Colangelo deserves credit for Raptors success

He drafted DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas, and traded for Kyle Lowry. Bryan Colangelo may not be with the Raptors anymore, but his presence is still felt.

When DeMar DeRozan was named an Eastern Conference all-star earlier this season the Toronto Raptors franchise player texted his old boss, Bryan Colangelo.

“I just told him thank you,” says DeRozan. “Thank you for drafting me, thank you for putting me in this situation. That man believed in me… Bryan Colangelo. I respect him and appreciate him and I keep in contact with him. Without him, who knows where I’d be right now?”

And where would the Raptors be without DeRozan, who—as teammate Kyle Lowry put it the other day—“is turning into a superstar in front of everyone’s eyes” in the first playoff appearance of his career?

For that matter, where would the Raptors be without Lowry, the tough-as-nails point guard who has been on a season-long campaign to scrub away any lingering views of him as a hard-to-coach hothead and in the process cementing his status as one of the best all-around point guards in the game?

And by the way, Lowry says his thanks to Colangelo, too.

“It’s funny,” recalls Lowry, who Colangelo acquired in a 2012 trade with the Houston Rockets. “BC texted me before the season and [former Raptors vice-president of basketball operations] Ed Stefanski did also and I texted them back and I said, ‘I’m still going to prove that you guys were right,’ and left it at that.”

As the Raptors head into Game 5 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal with the Brooklyn Nets at the Air Canada Centre Wednesday night tied 2–2 after their best regular season in franchise history, Colangelo is looking more and more right all the time.

There are plenty of people who deserve credit for the Raptors success, but nearly all of them have ties to Colangelo, including head coach Dwane Casey who Colangelo hired, and current GM Masai Ujiri who Colangelo recommended for his job after incoming MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke moved Colangelo aside after seven years in Toronto.

After a year on hiatus multiple NBA sources have told Sportsnet that he’s close to joining the fray again and is a leading candidate to run the Detroit Pistons.

The Raptors success—the one hole on his resume—isn’t nearly as glaring any more.

“I called Bryan myself and I’ve been telling people in the league, he deserves some credit here,” says Stefanski. “His fingerprints are all over this thing… he’s got a story to tell now.”

Well of course Stefanski would say that—he was Colangelo’s right-hand man from 2011 to 2013.

But listen to the guy who fired him:

“Bryan did a good job,” Leiweke told Sportsnet on the eve of the playoffs, believed to be the first time he addressed the legacy left by the man he pushed out without ceremony. “As much as there has been a lot made of there being tension between us, did we make it personal at the end—it’s never easy going through changes we did.

“What I know is this: He did a very good job drafting the nucleus that he drafted. We are not here today without Bryan Colangelo, without his decisions, without the risk he took on an extension for [DeRozan] … He deserves a lot of credit.”

All five Raptors starters were acquired by Colangelo, and in the case of DeRozan and Amir Johnson, signed to long-term contract extensions that were panned as too rich at the time but are bargains now. DeRozan just finished the first year of his four-year, $38-million deal; Johnson has one year and $7 million left on his.

Similarly, Lowry looked like an iffy trade last season when he was chafing under Casey and struggling through injuries, and now he seems like an outstanding return for what turned out to be the No. 12 pick in the 2013 draft. Presuming the Raptors can re-sign Lowry on a deal in the $10- to $12-million range the Raptors will have an all-star quality backcourt for about $20 million a season.

Colangelo was ripped by fans for picking an unknown European seven-footer fifth overall in 2011. They feared the second coming of Andrea Bargnani, Colangelo’s signature failure.

Instead they’ve come to love Jonas Valancuinas, the high-energy 21-year-old who projects as a potential all-star centre of the future. Terrence Ross has struggled mightily in the playoffs but he’s shown enough athleticism and shooting ability to be a rotation player on a good team, if not a starter. Not bad for a No. 8 pick.

Colangelo “respectfully declined” the opportunity to be interviewed for this story, but he’s remained in Toronto and follows the team closely.

His reputation took a beating in Toronto as the team flatlined and as Bargnani scuffled and the home-run swing on the Rudy Gay acquisition didn’t pan out.

It’s impossible to know what would have happened had he stayed in the job: Would he have fired Casey after a 6-12 start; would he have continued to force the round Gay peg into what was clearly a square hole alongside DeRozan?

But it’s worth pointing out that Colangelo was the first person to see the frame of the current roster as a potential playoff team in the East.

Similarly while Ujiri’s energy and communication skills have been welcome, he’s not suggesting he was following a blueprint he thought would lead to a near 50-win season this year.

That Ujiri’s trade of Gay saved the Raptors season is viewed in some ways as a strike against Colangelo and a masterstroke by Ujiri.

Except even Ujiri admits he had no expectation that the players acquired from Sacramento would turn around the Raptors’ season.

“There’s no genius here saying I saw this, even after the trade,” he said. “Did I think it would be like this after the trade? No. We found chemistry in some kind of way.”

“Sometimes it’s luck,” Ujiri says. “There are going to be some things that don’t do so well or the timing wasn’t right. For me [Bryan’s] got an absolutely brilliant mind, he gave me my chance here, he remains to me a dear friend and he’s part of this, in my opinion.”

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