Glen Grunwald did post three straight winning seasons of 45, 47 and 42 wins; however, his overall record is much poorer than Colangelo’s yet we seem to have generally rosy memories of his reign, no doubt helped by Vince Carter’s theatrics at the ACC. Rob Babcock’s tenure in Toronto was painted by two consecutive poor drafts and the Vince Carter trade, yet he is often credited for stockpiling draft picks and finding Jose Calderon, paving the way for the flexibility that Colangelo inherited. Before these two there was Isiah Thomas who is credited with starting the franchise on the right foot by selecting Damon Stoudamire when everyone else wanted Ed O’Bannon.
Is Colangelo, despite having the best winning percentage of any Raptors GM, the most criticized custodian the club has ever had? Yes, because he has set the bar higher than any previous GM. If the team won 30 games under Thomas it was considered a great season, and making the playoffs under Grunwald called for a small parade. The measure of Colangelo’s success is much different because of the 2006-07 season which he best describes, and I agree with him, as “too much success, too early”. Ever since the Raptors won the Atlantic in a year when the East was weaker than a minority government, Colangelo’s management scheme changed significantly. That division-winning team gave such a strong “false positive” signal that from that day onwards, it was about taking the team to the next level instead of solidifying it’s core. Even though the latter might have been Colangelo’s intention, the former became it’s mandate.
Chris Bosh, Morris Peterson, Anthony Parker, Jorge Garbajosa and Andrea Bargnani headlined the team that lost to New Jersey. In the following summer Colangelo tried to reload with Jason Kapono, his first true effort of “building around Bosh”. Even though at the time I stated that the Raptors should acquire Reggie Evans, and that three-point shooting was not a concern, I agree with Colangelo’s line of thinking – he wanted to win now and was not afraid to spend cash at the stroke of midnight! When that experiment failed with a whimper of an effort against Orlando, the Raptors escalated their Chris Bosh appeasement efforts. This is standard behaviour across the NBA, GMs have tried to appease the likes of Kobe Bryant (Gasol trade), Carmelo Anthony (Billups trade), Chris Paul (Okafor trade), LeBron (Jamison, Mo Williams) and many others when free-agency is approaching by pulling trades/signing designed to strengthen the club’s bid for a signature on a new contract. I might be comparing apples and oranges because Bosh is a lesser player than any of those guys, but the strategy applies.
Colangelo should be credited for his proactive approach, even if it had the side-effect of losing draft picks. For the first time in the history of the Raptors a GM was put in a position where winning was no longer a nice to have, but an expectation and that too with Chris Bosh’s contract clock ticking down. Colangelo’s zeal for deal-making is a potion for fan excitement and interest, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that he has unmistakably failed at building a winner in Toronto, usually by wasting the financial flexibility he worked so hard to earn. I don’t know whether he’ll be extended or not, either way there are lessons to be learned from his tenure that can be applied as early as the next two seasons:
For example, in two years the Raptors will face a situation where they’ll either have to extend DeRozan or live with him entering the RFA market in the summer of 2013. The Raptors extended Bargnani to a big deal without seeing what his value would have been on the market, and now we have a player that is widely considered to be grossly overpaid. The Raptors will come face-to-face with a very similar situation with DeRozan, and unless he has unequivocally proven himself of being a top player in the league, there is no reason to extend him prematurely.
The franchise wasted years trying to build around a good player by adding mediocre pieces, hoping the collective sum would be greater than the parts. Chris Bosh was the only “untouchable” on the team and the Raptors went about their way trying to appease him in every which way. Recognize that mistake and avoid it by doing the same with Andrea Bargnani, and potentially with DeMar DeRozan. Colangelo’s season-ending press conference hinted that he’s finally lowered his valuation of Bargnani from franchise player to asset, too bad it happened a year too late but at least a lesson was learned. I hate the idea of compensating for a player’s lack of defense/rebounding by making up for it by overcompensating at the other big position – it’s impossible to do and a sign that a franchise is catering to a player instead of doing makes basketball sense.
The Raptors achieved their finest success under Colangelo when they had a great one-two punch at the point, and a 12th ranked defense. Both these areas have been neglected ever since, Juan Dixon, Jarrett Jack, Roko Ukic, and Will Solomon are some of the names that have passed behind Jose Calderon at the point, all with disappointing results. The defense, well, I think we all know about the defense. This is why I’m a fan of going for Kyrie Irving (even trading up) in the draft, because he’ll add dynamics to the offense and is a well-rounded defender, hopefully giving us a night-in-night-out advantage at a position in a year or so – also known as a wing double-team threat.
It’s very tough to identify a group of young guys to be part of the nucleus of the team. Most young players are looking to put up numbers so that they can get a big contract once their rookie-scale deal ends, I don’t blame them but sometimes the priorities are all out of order. This is an area which I feel good about because Ed Davis and DeRozan haven’t shown to be that type of player. Amir Johnson is under the security of a new contract, but keep in mind that at no point did he play selfishly the year before last. With the exception of the insouciant Sonny Weems and perhaps James Johnson, the Raptors have chosen the right horses, in terms of character, to take forward. Whether they have the talent is what remains to be seen.
The Raptors are not a strong organization, they have always been held hostage by their players and bend backwards to satisfy them. From Thomas to Grunwald to Colangelo, from Stoudamire to Carter to Bosh, it hasn’t ever changed despite them being burned by that approach every time. As the franchise enters a new era, one which is completely separate from its past thanks to the dichotomy created by rebuilding, they have to shed the label of a club that is desperate for player approval, and instead have the conviction of following a plan to success. If that plan is Colangelo’s, so be it, but from now on this franchise should be ruthless in what it demands of its players under contract. With two years before any serious contract negotiations with what it currently considers its core (plus a possible high draft pick), this is the prefect opportunity for the Raptors to rebrand the organization. Unfortunately, the ownership mess threatens to cause serious damage to its already dwindling dignity.