Dunkonomics: How the Toronto Raptors’ Bryan Colangelo plans to reinvent his team

Dunkonomics: How the Toronto Raptors’ Bryan Colangelo plans to reinvent his team

Bryan Colangelo, the Raptors’ impulsive, extravagant general manager, has finally accepted the business necessity of recruiting star players. Unlike the current roster of no-name Europeans, stars sell tickets and jerseys and TV ads. Most important of all, stars win games

By Eric Andrew-Gee | Photography by Markian Lozowchuk

Bryan Colangelo watches Raptors games from the concrete tunnel that leads to the home team’s locker room. He never sits; he paces, totally absorbed, his face—flinty, grey eyes narrowed, cheeks creased with exhaustion, jaw tense—like a war mask. From his intimate vantage point of the Air Canada Centre court, Colangelo evaluates the players that he, as Raptors president and general manager, has hired at great expense—some $60 million in paycheques a year—with the exclusive goal of winning basketball games. And, more often than not, Colangelo watches his team lose.

At first, Toronto couldn’t get enough of the Raptors. The early seasons were awful, but the novelty of an NBA team was enough to sell seats. And then, in 1998, they traded for a shooting guard from the University of North Carolina named Vince Carter. From the moment Carter arrived in Toronto, he was a sensation. His nickname was Vinsanity, for his superhuman slam dunks, but the word also applied to the affliction that gripped Toronto’s sports fans. By the 2001–2002 season, the Raptors had the fourth highest attendance in the NBA. That year, 40 out of 41 home games were sellouts. Prince, then a Toronto resident, was a fixture at the ACC. Susan Sarandon, Samuel L. Jackson and Vin Diesel took in games, and Justin Timber­lake played at a Raptors charity event. Forbes valued the Raptors at $249 million, double what they were worth before Carter arrived.

The trouble with building a team around one player is that, if that player blows out his knee, as Carter did repeatedly in his last three seasons in Toronto, your team devolves into a loose assemblage of unmotivated, middling players. The team missed the 2003–2004 playoffs, management and coaching staff were fired, and Carter, who was eager to leave the floundering franchise, decamped to the New Jersey Nets. The next two seasons were dismal, and attendance plummeted. The losing was starting to feel endemic. And, without Carter, the team lacked an identity.

MLSE placed its faith in Colangelo—as GM of the Phoenix Suns, he had built one of the most successful teams in the NBA, led by the great Steve Nash—and lured him to Toronto with a five-year deal worth an estimated $4 million (U.S.) a year. It was an exorbitant contract for an NBA general manager, four times what he had been making in Phoenix. Colangelo was thought to be worth the price tag, and then some. He was a visionary, a brilliant strategist. Everything he touched turned to gold.

Six seasons later, the Raptors are near the bottom of the NBA rankings, dispirited and maligned by fans, but Colangelo, standing alone in his tunnel, isn’t troubled. To hear him describe it, the descent was all part of a new plan to rebuild the team with stars in the making like Kyle Lowry, a furious Sonic the Hedgehog–like ball of energy and an aggressive scorer whom Colangelo lured from the Houston Rockets. The Raptors GM has one year left in his contract. This season, if he has his way, the team will be reborn.

Colangelo grew up basketball royalty. He was born in Chicago in 1965 to Jerry and Joan Colangelo, and to understand anything about the son, you have to know something about the father. Jerry was raised in the rough, working-class Hungry Hill section of Chicago. His childhood was spent in a house built by his Italian immigrant grandfather from the spare lumber of two railroad boxcars. A gifted high school basketball player, Jerry received 66 scholarship offers and became the first member of his family to go to college.

In 1968, when he was just 28 and working in the Chicago Bulls’ front office, Jerry was asked to move to Arizona and become GM of the expansion Phoenix Suns. He’s still with the team, currently as chairman. In his 40-plus years with the Suns, including over a decade as owner, he became one of the most respected executives in NBA history.

Bryan was two when the family moved to Phoenix—there is not a single moment he can remember when his father was not powerful and famous. While Jerry worked long hours in the offices upstairs, Bryan hung around the Suns’ stadium, sweeping floors, retrieving loose balls during practices, snagging rebounds. As a teenager, he starred on his high school basketball team. In 1983, he was named the school’s best-dressed male, the beginning of a lifelong reputation as a dandy. He also drove his own Ford pickup, a hulking thing with big wheels that his mother hated. The licence plate read “SUNS SON.”

