In the coming weeks, Bryan Colangelo is going to take a lot of flack. When he was brought in four years ago to helm the great ship Raptors, he was seen a savior of a moribund franchise and perhaps the best shot the team had to retain the services of its franchise cornerstone, Chris Bosh. People sometimes forget that just the hiring of Colangelo was enough to seduce Bosh into signing his initial extension with the club that many outside of Toronto believed he was never going to sign. That signing, though, basically set-up the beginning of the end of Bosh's tenure as a Raptor.
The problem was, like LeBron in Cleveland and Wade in Miami, Bosh only signed on for a three-year extension (as opposed to the five years available to him). At the time the club was just happy to have Bosh back in the fold, but Bosh was shrewd (and wise) to hedge his bets in Toronto since the organization had such a limited history of success to draw on when convincing him to stick around. They basically told him that if he stayed they could prove worthy of keeping him, and Bosh said ‘okay, but you've only got four years'.
The issue with that circumstance for the Raptors was that it basically put a narrow deadline on how quickly the team had to rebuild. It meant that the team couldn't do what most GM's want to do when rebuilding a club, which is tearing it down and rebuilding through the draft and with young prospects (like Colangelo is doing now), because that's a longer-term proposition than the Raptors had time for. The team had perhaps one year in 2006-2007 available to them to miss the Playoffs before things got particularly uncomfortable with Bosh and his desire to win. That meant that rather than developing youth, the team would have to aggressively pursue veterans to round out the roster quickly, and that usually comes with a narrower margin for error, as well as a greater cost of acquisition, and both those issues bit the Raptors in their attempts to retain the services of Bosh.
As derided as Colangelo's veteran-laden plan became over the years, his year-one results were stunningly effective. He surrounded Bosh with very versatile and high-minded basketball veterans like Anthony Parker, Jorge Garbajosa and Rasho Nesterovic and a bullet-quick point guard in T.J. Ford. They provided the kind of skills that round out a roster by playing smart on defense, facilitating on offense and being where they are supposed to be just about all the time. Bosh was given a low-mistake support system and they carried him (and he them) to a 47-win season and league-wide respect for their swift turnaround. It could be said, though, that that success was too much too soon for the club, and led to one of the two biggest handcuffing scenarios for Colangelo when running the club.
First was that Sam Mitchell was at the helm for that 47-win, Atlantic Division winning season, and he won the Coach of the Year award for it. Mitchell was a master motivator, but he was a poor tactician and could be terribly stubborn when dealing with players and his assistant coaches. No one believed that Colangelo wanted to keep Mitchell on as head coach past that season (Mitchell's contract expired at season's end), but the team's on-court success basically demanded that Colangelo re-sign Mitchell, whether he wanted to or not. Mitchell was never able to recapture that season's success as head coach of the Raptors.
The other big problem that season's success brought on was a sense that the team was a lot closer to elite play than they actually were. This was still a mediocre defensive club that also ranked as one of the worst rebounding outfits in the league. The team squeezed the most out of their roster and needed more top-shelf talent to take the next step.
However, armed with only the mid-level exception that summer, and no draft pick (it was sent away in the deal that got New York to take on Jalen Rose's contract in 2006, one of the cap-clearing moves that lured Colangelo to Toronto in the first place), the team was limited in its resources that summer when it came to restocking their cupboards. Oddly, though, instead of at least focusing on defense or rebounding with those meager funds, Colangelo brought in another long-range shooter in Jason Kapono with his full available exception, making a soft, finesse team even softer in the process.
The reasoning behind this move was that he felt that Bosh, who was being double-teamed into oblivion during their first-round Playoff series against New Jersey, needed more efficient shooters to spread the floor to allow Bosh to operate. That would have been a much sounder strategy if the Raptors weren't already a top-ten three-point shooting team and didn't already possess a 44% three-point option in Anthony Parker. The Kapono signing grew to represent a disconnect that many believed Colangelo had between his ideal basketball team and the realities of basketball in the NBA. The team's constant inability to secure more rugged defenders or active rebounders was sited frequently as the Raptors failed to live up to their previous season's standard, and it put Colangelo into a scramble that, with hindsight, ultimately forced Bosh to re-evaluate his future in Toronto.
Quick aside: Bosh had always been steadfast in saying that, if given his druthers; he'd prefer to stay in Toronto. However, he wasn't going to do what Kevin Garnett did in Minnesota, simply playing year after year on a mediocre club out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. He wanted to win and he hoped that Toronto would give him a chance to do so. Even as recently as last fall he was talking up Toronto as his first choice in free agency, but you have to figure that by then he had become terribly skeptical as to whether or not they could meet his non-financial off-season objectives. The increasing panic that seemed to motivate Colangelo's moves in Bosh's last two years no doubt heightened said skepticism.
