Yesterday we looked at the worst moves of Bryan Colangelo's Toronto Raptors tenure, illustrating why his job currently appears to be hanging by a thread, but today we go positive and remind people why he still has a good chance of being retained as the team's General Manager. Each of these moves, considered here to be his best, illustrate either savvy player evaluation, shrewd negotiating, or both. When at his best Colangelo squeezes dollars out of dimes and these five deals exemplify that ability perfectly.
5. Traded Charlie Villanueva for T.J. Ford
June 30, 2006
This was Colangelo's first major trade as the GM of the Raptors and it got a lot of people really upset. Villanueva had been a surprise breakout player in his rookie year in Toronto, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting to Chris Paul. However, Colangelo made two calls on the Villanueva situation that proved to be incredibly prescient. One, that Villanueva simply wasn't as good as his flashy rookie year had made him seem, and two, that the team needed a point guard a whole lot more than they needed a backup for Chris Bosh. Acting on that first point took guts. Villanueva had shown an impressive all-around game in his rookie year, Lamar Odom-esque some had said, but he was also inconsistent, a poor defender and a little lazy. Colangelo saw the latter defining his career more than the former, and that proved to be a very wise evaluation as Villanueva has struggled to live up to the lofty expectations set at his feet after his one year in Toronto.
On the flip side, Ford brought a much-needed hard-charging attitude to the point guard position for the Raptors, a competitive spirit that the team fed off of in their return to the post-season. Early in the '06-'07 season the team was 7-12 when Bosh went down with an injury, and it was Ford that the team rallied around, went 6-7 in Bosh's absence and turned the entire season around thereafter. While Ford's second year would be filled with controversy over who should be starting between him and Jose Calderon, swapping Villanueva for Ford was a key move that helped get Toronto back to the post-season and Villanueva never developed his career in such a way as to make Toronto fans regret his unexpected departure.
4. Traded Hedo Turkoglu for Leandro Barbosa and Dwayne Jones
July 14, 2010
In one sense this trade should be higher, but Colangelo has to lose points for putting himself against a wall to have to make this trade in the first place. Coming off of a disastrous year that saw Turkoglu's ppg average drop from 16.8 to 10.8 and his bad attitude get more headlines than his play, many thought Hedo's contract was un-tradable. At the very least, it was assumed, the Raptors would have to take on an equally bad contract to escape the headaches Turkoglu brought to the locker room. Instead, the Raptors got Barbosa, who was owed less money and less years on his deal than Turkoglu was. Consider that for a second: he not only managed to trade Turkoglu, but he traded him for a more productive player on a cheaper, shorter contract. While the rationale for this trade from Phoenix's side is still unclear, Toronto's motivation was obvious and they excitedly inserted Barbosa into their sixth-man role. The fact that Colangelo turned one of the biggest misfires of his career into a legit rotation player on a cheaper, shorter deal goes to the heart of his value as a GM: There is no player, and no contract, that he can't get out of if it doesn't work out. That has made him overconfident as a buyer, true, but at least he knows how to get out of a bad deal.
3. Signing Anthony Parker and Jorge Garbajosa
July 13, 2010 and July 24, 2010
These two get lumped together because their situations and impacts were so similar. Both were highly coveted Euroleague veterans that Colangelo managed to convince to come overseas to finally try their luck at the NBA. Several teams had tried to get both to leave stardom behind to become role players in North America, but Colangelo was the only one who could get them on a plane. He inked both to modest deals (three-years, $13-million each), but both were absolutely crucial pieces to Toronto's turnaround in 2007. They both brought experience and savvy that helped offset the relative youth of Ford, Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani, they were the team's two best defenders and both were able to pass and hit threes, as well.
Sometimes the obsession with youth in the NBA makes people forget the value of having high-minded veterans to surround that youth with, who help by filling in the gaps in their games, making high-percentage plays and knowing where to be on the court and when. When a team just sends a bushel of young players out to fend for themselves what you end up with is a lot of mistakes at best, and at worst you get players picking up bad habits that will be hard to break down the line. Colangelo got his team strong (and super smart) veterans, he got them cheap and on short deals, and their presence was as important as any youngster's was in making the team competitive that season. When it comes to free agency, these have always been Colangelo's best moves; securing under-the-radar talent with highly economic deals. It's a strategy he doesn't employ nearly enough as he too often looks to bet the farm with four- and five-year deals for guys like Turkoglu, Jason Kapono and Linas Kleiza.
2. Trading for Amir Johnson
There was a point in the summer of 2009 that it looked like a certainty that Carlos Delfino was going to come back to Toronto after a one-year exodus in Russia. Toronto had retained his rights and Delfino had expressed a strong desire to return. However, in a very un-Colangelo fashion, Toronto's GM refused to grant Delfino the lucrative deal he desired. When negotiations hit an impasse, Delfino was signed-and-traded (along with Roko Ukic) for Amir Johnson and Sonny Weems. Johnson, at 22-years-old, had been groomed in the Detroit Pistons system and Toronto got him just when his tutoring was about to pay off.
What Colangelo got, then, was a humble youngster in desperate need of a club that would let him apply his learnings and play through his mistakes. Toronto provided that opportunity, and Johnson rewarded them with a career year. His intensity on the court made him an ideal backup power forward, he showed a remarkable ability to play within himself and he improved steadily as the season went along. Johnson is now a featured part of the Raptors' young nucleus and all he cost Toronto was the rights to a player that they knew they were not going to sign back anyway. Not too shabby.
1. Drafting DeMar DeRozan (9th) and Ed Davis (13th)
June 25, 2009 and June 24, 2010
Coming up with Colangelo's best move as GM of the Raptors is pretty easy. While some of the aforementioned moves gave the Raptors solid support pieces for various areas of the roster, drafting DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis gave the team two foundational pieces for the future of the franchise. DeRozan had a so-so rookie year but exploded in his second, going for 20 ppg after the All-Star break and putting himself in a position to make a huge leap in year three. His numbers and career trajectory track nicely in line with scoring wings like Rudy Gay and if he can improve his three-point average (up from the 0.9% he averaged this year), he could develop into one of the preeminent wing scorers in the NBA.
His counterpart here, Ed Davis, has only one year of experience to draw from, but what he showed over the course of that year was impressive. Like DeRozan, he battled through inconsistency with regards to his effort as a rookie, but he finished the season with solid 7.7 ppg and 7.1 rpg averages and looked every bit like the defender-rebounder type that the Raptors had hoped he'd be when he fell to them in the draft.
It's worth noting that as this relates back to Colangelo, both players have basically played above the level of every player selected after them, and in some instances have outperformed players selected well ahead of them (Jonny Flynn and Ekpe Udoh come to mind). It's exceedingly difficult to get someone better than a role player late in the lottery because most of the top-shelf talent is off the board and you're often left selecting from a group of unproven commodities or safe-but-unexceptional prospects. Teams like Seattle used to get hammered in this area by taking risks on the unproven talent like Saer Sene and Robert Swift, while guys like Brandon Rush, Jordan Hill and Wesley Johnson proved that ‘safe' doesn't always mean safe when it comes to the NBA draft.
Colangelo took two late-lottery picks (9th and 13th) and turned them into valuable assets, and in the case of DeRozan he may have landed a star if he can take the next step as a player in year three. The draft is a minefield and crossing it unscathed is exceedingly difficult but Colangelo did it twice in back-to-back years and has set the Raptors up well, if not yet exceptionally, for the immediate future. Whether or not he gets to remain in charge to finish the job is the most pressing question now facing the Raptors as they look to turn their young core into a meaningful basketball team.