Grange: Winning the only solution for Raptors

May 21, 2013, 10:05 PM

There’s only one way the Toronto Raptors cabinet shuffle can possibly work, and that’s if it actually does work.

Circular logic or not, a couple of playoff appearances down the road and maybe a lucky sprint to the Eastern Conference final from now, and the events behind the curtain of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment politburo will be viewed as the calm actions of wise men.

If that actually happens, history will write itself. If the decision by MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke to fire Raptors president and ex-general manager Bryan Colangelo by keeping him around works out it will look inspired.

But all of that will have to take place. The Raptors will have to make the playoffs. They’ll have to become a legitimate force in the Eastern Conference. They’ll have to be a team that TNT or ESPN might even put on one of their broadcasts once in a blue moon.

But if none of that happens — and who wants to take that bet at the moment? — and the Raptors continue to be the NBA’s version of the chubby private school kid who keeps peeing on their shoes, then the events of the past 24 hours will be as good a place to start as any for someone trying to explain why a rich club in a massive market is on pace for 20 years of various versions of basketball failure.

And the person wearing the latest chapter in the Raptors sordid history will be Leiweke, newly installed MLSE president and CEO hired at great expense — like $6 million annually — to rewrite the entire organization’s history.

Based on the first chapter there is already going to be a plot twist required to get to a happy ending.

A summary, for those who are still covering their ears and singing Happy Birthday at the top of their lungs, trying to pretend this hasn’t happened:

On April 26 Leiweke was announced as the new president and CEO of MLSE, owners of the Raptors, Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto FC, the ACC and all kinds of other stuff. He makes very clear he wants to bring championships to a company that hasn’t won any, in any sport, and hints broadly that the Raptors are his first order of business.

Even though he doesn’t officially start until June 30 he immediately dives in on figuring out what to do with the Raptors, a matter that’s pressing because MLSE has until May 1st to pick up the option on Colangelo’s contract — a deadline pushed to May 20th by mutual agreement.

It’s clear that in the interim Colangelo fights very hard to keep his job, meeting Leiweke one-on-one over the weekend of May 4th and then sitting in on Colangelo’s presentation to the MLSE board on Tuesday, May 7th which turns into an intense, three-hour grilling of Colangelo who is coming off five straight seasons out of the playoffs.

But even as Colangelo is trying to keep his job, Leiweke is trying to find his replacement, canvassing the NBA for a short list of candidates and hiring a search firm to gather background information and make discreet inquiries to gauge interest.

But as the clock ticks something happens. Leiweke decides he doesn’t want Colangelo to be the person making basketball decisions, but at the same time doesn’t want to fire him. There’s a suggestion that Colangelo may simply offer his resignation.

He doesn’t.

Instead a new contract is drawn up — terms undisclosed — where Colangelo retains the title of Raptors president but is told in no uncertain terms that what happens to his basketball team is no longer his responsibility. To the surprise of many, Colangelo says “OK” to that.

The seemingly sharp left turn is announced Tuesday on a pair of conference calls where Leiweke and Colangelo each pledge allegiance to the plan, but in the same way a movie hostage might say everything is great even as they have “help me” written on their eyelids.

“Bryan will be retained in president’s position, but will no longer be the GM,” Leiweke said in an interview prior to the announcement. “…. The new GM will have the final decision on all basketball (issues) and will report to me directly. I have structured this in a way where I am 100 per cent convinced that we can create an environment where the new GM will feel comfortable getting opinions from Bryan or others in the organization, but knowing at the end of the day they have the full wherewithal and decision-making power and I have their back on that. “

And if Colangelo — so habitually detail-conscious that he has been known to burrow deeply into discussions about the exact shade of red the trim at the Air Canada Centre floor should be painted — oversteps his boundaries?

“Bryan’s going to have to occasionally take a deep breath and understand now, that a GM is going to have a direct report (to me), and final say-so on all basketball decisions,” Leiweke said later in a conference call. “He’s going to have to live with that. And I hope he can. Because if he can’t, I’m fairly certain we’re not going to fire the Toronto Raptors.”

And Colangelo? He’s okay with this?

“It’s a unique situation for me to be in, not an ideal situation, but I’m going to embrace it and make the most of it,” he said.

It’s not like it can’t work. The things Leiweke says Colangelo will be given to focus on are important. An elite practice facility is the kind of bauble that separates serious franchises from those just happy to be in the NBA. Bidding for and hosting the 2016 NBA All-Star Game to mark the franchise’s 20th anniversary is a worthy undertaking. Working closely with Canada Basketball is important. And there’s no doubt that Colangelo can be a resource if the person who takes his job is willing to listen, and if Colangelo can colour between the lines.

But making it work? Making sure that whatever assets Colangelo might bring will outweigh the potential for distraction? Making sure that the presence of the old GM doesn’t hinder the search for a new one? That will be on Leiweke, too.

“Unlike everyone who kill Bryan, I want this structured in a format that is akin to some of the organizations in the NBA that I admire and respect, which is to have a true day-to-day GM,” said Leiweke.

“My challenge is going to be: can I make Bryan a resource there but make sure he doesn’t interfere, nor does he take away from the new GM’s ability to make decisions. And I’m going to create that environment. And I’m going to be on it day-to-day.”

Leiweke is adamant that this move — his first — was his call, and not foisted on him by ownership, even if firing then promoting Colangelo is right out of the traditionally-muddled MLSE playbook.

It’s almost irrelevant what the real story is, because Leiweke’s job is at least in part to make sure ownership doesn’t do things with their teams that seem doomed to fail.

Whether this is his idea or not, it’s Leiweke’s to wear. It will make sense if it works. Winning takes care of everything.

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