Small Moves Buoy Colangelo’s Design

It goes without saying that General Managers are measured first and foremost by their teams’ overall successes and failures. Being a great GM and building a top caliber team are, it would seem, co-dependent resume characteristics. It stands, then, that a great General Manager cannot, by definition, be so on a mediocre team; mediocrity and ... Read more

It goes without saying that General Managers are measured first and foremost by their teams’ overall successes and failures. Being a great GM and building a top caliber team are, it would seem, co-dependent resume characteristics. It stands, then, that a great General Manager cannot, by definition, be so on a mediocre team; mediocrity and greatness are mutually exclusive.

Though the Raptors look far from mediocre this season, and the Phoenix Suns of the past were far from mediocre, Bryan Colangelo’s management status seems to far exceed his on-court success. Devoid of a championship run, the 2005 NBA Executive of the Year lead the Suns to nine playoff appearances in his 11 year tenure, but never lead them further than the conference finals. Colangelo, also the 2007 NBA Executive of the Year, has lead the Raptors to the playoffs twice in three years at the helm.

Clearly, the man can build a playoff team, but it’s yet to be seen if he can build a championship one. So how is it that the man known in basketball circles as The Architect is so highly regarded as an executive without the one thing that defines executive success, playoff success?

Well for one, he created the :07 Seconds or Less roster. Any fan can appreciate that kind of paradigm shift to the game, and one has to applaud Colangelo for his ability to clearly create a vision and stick to it. He gave Steve Nash the car keys, surrounded him with high-tempo players and staff, and resuscitated an exciting brand of basketball.

In Toronto, he has a clear vision again, based not on tempo but on floor spacing, shot creation, and offensive versatility. While it may not be as sexy as the Phoenix model, it is a system that is highly repeatable – nearly every move Colangelo has made has taken the style of team into account. It seems like simple logic, but NBA teams rarely conform to such rules when reshaping rosters.

So despite a lack of deep-season success, Colangelo is heralded as a top executive. This offseason he has continued his string of moves that show his commitment to a team vision, his ability to change on the fly, and his willingness to admit and fix a mistake. These are three characteristics that should define strong management in any business but are rarely found in unison in an NBA front office.

Thus, Colangelo’s reputation stands not atop a championship trophy, but more than a decade of sound management.

This offseason has been no exception. With the swap of Devean George for Marco Belinelli, Colangelo reaffirmed the uber-logical axiom that every player on the roster has a purpose, and improving any roster spot from one through 15 can improve the team. It may turn out to be a small upgrade, or no upgrade at all, but it is certainly a worthwhile swap from any perspective. Arsenalist did a good job breaking down Belinelli’s place on the Raptors, so I won’t reiterate it. I will admit, however, that the deal has increased my (sometimes blind) faith in Colangelo.

Every move Colangelo has made in Toronto has had sound logic behind it, whether it turned out well or not. An exhaustive list would be, well, exhausting, so allow me to focus on his history as it pertains to my favorite Colangelo move, the “Fit Flip.” The Fit Flip is a swap of two or three players not highly regarded by their respective teams, with each team hoping the other is a better fit with them (a ‘grass is greener’ deal, if you will).

June 8, 2006 – Acquired Kris Humphries and Robert Whaley from the Utah Jazz for Rafael Araujo: Colangelo’s first real move was to eradicate his predecessor’s largest mistake. Not a bad idea, and Hump was a nice addition for a while; even if he wasn’t, this was addition by subtraction for the franchise’s image and morale.
June 16, 2007 – Acquired Carlos Delfino from the Detroit Pistons for second-round picks in 2009 and 2011: Long-range second round picks are a common currency in trades like this; Delfino wasn’t getting run in Detroit and Colangelo saw something in him. Delfino had his best NBA season with the Raps and, though frustrating at times, could be a valuable commodity if he returns.
February 22, 2007 – Acquired Juan Dixon from the Portland Trail Blazers for Fred Jones: This was my favorite one of these deals, as it showed both his willingness to make this kind of trade and his willingness to admit a mistake. Jones lasted less than a year in Toronto, but once the writing was on the wall Colangelo had no problem swinging him for a similar player that could relish with a fresh start. Dixon played decent before hitting free agency (and is a personal favorite).
December 4, 2008 – Fired coach Sam Mitchell; named Jay Triano interim coach: If you consider coaching changes de facto trades, this was another that showed a willingness to admit a mistake one year into a contract extension. Triano has since been named the head coach and has been lavished with praise by players inside and outside of the organization.
February 14, 2009 – Acquired Shawn Marion, Marcus Banks and cash from the Miami Heat for Jermaine O’Neal, Jamario Moon and a conditional draft pick: Certainly not a small trade in terms of name value, but the on-court results weren’t much. Still, it was a trade that essentially acquired cap space one season early, allowing the Raptors to reload this offseason with the likes of Turkoglu.
February 19, 2009 – Acquired Patrick O’Bryant from the Boston Celtics for a conditional second round pick in 2014: This was technically part of a three-way trade shipping out Will Solomon. Again, it was shifting a non-rotation player for a low-risk, high-potential player – though O’Bryant hasn’t shown much, he has size and youth on his side, which is more than Solomon can say.
June 9, 2009 – Acquired Reggie Evans from the Philadelphia 76ers for Jason Kapono: Lather, rinse, repeat. Kapono had worn out his welcome (although to be fair, he was being asked to play outside of his skill set), and Evans adds necessary rebounding and toughness at the same price tag.
July 29, 2009 – Acquired Marco Belinelli from the Golden State Warriors for Devean George: George probably wasn’t going to play if the Raps scored another small forward, and Belinelli is a younger and more skilled player. His range could be useful if he can find any sort of polish at all, but most importantly he’s a good friend and international teammate of Andrea Bargnani. When filling out the roster, why not add good personality fits and keep your top players happy? If they happen to have moderate upside on the floor, too, all the better.

The beauty of these deals is that they are essentially risk-free gambles. Fred Jones or Rafael Araujo may have prospered elsewhere, but they weren’t going to in Toronto. With the NBA’s stringent cap rules for trading (ignore loopholes for my point, please), it also means these type of deals are unlikely to cost you additional money or cap space. They may cost you a few extra dollars (Belinelli) or a future late pick (Delfino), but in present basketball value this is very little to give up.

General managers certainly won’t be defined by moves like this. However, for a man with a track record as long as Colangelo’s, these deals certainly have value. They are building blocks for future trades, end-of-the-roster players, and low-risk gambles. If we are to believe Marco Belinelli will be an instant rotation contributor, great, but the reality is that even if he pans out to be nothing but a pal for Bargnani, he cost the team nothing and the deal had potential. Such is the style of Bryan Colangelo.

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