The clearest signal yet that major change is coming to the Toronto Raptors arrived by way of an email announcing the departure of Bryan Colangelo.
There have been significant developments since Masai Ujiri took over the reins of the basketball operation from Colangelo on June 4th, with Colangelo in theory comforted with the title of president of team and business operations and the promise that his basketball acumen would be valued around the Air Canada Centre, even if it wasn’t the first and last word it was before.
A month into a job he never really wanted, Colangelo realized he was not going to have a major role to play, and furthermore, the team was going to take a hard left turn from the path he had them on. Faced with being a bit player — as his handiwork was being undone all around him — he took a deep breath and said, basically, “I’m out.”
He was classy about it:
“He handled this with grace,” MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke told Sportsnet. “I appreciate what he’s done for the club and I know this wasn’t easy for him.”
What wasn’t easy was recognizing that the organization he built was being transformed in spite of him; like one of those fancy, modern condominiums that spring up around a historic building.
In his first month on the job, Ujiri, the former Denver Nuggets executive, has hardly sat still but he’s yet to fully telegraph what the Raptors are going to look like on his watch.
Still, the bones of a new basketball management staff are in place, with Ujiri building his own lean team that he can rely on as he tries to turn the Raptors from one of the NBA’s weakerthans into a robust operation that can win championships, the club’s very public and unequivocal mandate under Leiweke.
Ujiri has fired long-time scouts and dismissed fan favourites in Alvin Williams. He’s thrown his weight behind Dwane Casey as head coach and has been burrowed into his phone the past 48 hours trying to get the Raptors a draft pick they can use Thursday night.
And he’s done it all with minimal input from Colangelo, according to sources.
But exactly which direction the team might be headed in has been closely held. Was he blowing it up? Was he going to try and stay the course and see if a few tweaks could get the Colangelo-assembled core into the post-season for the first time in five years?
Until now there had been little indication one way or the other from Ujiri, and there still hasn’t been, at least directly.
But the email sent out by the Raptors announcing that “Bryan Colangelo, president of team and business operations, has stepped down from his position and will become a consultant for the team and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment moving forward” spoke loudly and clearly.
Change is coming.
From the outside looking in, firing Colangelo as the general manager of the Toronto Raptors by having him assume a newly-created executive position without basketball authority looked like a hastily arranged compromise.
The former general manager had been the biggest star the franchise had ever had, with the exception of Vince Carter and perhaps Chris Bosh. He was an NBA name brand that actually wanted to be in Toronto. Keeping him kept everyone happy. For Colangelo it was a chance to save some face; keep his fingers on the pulse and not have to uproot his family.
Maybe he wouldn’t be given the authority to sign and trade any more, but surely if he wanted to be kept around something could be found for him to do? He could build a practice facility, right? He could keep consulting with Canada Basketball, right? He could make a few calls for Masai here and there, couldn’t he?
It was an idea that looked strange from the outset.
“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,” Colangelo said last month when he was relieved of his basketball decision-making powers.
In practice it didn’t work.
Colangelo had an office at the ACC and came to work like always. He talked with Ujiri most mornings, including Wednesday morning. The two remain friendly.
But then the business of building a new basketball operation would get going at full speed and Colangelo would be left at the dock.
He wasn’t intentionally left out of the decision-making process, it’s just that how could Ujiri realistically consult him on who he should hire to replace the guys Colangelo had in place in the front office?
And that’s just the start of it.
From the beginning perhaps the main reason Colangelo was eased out of his basketball specific role was because Leiweke and by extension Ujiri fundamentally disagreed with him on one issue: Colangelo was convinced the core he’d assembled — a 34-win team five years removed from the playoffs that will be over the NBA luxury tax threshold and without a pick in Thursday night’s draft — was only a few additions away from being a playoff team and ultimately a contender in the Eastern Conference.
Leiweke and Ujiri looked at an organization that lacked point-guard depth and had $33-million-a-year worth of small forwards and shooting guards who couldn’t shoot and still owed $20 million to Andrea Bargnani and vehemently disagreed.
When it became apparent that the status quo — the one presided over by him over the past seven years — was due for a major shakeup, Colangelo chose to step down rather than stand idly by as his decisions were picked apart and discarded one by one.
He couldn’t help but take it personally with each move perceived as a referendum on where he had steered the team.
That he couldn’t stay around is all the proof required that the Raptors are heading for a period of massive change, undoing much of what he had attempted to build.