Grange on Raps: Colangelo fights for his future

Bryan Colangelo.

Make no mistake: the only person with their finger on the trap door beneath Bryan Colangelo’s chair is the guy who’s not even officially his boss yet.

Tim Leiweke was cautiously cryptic on the subject of the Toronto Raptors executive’s future after it was announced he would be starting as the president and chief executive officer of MLSE on June 30.

“I have a role in the Bryan Colangelo relationship; we’ll see where it goes,” Leiweke said.

According to multiple sources ‘where it goes’ will be determined in the next few days, a week tops.

But more and more it’s looking like Colangelo will be back — along with Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. The wild card is the term — will Colangelo get his option picked up for one more ‘show me’ season? Or will he be able to convince those at MLSE that success is closer than it appears and consistency is important and get an extension?

There are countless adjectives that can be applied to the one-time front office young gun who his moving into his NBA middle age with his share of nicks and scars alongside the triumphs, but determined and flexible are always apt.

Tellingly, multiple sources close to MLSE paint a picture of Colangelo as having embraced the presence of Leiweke rather than cowering at the possibility that a new executive with a very public mandate to win championships would be looking to make his first splash by showing him the door, or opening the trap door, if you will.

It makes sense. If you’re fighting for your job — and those close to Colangelo say he’s been scrapping hard to get the chance to prove himself correct — then you’re probably smarter to seek influential allies than see every new face as an enemy.

And after all, Leiweke coming on board immediately makes MLSE a better place for a basketball executive to work as his NBA background and clout with ownership — estimates put his salary, for example, in the range of $8 million a year — can help put the needs of the club front and centre.

Whether that means a leadership group willing to spend luxury tax dollars or one simply invested in the team’s upside in what is one of the richest markets in the NBA, there is a sense that rather than seeing Leiweke as a threat, Colangelo has come to consider him as a strong potential advocate in the cause of winning basketball games.

There is an official MLSE board meeting scheduled for next week, however Tuesday afternoon Colangelo met with key figures on the MLSE board — BCE chief executive officer George Cope, Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed and MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum were all in attendance, along with Leiweke — in what was described by those with knowledge of the meeting as part of the standard evaluating process as the franchise begins planning its direction for 2013-14 and beyond.

As word of the meeting began filtering out some thought it was going to be a make-or-break moment for Colangelo, conjuring images of the longtime president and general manager walking into a board room and being handed his walking papers on the spot.

Nothing could be further from the truth, it turns out. Colangelo had originally been scheduled to make a presentation to the board next week but moved it up so he could attend the NBA’s pre-draft camp in Chicago.

Whether that’s a handy bit of cover or not — the Raptors don’t have a pick in the 2013 draft and aren’t in the market to acquire one — remains to be seen.

In any case there is no way that Colangelo is going to remain dangling until then. Having the meeting early means that those making the decision on his future can have it in hand prior to the board meeting. His fate will be rubber-stamped there, but it will have been decide before anyone enters the room.

Colangelo hasn’t been passive about the process. He wants to stay in Toronto and he wants prove his view that the Raptors are well positioned to be a playoff team in a rapidly shifting Eastern Conference sooner rather than later.

Rather than wait for the axe to swing, a determined Colangelo flew to meet Leiweke at an undisclosed location late last week and met with him again over the weekend in Toronto, according to sources.

In that light nothing Colangelo presented to the board members Tuesday would have been new to Leiweke’s ears.

The question becomes what appetite does MLSE have to chart a new course after five seasons out of the playoffs? Has Colangelo been able to make the case that the fastest way for the Raptors to make the post-season is by fostering consistency among the existing core while augmenting it with some complimentary roster additions?

In some ways the dynamics are similar to those that were in place when MLSE fired Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke in January. Tanenbaum, who is the only person in the company with his personal wealth at stake, is believed to be an advocate for Colangelo, as he was for Burke, but Bell and Rogers wanted Burke gone and they left it to Tanenbaum to do the deed.

The difference now is Leiweke, who will likely have the last word. The organization’s power lies with the two majority shareholders, Bell and Rogers, each of which own 37.5 per cent of the business valued at over $2 billion. But a clause in their shareholders agreement requires Bell and Rogers to always vote as a single block to avoid Tanenbaum gaining leverage by cozying up to one company or the other. So even if Tanenbaum wants Colangelo back — and it’s believed he does — it won’t be his call.

But while Bell’s Cope is considered the more engaged and opinionated on the fate of the company’s teams — “he’s a sports guy and a hands on manager,” says one source outside of MLSE — the reality is the company has made a significant and high profile investment in Leiweke, who in turn didn’t likely choose to relocate from Los Angeles in order to take orders from above.

The owners desperately want to win — “these teams are a content play for them, and winning teams are better content,” says one source — but they have entrusted Leiweke with the authority and the means to execute their vision. His first major decision will be on the fate of Colangelo.

“This is Tim’s call,” said one source. “They have hired a rock-star sports executive and now they have to go with whatever he says.”

The question, ultimately, is whether Leiweke wants to make the Raptors relevant now or roll the dice and reverse the rebuild with an eye towards the deep 2014 draft. It’s a riskier route, though one that might give the franchise a higher ceiling in the long term.

Colangelo believes his team is too far down a path to take a backward step now and has been determinedly scrapping to make his voice heard.

The betting now is that Leiweke will listen and the trap door will remain closed underneath Colangelo, giving him at least one more year to prove that he’s put together the core of a team that can win.

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