By Gagan Gandhi
“There’s no basketball executive more highly regarded than Bryan Colangelo.”
Richard Peddie, President and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment
That quote from Richard Peddie was from just over 400 days ago. That was the day the franchise known as the Toronto Raptors turned it around. It is when they came to a realization that changes were needed. It is the day the Toronto franchise was saved and more importantly, revitalized. It had been a very long time coming for this franchise as they had long been the laughing stock of the NBA. It was needed to give the fans, which continuously came to the Air Canada Centre to support the Raptors, a glimmer of hope and a ray of sunshine. Something that said we want to win at any and all costs and show the league that they meant business. Previous to this decision by Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, quite a few columnists in the United States had said on numerous occasions that Toronto didn’t deserve a team.
No longer are those statements made.
The hiring of Bryan Colangelo as President and General Manager was not made over night. It all started after the firing of former long time Raptors General Manager Glen Grunwald. During the interview process in 2004, a former Raptor icon, now much maligned Net, made it publicly known he wanted the club to hire his favourite player growing up, Julius Erving. The Raptors showed a bit of interest in Erving, but he had no experience at all and therefore was not given the job, much to the displeasure of Vince Carter. That was really the end of Vince’s era in Toronto.
The Raptors ownership had their eye on another prize, Bryan Colangelo. They asked the Phoenix Suns organization to grant them permission to speak to Mr. Colangelo and they were denied, rightfully so. The Suns were on the verge of being a championship contender while the Raptors were cellar dwellers in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors then had to settle for Assistant GM Rob Babcock of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Needless to say, that didn’t work out well.
Let’s fast forward to early 2006. Even though Babcock had a better off-season in 2005 than he did in 2004, where he selected future Brazilian Playgirl Rafael Araujo, MLSE realized that this team wasn’t going anywhere with him at the helm. They fired him mid-season, if for no other reason than to give the future GM of the team some more time to evaluate the player personnel and to get ready for the off-season. They contacted the Suns organization once again to see if the reigning Executive of the Year was available, this time he was. All it took was one phone call. Larry Tanenbaum and Richard Peddie met with Mr. Colangelo during All-Star weekend. They gave him the title of President to go along with being the club’s General Manager. They also let him know that they would not interfere with the basketball operations, something that they had been rumoured to do during the Glen Grunwald era.
Why would Colangelo leave such a good team in Phoenix? 3,000,000 million reasons. The rest of the story is still a bit sketchy, but what does it matter right now anyways? The surprise was that they gave up Colangelo for nothing. No money. No picks. Nothing. The Raptors had just signed one of, if not the best, executives in basketball. Someone who had a track record and experience. A guy who finally made this team what it had not been since the early century mark, legit. When he showed up during his first Raptors game at home, he was given a loud ovation and you could sense that the fans of this team were finally given something they had not received since Carter’s infamous miss against the 76ers in the playoffs… hope. The fans knew his track record, the fans knew he had guts; the only thing the fans didn’t know was in how short a time he would really turn this club around.
Another thing that Bryan Colangelo brought to this team very early on that cannot be quantified is luck. You do not move up 3-4 spots via the draft lottery without it. To this day, I remember telling my friends the afternoon of the draft lottery that the Raptors would get the number one pick in the draft. They laughed, it was just a hunch, and maybe it was just a fan being optimistic. As I finished up basketball that afternoon, I came home and quickly went to http://www.sportsnet.ca where I saw the main story. Even though I predicted it, I couldn’t believe my eyes; this was truly magical and was meant to be. I had no knowledge of what players were available in the draft, but I knew that having the 1st pick was better than having the 5th pick.
There were rumblings around the NBA that the Raptors were heavily scouting Andrea Bargnani of the Italian league. The rumblings were right on as they took the 7-foot Italian coined “Il Mago” and the “Big Rook.” A few columnists criticized the selection and touted Andrea as the next Darko, referring of course to the much-maligned 2nd overall pick of the Detroit Pistons in 2003. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, a few columnists also compared him to Dirk Nowitzki. So, it was already decided that there would be no middle ground with this young Italian; it was either Dirk or Darko, it was either the sky or the subway.