The greatest coup for Bryan Colangelo and his father, Jerry Colangelo (right), was signing Steve Nash to the Phoenix Suns (Image: Getty Images)
 

Bryan earned a degree in business management and applied economics from Cornell and had a job with the Suns awaiting him in Phoenix. Instead, he bolted for an upmarket commercial real estate firm on Wall Street. After four years in Manhattan, he missed the atmosphere of professional sports management and re-entered the Phoenix fold, albeit reluctantly. When I asked him why he was hesitant to take the job, he said, “Nepotism! I absolutely hate that word and what it generally implies.” Though Bryan started as a low-level exec, before long, Jerry named him general manager. When he was just 34, he was promoted to GM and president (by then, Jerry was the team’s chairman and CEO).

Bryan was dogged by the optics of being prematurely elevated by a doting father. He tried to distance himself from his dad in small ways. He called him “Jerry” during press conferences. Winning the NBA championship that had eluded his father became a constant obsession.

Colangelo Jr. drafted stars like Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, who quickly became the team’s best players. And he fixated on little-known international players, signing Brazil’s Leandro Barbosa and France’s Boris Diaw. In 2005, the Suns won 62 of 82 games and Colangelo was named the NBA’s Executive of the Year, an award his father had won a record four times.

It was at this height that Colangelo was hired by Toronto. He began to remake the Raptors as an all-international team, which put him at the forefront of an NBA trend. Between 2002 and 2006, the predominance of the American style of basketball—physical, athletic and individualistic—had been toppled by a series of international tournaments won by European and South American teams playing a gentler, more sinuous style that relied on team defence and canny passing, instead of showboating superstars carrying their teams to victory.

The off-season is the busiest for GMs—it’s when they sign free agents, make draft picks and do the bulk of their scouting. That year, Colangelo had the first overall draft pick—his choice of any player—and he opted for Andrea Bargnani, a seven-footer from Rome who played for the Italian Benetton Treviso club. Bargnani was the first European player ever to be taken with the top pick in the NBA draft. He had the size of a centre, the accuracy of a shooting guard and the vision of a point guard. Some said he was too weak to play centre and not athletic enough for a small forward, and lacked the ball-handling skills of a guard—not to mention the fact that he played the same position as Chris Bosh, the team’s only All-Star—but pundits hailed Colangelo’s pick as visionary.

By selecting Bargnani, Colangelo had served notice that the Raptors were going to be more versatile, more team-oriented and definitely more European. As the season approached, Colangelo swelled the Raptors’ roster with European players. He signed Jorge Garbajosa from Spain and scooped up two Slovenian players, Rasho Nesterovič and Uroš Slokar. He lured Anthony Parker, an American, from the Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv. He even poached the Italian coach Maurizio Gherardini from Benetton Treviso to work in the Raptors’ front office as vice-president and assistant general manager. Soon, reporters from Madrid and Rome were covering the team’s games and attending press conferences, and it wasn’t long before sports reporters dubbed the new team the “Euro-Raptors.”

As the 2006–2007 season began, the basketball gods smiled on Toronto, and on Colangelo’s vision for the Raptors. With a newly re-signed Bosh leading the way and Colangelo’s European acquisitions clicking beautifully, the Raptors tore through the Eastern Conference. They were playing slick, up-tempo, unselfish basketball. Hard-nosed Garbajosa and smooth-shooting Parker were revelations. The tag-team point guard duo of José Calderón and T. J. Ford complemented each other perfectly—Calderón a clever, calculating brain, Ford a tireless, muscular heart, together directing blood to the Raptors’ offensive limbs. Colangelo was awarded his second Executive of the Year title in three years, and during the off-season, 98 per cent of season ticket holders renewed—the best rate in the NBA. Colangelo looked like a prophet.

The Raptors’ turnaround made Colangelo a hero in Toronto. “I might be more recognizable here than I was in Phoenix,” he said in an interview with CBC TV host George Stroumboulopoulos in March 2007. He sent shivers of anticipation up the spines of Raptors fans when he described his plans to win an NBA championship. In 2007, it seemed possible.

Last summer, Colangelo signed (from left) Landry Fields and star in the making Kyle Lowry (Image: Getty Images)
 

Colangelo began to live in a manner befitting a Toronto sports hero. He dressed with flair, shipping in his trademark high-collared shirts from a bespoke tailor in Bologna. He and his wife, Barbara Bottini, send their two kids to private schools and often take long holidays in Italy. Colangelo told me he’s a “creature of habit” and listed nearly a dozen Toronto restaurants he frequents, including Joso’s, Sotto Sotto, Buca and pricey steak houses like Jacobs and Morton’s. (“They always ordered the best of the best,” says John Soraci, who runs the Little Italy bistro Marinella, where Colangelo often took former Raptors coach Jay Triano. “They never skimped.”)

