Bryan Colangelo hardly uttered a word when Chris Bosh left the Raptors for the Heat in the summer of 2010. The Toronto general manager did not follow the lead of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who lambasted LeBron James for his “Decision’’ to join Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami.
Colangelo instead has decided to rebuild, hopefully using the draw of Toronto as a premier international city and plenty of salary cap space to lure a major free agent to Canada. That’s the plan, and until it pans out, the Raptors will try to entertain their rather diverse and neophyte fan base with young talent and the promise of better days.
The Raptors looked green and lacked chemistry in their two preseason games against the Celtics, but they rallied to win the season opener against the Cavaliers, perhaps an indication that they won’t be the worst of the Eastern Conference’s lottery-bound teams.
The Raptors have drafted their share of talent in Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Bosh, but they haven’t been able to keep any of them long-term. They are still searching for an identity, and Colangelo feels they are close, despite the constant rebuilding.
“Obviously when I first got to Toronto [in 2006], I felt like the roster needed to be overhauled and we did that,’’ said Colangelo, the son of former Phoenix executive Jerry Colangelo. “And having a centerpiece like Chris made it easy to kind of get competitive quickly and that’s what happened.
“We went from 27 wins to 47 wins and made it back to the playoffs for the first time in five years. The following years didn’t work out so well because although we tried to bridge the gap with additional pieces, it just didn’t seem to come together to the extent that we were competitive enough.’’
The Raptors’ win total decreased the next two seasons and Colangelo couldn’t surround Bosh with a supporting cast good enough to compete with elite teams in the Eastern Conference. Then they missed the playoffs in 2009-10 by one game after Bosh missed the final week with a facial fracture.
Bosh’s free agency was obviously overshadowed by that of James, but it became apparent near the end of the season that returning to Toronto was less likely. And he joined Wade in Miami a day before LeBron made his “Decision.’’
“The catalyst of the rebuild was obviously Chris making the decision to leave,’’ Colangelo said. “And it was a perfect reason or segue to start this process.’’
Colangelo showed no reluctance in giving Bosh the benefit of a sixth contract year in Miami and executing a sign-and-trade to help replenish the Raptors’ roster. They received two first-round picks and a trade exception from the Heat. Toronto used the first pick on Lithuanian standout center Jonas Valanciunas, who opted to spend another season overseas.
The Raptors are banking that former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani, along with athletic shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and forward Ed Davis will develop in new coach Dwane Casey’s defensive-minded system. The Raptors have had no trouble scoring points but haven’t stopped anyone for years, even with Bosh.
Colangelo fired the friendly but overwhelmed Jay Triano to take a chance on Casey, whose first head coaching stint ended rather unfairly five years ago in Minnesota.
Casey was the de facto defensive coordinator with the Mavericks, and his system contained James and Bosh in last year’s NBA Finals.
“You can see it, watching it every day, you can see that things are starting to change,’’ Colangelo said. “It feels different. There is a little bit of a bend toward defense, obviously. We’re working on laying the foundation for the ramp-up and the ramp-up probably begins in earnest next year.’’
That’s when Valanciunas will arrive in Canada along with another projected lottery pick, and Toronto will have an estimated $20 million to spend on free agents when Leandro Barbosa comes off the books in the summer. So Colangelo will try to sell a major free agent on Toronto, something that has yet to be accomplished in the franchise’s 16 years.
Waiting for all that, said Colangelo, “is really the only thing to do right now. It’s a deep draft and we’re going to get a quality player coming in. I really feel like we’re poised well for the future - just maybe a couple of bumps in the road here over the next four months.’’
Why Toronto has never attracted a major free agent is puzzling. The city is considered one of the best in the world for quality of life, it’s a short flight from the East Coast cities, and the Air Canada Centre is one of the league’s most sparkling arenas. But there remains a stigma to playing in Canada - that you’re playing in front of hockey-crazed crowds that view basketball as more of a novelty.
Bosh had never indicated earlier that he would leave Toronto.
“Chris left in what I would call a very unique set of circumstances,’’ Colangelo said. “It was a free agent frenzy. It was an unprecedented moment in this type of activity and he ended up going to be part of a rock-and-roll band in Miami. And it’s probably a decision nine out of 10 guys would make. And Chris again probably felt like that was the best thing for him.
“I’ll be honest with you, we were in a different set of circumstances not being able to do a whole lot for him because he never told us that he was going to be leaving or wanted out. He always made the impression very known and very public that he liked Toronto a lot and wanted to stay.’’
Colangelo did not hide his belief that Bosh is not an elite player or franchise cornerstone.
“Even if there was an open market similar to what’s gone on with [Carmelo Anthony] last year and Chris Paul this year and Dwight Howard, he’s not that caliber of player,’’ the general manager said. “It’s just that simple.
“I never had an opportunity to move him for the kind of haul that some of these other deals are producing. But for us to end up with a couple of first-round picks, it was a nice way to segue toward the future.
“As long as we weren’t strapped with a $126 million contract and the inability to really build around the player, we feel like this is probably the best thing that could have happened to us.’’