When Bryan Colangelo does something, he does it right. He doesn’t just do one thing and hope everything else falls into place magically, so to speak. He builds a foundation for something to be built on. This is why he brought in Maurizio Gherardini, who was the architect of Benetton Treviso, just days prior to the drafting of Bargnani. Gherardini was named Vice President and Assistant General Manager of the Raptors and is no doubt a future NBA GM himself. Gherardini was like a father figure to Andrea and was widely considered the best basketball mind not in the NBA, better than some in the NBA even. Before being hired by the Raptors, he would be approached by numerous teams asking for his advice prior to selecting European players. He knew Bargnani would need some help adjusting to the North American culture and game and bringing in someone that Bargnani trusted so much surely made him feel much more comfortable and at home.
So the management was set and in place. Next up on Bryan’s checklist was players.
Just hours after selecting Andrea Bargnani in the 2006 NBA Draft, he made headlines by trading versatile big Charlie Villanueva for the quickest guard in the league, TJ Ford. If you thought the selection of Bargnani was greatly criticized, then you hadn’t seen anything yet. No one trades big for small people kept reiterating. Villanueva was coming off a good rookie season where he finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting while Ford was coming off his first real season without a long-term injury. He had missed the entire 2004-05 season because of a back injury and there was no certainty he would ever be able to play again. He did come back in 2005-06 and put up good numbers, getting 12.2 points per game and dishing out 6.6 assists per game. However, there still was no certainty that he would be healthy for any length of time in his career.
This season, TJ Ford has averaged 14.2 points and 8.0 assists per game. Charlie has averaged 11.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, while only playing 39 games for the Milwaukee Bucks. He wasn’t supposed to be the one that was injury prone. Ford was also huge when Chris Bosh went down early in the season for 12 games, one of the most important stretches for the Raptors this past season. He carried the club during those 12 games, including hitting a buzzer beater game winner against the Los Angeles Clippers. They went 6-6 during that stretch and showed the league they weren’t a one man show. Needless to say, the deal worked out.
Where did he turn to for the other players? Europe. Go figure, eh!
I present to you Anthony Parker and Jorge Garbajosa. One was selected in the first round by the New Jersey Nets in 1997 and one is a rookie, respectively. Parker left the American game for quite a few years after the 1999-00 season and made his return this season after signing on with the Raptors. Garbajosa on the other hand had never played the North American style of basketball and was brought in partially to help Andrea Bargnani. They both signed deals worth approximately 12 million dollars over 3 years. Bargain prices for the things these two players bring and the effect they have on the team. Parker has averaged 12.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game; he has also emerged as one of the best three point shooters in the game. Garbajosa has averaged 8.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. A lot of things that these two players have brought to this organization cannot be quantified, just like luck. They bring grit, determination and fight. Not to mention defense and outside shooting. They never back down and never give up. It is something the Raptors had lacked for the past half-decade.
Between those two signings was probably the most important signing of all, Chris Bosh’s extension for three more seasons with a player option after 2006-07. The day this signing was announced Bryan Colangelo told the media that, “Signing Chris Bosh to this contract extension was the top priority of this off-season and it solidifies our plan to make him the cornerstone of this franchise.”
That same day, Bosh donated $1,000,000 to the Raptors Foundation, just going to show what a great human being he is as well. It’s good to know that in this era of multi-million dollar contracts there are still athletes who value charitable work, sportsmanship, commitment and work ethic. He is a consummate professional and goes about his business the right way. Besides, all he does is get better year-to-year and is a fan favourite.
Having him locked up long-term sent a message to the fans that the Raptors are committed to winning and maybe more importantly, Chris Bosh was committed to the Raptors.
Everything was set. They had nine new faces on the roster including a centre, Rasho Nesterovic, picked up from the San Antonio Spurs via trade, and a point guard, TJ Ford. They went 7-1 in the preseason, showing off their new up-tempo style of play. Even after that, a few writers still had them pegged to end up in the bottom third of the league by the end of the season. Despite the pessimism surrounding the club the players couldn’t listen to other peoples comments, they could only trust their own instincts and they all had the sense that something special was going to happen.
