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Lewenberg: Saving face with Colangelo reassignment

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Josh Lewenberg
5/21/2013 5:36:29 PM
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TORONTO - For over four weeks, Tim Leiweke, the incoming Chief Executive Officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, has been mulling his options regarding the fate of now former Raptors' general manager Bryan Colangelo.

The decision, as we understood it, revolved around two opposing would-be directions. Option A: retain Colangelo, allowing him to finish what he started in the final (option) year of his contact. Option B: cut ties with the two-time Executive of the Year, moving on from his largely disappointing seven-year tenure at the helm of a perennially underperforming Toronto franchise.

In true MLSE fashion, the chosen path was found through a hidden door number three, the unanticipated and even bewildering 'Option C'.

On Tuesday, 25 days after Leiweke was introduced as CEO, Colangelo was officially stripped of his GM title and retained as the team's president.

"I admire and respect Bryan and his passion and loyalty for the Raptors and for Toronto," Leiweke stated in a conference call Tuesday morning. "I think he's actually done a good job with that and on that area, I give him high marks."

"On basketball, I think we all know that there is great debate about decisions made in the last eight years and, in particular, in the last five years, not making the playoffs. So there's accountability here and we need a new set of eyes and a new thinking towards how we, from a basketball standpoint, go forward. So the decision was made to try to get the best of both worlds if at all humanly possible."

Colangelo's condensed role under the MLSE umbrella can certainly be considered an unexpected turn of events, not because its entirely unprecedented, but in the way it convolutes the big picture. Under Leiweke, the former boss of sports super power AEG, the future was presumed to bring clarity, stability and a certain decisiveness that had been lacking atop this franchise since its inception. That still may be the case, it's far too early to make any overzealous long-term judgments, but this is not a promising start.

"We had a short window," Leiweke acknowledged. "I know some people think it took too long but two weeks was a bit of a process trying to get that done. Once we accumulated that information, the decision was made to try to make sure that we protect the best interest of the organization going forward."

This has been a long, drawn-out process, handled poorly from the moment it began to take shape. Anything but decisive. When Leiweke -- who won't officially take his post until June 3, moved up from July 1 -- accepted the job, it became immediately clear he was not going to sit on his hands, change was on its way. Shortly after, the names of potential replacements began to circulate, from Phil Jackson to current Executive of the Year Massai Ujiri, believed to be Leiweke's top choice. Colangelo was never going to be Leiweke's guy but all the while, he was left to and continues to be responsible for representing an organization that is essentially phasing him out. The optics are not good.

Although it was always important for the organization to do right by Colangelo in the midst of a sensible breakup -- as I alluded to while his status was still in the air -- I'm not sure this solution satisfies that goal. If anything, it could cause more harm than good for both parties, assuming this arrangement lasts longer than Brian Burke's brief stint as a "consultant" with the Maple Leafs following his sudden dismissal in January.

Finally the Raptors seem ready and willing to move on -- a process many feel is long overdue -- but instead of putting Colangelo in their rear-view mirror, their ex lurks closely in the background. His replacement -- whoever he turns out to be -- will be asked to pick up the pieces of a five-year playoff drought and build a winner with the previous architect just around the corner, so to speak.

Colangelo's role in the hierarchy of MLSE and the Raptors' franchise remains unclear at this time. He will report directly to Leiweke, as will the new GM, and be consulted as an adviser on basketball-related matters while also dabbling in the business side. Among the projects he may be tasked with, Leiweke referenced the team's relationship with Basketball Canada, growing the brand throughout the country, going all-in on a bid for the 2016 All-Star game and potentially designing a state of the art practice facility. According to Leiweke, the new GM -- who is expected to be hand picked within the next 30 days -- will have full autonomy over basketball decisions.

"I believe this is in everyone's best interest to make this work," said the CEO, who has narrowed his search for the team's next GM to approximately six candidates. "Bryan's going to have to occasionally take a deep breath and understand now that a GM will have a direct report and final say on all basketball decisions and he's going to have to live with that."

The underlying question in all of this is, why would either party be interested in this incredibly bizarre arrangement?

"This is a process," Leiweke said. "I understand that in taking on that process, there will be constant effort on my part to make sure that the authority and responsibilities are respected by all and that there's no miscommunication going forward. But I think that if we can do this right, if we can create the right process and honour it, then we have the best of both worlds and that's what we were trying to get."

Whether this move is a Leiweke initiative, as he claims, or a direction spearheaded by loyal chairman Larry Tanenbaum, as many believe, Colangelo's soft landing allows the organization to save face. Instead of firing one of the most well-regarded executives in basketball, they've opted to provide him with an office, a paycheque and some busy work until his next opportunity comes along, and it will.

This is not likely to be a long-term solution, merely a bridge that carries him to a job more suited to his ultra-competitive temperament. In regards to Colangelo himself, his affection for the team, players, city and fans is sincere but there's more to it than that. The perception of a demotion -- or reassignment, as I'm sure he'd prefer to categorize it -- is less punitive than an all-out dismissal.

"Bryan's probably ticked off at me," Leiweke told TSN.ca during his conference call. "There's no probably, he's ticked off at me. This isn't his perfect world either but to his credit, he accepts it. He understand the role, he understands the responsibility, he understands the process."

"I'm not ticked off," Colangelo insisted, respectfully responding to his new boss. "I think more than anything else, I'm just a little disappointed. I'm disappointed that I'm not going to be able to see this thing through with respect to final decision-making."

What Colangelo may be miscalculating is the frustration that will undoubtedly accompany his proximity to a foundation he built but can no longer maintain. Although it may be rewarding for him to watch the growth of players like Jonas Valanciunas or DeMar DeRozan -- young men he brought into this league -- it will be equally as devastating to witness another executive tinker with his vision, potentially choosing to go in a different direction altogether.

Regardless of the motivation behind it, both Leiweke and Colangelo have willingly created an extremely volatile situation at the worst possible time. As the Raptors look to turn the page on a disappointing interval in their existence, this arrangement -- however temporary it may be -- serves as an unnecessary distraction, a reminder of the not-so-distant past they're hoping to escape.

Not surprisingly, the always-articulate Colangelo represented himself perfectly Tuesday afternoon. Despite an understandably somber tone, he said all the right things, portrayed the impression of unity and most importantly, acknowledged his new parameters.

"I think we're poised for success and I want to be part of it so I am committed to that process," he explained. "I'm also committed to the notion of helping and facilitating where needed but I certainly won't get in the way of a new general manager with the decision-making authority that he's going to be given."

"Hopefully I will be asked my opinion. I will give my opinion, I've never been shy to give an opinion. I've never been shy to make a decision but that decision will now rest on somebody else. How much weight in the room that opinion will have is really going to depend on who the individual is."

"In order to find the GM," Leiweke maintained, "in order to find the right person to get us on the right track here as an organization, we're going to have to honour that process and make sure there's an environment that allows that person to make the final decision. That person has my commitment, that's first and foremost here and if anyone ultimately disrupts that process, then I'll clean it up."

Colangelo will have to know his role -- whatever it turns out to be -- and stay within it if this has any chance of working or lasting. There's one way this arrangement can be successful and many ways it could go awry. The organization now runs the risk of having too many cooks in the MLSE kitchen. Too many voices, too many opinions, too many agendas. In theory, a front office loaded with sharp basketball minds should be a blessing but unless it's executed flawlessly, this will almost certainly be a disaster.

Bryan Colangelo (Photo: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images)
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