Back to 2008, though, two years into Colangelo's elongated pitch to keep Bosh in Toronto. As a reaction to the public clamoring for defense and rebounding, as well as the team's beating at the hands of Dwight Howard and the Magic in the Playoffs, Colangelo used up all of the team's assets (their first-round draft pick, T.J. Ford and Rasho Nesterovic's $8.4-million expiring contract) in one move to secure aging big man Jermaine O'Neal. In his day, O'Neal was a tremendous defender and a fierce competitor in the paint, but after playing only 51, 69 and 42 games in his three seasons prior to joining Toronto, his best days seemed to be behind him. As fervently as Colangelo tried to defend the move, it always carried the stench of desperation, especially when he talked of how the Bosh/O'Neal Raptors were the most talented he'd ever built in Toronto. Even a master of spin like Colangelo couldn't seem to get the pundits to buy into the logic he was using to justify this move.
Understandably, Colangelo felt he needed to make a big move to prove to Bosh that not only could be deliver All-Star caliber talent to Toronto, but that the organization was willing to absorb major contracts to do it. The Raptors were now only two seasons away from Bosh becoming a free agent, and they were coming off a season of regression - so something meaningful needed to be done. The problem was that O'Neal was a shell of his former All-Star self, with battered knees having brought his career to the brink of irrelevance. Even if O'Neal was ostensibly representing the best deal Colangelo could muster with the assets he had available, he didn't help to pull the Raptors out of the tailspin they seemed to be engulfed in. O'Neal wound up being too desperate an option in the end, some would argue a shortsighted one at that, and when Colangelo traded him to Miami seven months later, those same critics felt validated in their derision of the acquisition.
The Raptors and Colangelo were now down to just one year to convince Bosh to stay, and at this point no one was giving them a chance to actually make that happen.
The amazing thing is, the team almost did it. It's one of the forgotten story lines in this whole drama, because it didn't quite get completed, but for a brief time last winter it looked as though the team had improved enough around Bosh to actually convince him to stay with the team past 2010.
The Raptors' summer of 2009 has typically been defined by their ill-fated acquisition of Hedo Turkoglu, yet another high-priced and overly desperate roster addition. However, the team on the court was far better defined by the high-character and athletic assemblage of DeMar DeRozan, Sonny Weems, Amir Johnson and Jarrett Jack, all of whom started at various points in the season for the club. They represented not only the closest thing to the cohesive '06-'07 core of internationally honed veterans the team would ever manage, but they were young enough to hint a brighter future, as well. The team was clicking on all cylinders by mid-season, peaking at seven games above .500 just after the All-Star break, and at that time Bosh looked like a lock to stay in Toronto. Then just when things were at their rosiest the chemistry began to fall apart, the losing started, Bosh got injured, the losing continued and the team wound up missing the post-season by a single game. Colangelo had tried for four years to surround Bosh with the right talent to maximize his winning potential, yet in the end it was a group of those supporting players left without their leader, trying stay competitive, while Bosh watched listlessly from the sidelines, probably accepting fully for the first time that he'd never again wear a Raptors jersey.
So even though Bosh is only hours away from leaving the Raptors franchise, let's not forget how difficult a predicament Colangelo was placed in when he took over the club with the sole mission to retain Bosh in the first place. He was criticized routinely for overspending on veterans to surround Bosh with, but when a team is in a win-now mode, that's what they have to do. Cleveland shared the same issue with LeBron, spending into oblivion trying to acquire stars to pair with James rather than being able to develop any youth around him. When a player is hanging a guillotine over your head, saying ‘win now or I'm outta here', you simply don't have the luxury of time to collect assets and develop draft picks. You need talent that can come in and contribute right away, and like the Cavs, that's what the Raptors attempted to secure for Bosh. Was the methodology applied within those restrictions perfect? Absolutely not, there were mistakes made along the way that even seemed like questionable or curious decisions at the time, without any need for hindsight. However, as was stated at the outset, the margin for error when tying your fate to your ability to secure veteran players rather than developing youth is vastly narrower. You're dealing with larger egos, more fragile bodies and contracts that are going to swallow your salary cap space alive. Colangelo never rested in his pursuit of the right complimentary talent for Bosh, he was just ultimately unable to find the right mix early enough to have it coalesce around his star before he bolted. He's going to be vilified for it, called out from all corners, but the realities of the circumstance simply proved too much for him to overcome. His good decisions never turned out to be good enough and his bad decisions turned out to be disastrous. Funnily enough, the Chris Bosh era in Toronto will probably be remembered more for Colangelo's attempts (and failure) to keep him than for Bosh's actual on-court achievements. It'll be interesting, though, to see what a liberated Colangelo can do with this team now that he doesn't have to placate any particular person on the roster with his forthcoming personnel decisions.
Of course, with rebuilding an inevitability the race against time Colangelo finds himself in now might involve getting a promising team of youngsters to gel before the suits at MLSE decides Colangelo's lavish contract is too rich for the results he's provided. There is no rest for the weary, as they say, and that is doubly true in the twenty-four hour transaction cycle the NBA is about to enter