However, once the season started, it was less than special. They were 2-2 after 4 games and were ready to embark on a six game road trip. They came back home after that road trip 2-8. Fans were calling for the coach’s head and wanted some major changes. Others said that this team simply wasn’t good enough and it was to be expected. One thing didn’t change though, they all still believed in themselves and the team. It was roughly at this point in time when GM Bryan Colangelo suggested to Head Coach Sam Mitchell that Bargnani should get more playing time, more burn if you will. He got it. The Raptors started playing better, driving and kicking, going to the rack, nailing open jump shots… playing as a team, playing as one.
The Raptors were quite a few games under .500 heading into January of 2007, the month a lot of experts pegged as the easiest on the schedule this season due to the amount of home games. They had 10 home games and 5 road games during the month. They finished the month 10-5 and had a .500 record for the season at that point in time. Two of those losses came against the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks, losing those games by a combined point total of: 3. Not only was it one of the best month’s in franchise history, they had some hardware to commemorate and remember that stretch of games.
On February 1st, 2007, the Toronto Raptors made history. Chris Bosh won the Eastern Conference Player of the Month award, Sam Mitchell won the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month award and Andrea Bargnani won the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month award. No team in NBA history had ever swept the monthly conference awards before. The team was at a season-high and there was a feeling that it was only going to get better. Some people even joked that former Phoenix Suns GM and current Toronto Raptors President and GM took five of six awards. His current team swept the East and his former team, Phoenix, also won two of three awards for the West. Steve Nash won Western Conference Player of the Month and Mike D’Antoni won Western Conference Coach of the Month. It just added fuel to the fire for people saying Colangelo should once again be named Executive of the Year.
When Bryan Colangelo makes a mistake, he admits it. The only off-season move that didn’t work out for Toronto was the acquisition of Fred Jones from the Indiana Pacers via Free Agency. He was signed to a 3 year deal during the summer worth approximately $3,000,000 per season. He started the season in the starting five for the Raptors but his jump shot quickly faded and he wasn’t driving to the basket with any regular frequency. Soon after he was coming off the bench and soon after that he didn’t receive many, if any, minutes during games.
Bryan recognized that all he was doing was eating up valuable cap space and really showed no signs of turning it around. Come the NBA Trade Deadline day on February 22nd, there were many rumours of what stars would go where, would a team ante up for the Kevin Garnett of Minnesota or Pau Gasol of Memphis. There were even big rumblings that the New Jersey Nets may deal Vince Carter or Jason Kidd, or both. However, none of that occurred. The biggest deal of the day took place between Toronto and Portland as Fred Jones was sent to Portland and Juan Dixon came the other way. Salary definitely played a part in this deal as Jones had 2 years left on his deal after this one and Dixon only had 1 year left. However, Fred Jones agreed to terminate the third year on his deal so he could play in his hometown. Just the fact that someone gave up that amount of money shows what kind of pull and poise Bryan Colangelo has around the league. Juan Dixon has become a key part of the success the Raptors have recently enjoyed. On the other end of the spectrum, Fred Jones has continued to struggle, no doubt a great deadline deal for Toronto.
Currently the Raptors find themselves in the thick of things in terms of them battling for the second or third seed in the Eastern Conference. If they win two of their final three games they will set a new franchise record for wins in the regular season. They are receiving major accolades not only in Canada but in the United States as numerous columnists and television analysts love their style of play. The core of the team is going to be together for years to come as they are all locked up long term and are young. Chris Bosh is 23, TJ Ford is 24 and Andrea Bargnani is 21. Last season the Raptors finished with 27 wins on the season, this season they will finish the season with more than that amount of wins at home alone.
It has been the best stretch of 400 days in the franchise’s history. It’s true, there isn’t a championship yet, but the franchise has a face on the court and now for the first time ever, in management. They have that icon that they have forever lacked. They faced adversity and overcame it. When he says something, no matter how hard it may be to believe, you want to trust him. He is the definition of confidence and the symbol of coolness. He has the look of James Bond and gives the perception of God. He is Bryan Colangelo.