Fresh off his work re-tooling the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns after disappointing turns at the hands of Jason Kidd and Stephon Marbury, Bryan Colangelo was a hot commodity in 2006. The GM was rumored to possibly have enough basketball sway to take over in New York, but instead of attempting to make hay out of Isiah Thomas’ salted soil, he instead accepted a job running the Toronto Raptors. With cap space in hand (thanks to deals with Isiah, of course) and a franchise player in Chris Bosh already on the roster, Colangelo’s nouveau touch seemed to be the perfect recipe for success.
It’s a long way of saying that he was hot stuff, his word was law, and that previous regime carryover Raptors coach Sam Mitchell was then thought to be soon on his way out in return for a Colangelo hire. Mitchell thrived in his first season working with Colangelo, though, putting together a playoff team without having to rely heavily on the services of rookie Andrea Bargnani, a 7-foot scorer that Colangelo chose first overall in what turned out to be a very weak 2006 NBA draft.
Bargnani turned out to be a blown selection, and years later his play has turned into a constant source of frustration for Raptor fans. Mitchell was let go in 2008, and in a recent interview Sam expressed regret that he was unable to coach Colangelo’s signature selection the way he thought best. From SportsNet:
"I wasn't allowed to coach Andrea the same way I was allowed to coach Jose (Calderon)," Mitchell told Tim & Sid on Sportsnet 590 The Fan on Wednesday. "I was a hard ass on Jose; I was hard on him, but look at the type of player he turned out to be.
"I was not allowed to be that tough on Andrea because within the organization we felt he couldn't take it. And my whole thing was if he can't take it then we can't build around him. And no one thought Jose could take it, and Jose did."
Calderon’s rookie season came in 2005-06, Colangelo’s last turn with the Suns, and it’s fair to say that the 24-year old struggled under Mitchell’s withering tone. Jose flourished over the next three seasons, though, putting up fantastic per minute numbers and turning into one of the more talkative leaders in the NBA.
Bargnani, not so much. Mitchell only started the 21-year old rookie twice in 2006-07, a decision that was no doubt made in concert with the team’s front office, as Brandon Roy ran away with the Rookie of the Year award. By his second season, he was shooting under 40 percent. For a spell there in 2011-12 it seemed as if Bargs could function as an offensive option whose defensive limitations could be slightly masked, but he’s taken a huge step backwards this season.
Worse for Bargnani, personally, the Raptors are 8-2 (after a 4-19 start) with him sidelined with a ligament tear in his elbow. Kurt Helin at Pro Basketball Talk details the differences:
Their offense is scoring 8.3 points per 100 possessions better than their season average in the last 10 games, in part because they are just shooting the ball better (their eFG%, which accounts for the bonus of a made three, has jumped from 48.3 percent on the season to 52.7 percent the last 10 games).
Then on the other end of the floor, the Raptors defense is nearly 4 points per 100 possessions better than their season average.
Look at it this way, in games 11-20 of the season the Raptors were a -8.2 points per 100 possessions when you compare their offense and defense. In the last 10 games that is +10.3, which is second best in the NBA in that stretch.
Helin also notes that the absence of Bargnani has created more opportunities for Ed Davis, a hustling big man that is superior to Bargs on the defensive end (so is a cloth cap, though, if we’re honest) and an upgrade offensively in spite of Andrea’s potential. He’s a low-usage guy that makes a ton of shots, with a stroke from the perimeter (not unlike his father’s) that is fundamentally strong. Even if Davis weren’t around in reserve, though, Bargnani’s late period Larry Johnson-type game would still be a millstone.
Despite the turnaround, though, it’s clear that it’s Colangelo that is the millstone. Drafting Bargnani in the first place wasn’t his biggest mistake – all of us were on board with that decision back in 2006 – it was the 2009 extension that Colangelo bid against himself to sign Bargnani to that haunts the team to this day. No other team would have offered Bargnani anywhere near the five years and $50 million that Colangelo handed him a year before he would have hit the market as a restricted free agent, and yet Colangelo thought it necessary to make a star out of his non-star by paying him like a star (along with an awful contract given to an already-30 Hedo Turkoglu). Clueless Raptor ownership didn’t help, and here we are – Bargs is due to make over $22 million in two years after this miserable season.
There’s your root cause: Colangelo’s personnel moves and the influence he still somehow wields over Raptor ownership. It’s probably true that a heavy-handed touch from Mitchell wouldn’t have resulted in Bargnani becoming a better player, Sam was a bit of a nutter and even he admits that Andrea “just doesn't seem like he has the passion for the game.” Yelling and screaming at people in attempts to get them to love things just doesn’t work out. Take it from a guy with rage issues who loves all sorts of terrible bands and wants you to hear a mix CD he just made.
The Raptors, currently, are one of the NBA’s better stories. Even after that awful start the group is just 2.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the East, and on Tuesday they took down a Portland team featuring an assistant coach in Jay Triano that went 25-40 as Raptors head coach following the 8-9 start that Mitchell put together to begin his final season in Toronto. The group is fun to watch and full of intriguing young players, even if there isn’t a star among them just yet.
Bryan Colangelo was a star in 2006. He inherited a star in Chris Bosh and was given the chance to not only draft a star in that June’s draft but put the pieces together needed to acquire a star with his significant cap flexibility.
Instead, he frittered nearly seven years of Canada’s lone NBA option’s time away. The Raptors include fans that move from coast to coasts that far exceed America’s continental borders, including expatriates that live all over America. For all the talk about how the NBA is a better place when the New York Knicks are successful, in a way it might be just as true if Toronto were a franchise worth cheering.
That won’t happen, though, until Bryan Colangelo completely revises his decision-making process, or the team’s ownership decides to go in a different direction with their personnel boss. There is a lot of blame to go around, from Mitchell’s missteps to Bargnani’s lack of development to Bosh leaving the team in 2010 for little to no compensation.
One guy has been there through it all, though.