Colangelo’s colleagues and acquaintances described him to me as intense and intensely competitive—personally and professionally. Players would spot him practising his jump shot late at night, all alone on the ACC’s practice court. He’s also a pushy, cutthroat deal maker. Masai Ujiri, who worked under Colangelo in Toronto as a scout and an assistant general manager, remembers one potential trade for which Colangelo called a fellow GM every morning for months, hounding him for an answer.

During the 2007–2008 season, the Boston Celtics, the Raptors’ Atlantic Division rivals, began stockpiling star players, assembling an arsenal that included the point guard Rajon Rondo, who had been part of the same draft class as Bargnani. For all his zealous deal mongering, Colangelo had been outgunned. With almost exactly the same players who had won the Atlantic division the year before, the team limped to a 41-41 record, squeaked into the playoffs and lost in the first round.

Colangelo could have played it safe, betting that the team would return to form the following year, chalking up the six-win drop to bad luck. But he does nothing in half measures. So, during the trade period, he went big. In a blockbuster deal with the Indiana Pacers, the Raptors gave up three players and the draft rights to Roy Hibbert, who would go on to be one of the league’s best centres. In exchange, Toronto got a draft pick and the highly regarded power forward Jermaine O’Neal, a skilled rebounder and defender. O’Neal cost a fortune—$44 million over two years—despite the fact that he was injury prone, having missed large chunks of previous seasons with the Pacers.

The result was a miserable 2008–2009 season. O’Neal, Bosh and Bargnani, the Raptors’ three stars, never cohered the way Colangelo imagined, and the Europeans looked limp. In the punishing, athletic world of the NBA, Colangelo’s Continental additions were pushed around. The toll on Colangelo became apparent to those who worked with him. “You don’t want to be around the guy when he’s losing,” Ujiri told me.

Colangelo tried another quick fix in the 2009 off-season, picking up the lumbering Turkish sharpshooter Hedo Turkoglu as a free agent for $52 million over five years. To make salary space for his new European bauble, Colangelo let Shawn Marion, Carlos Delfino and Anthony Parker go, despite the latter two having been integral parts of the Raptors playoff teams in 2007 and 2008.

Turkoglu lasted only one season in Toronto, and became the second most hated Raptor ever (after Vince Carter). On the court, he appeared lackadaisical. Off the court, he was a spectacular mess. In one incident, he grabbed a cellphone from a fan taking a photo of him and deleted the picture. He once missed a home game with stomach flu, only to be spotted later that night at a Yorkville club. Colangelo finally traded him after Turkoglu said he wanted to leave the city, and also after the Raptors missed the playoffs for the second straight year, posting 40 wins and 42 losses.

At an end-of-year press conference, Colangelo addressed the gathering storm that threatened to capsize whatever hopes the Raptors had of a comeback: Bosh’s impending free agency. “I’ve said this before,” Colangelo intoned. “We remain Bosh’s best option to maximize his contract potential.” The words sounded desperate, like a plea. The fact is, Bosh planned to leave when his contract expired. When the Raptors missed the 2010 playoffs, it was as good as done. Bosh wanted to play for a winning team.

Colangelo hired the Benetton Treviso coach Maurizio Gherardini to work in the Raptors’ front office (Image: CP Images)
 

When Bosh finally did sign with the Miami Heat on July 9, the Raptors got little in return. Colangelo had rejected several trade offers from Miami as insufficient, hoping until the last minute that he could convince Bosh to stay, a stance that now looks delusional.

There is a military battle strategy called manoeuvre warfare, which amounts to perpetually staying on the offensive, correcting for errors as you go, but never sitting back on your heels—in effect, shoot first, ask questions later, because screwing up on offence is better than playing it safe on defence. Colangelo approaches deal making with the same principle. In Phoenix, his fans always felt that he had a plan, that he would always be on the offence, always be signing a fresh deal to make up for the last deal gone sour. In Toronto, it hasn’t worked out that way—Colangelo has been a man in a foxhole, shooting indiscriminately into the night.

When you screw up a basketball decision, it can be months or years before you have a chance to fix it. You get contracts on the books that just sit there and putrefy. And, unlike troops and their generals, the players don’t have to do what Colangelo says. If Hedo Turkoglu had been in the army when he played hooky and went clubbing in Yorkville, he’d have been court-martialled.

Colangelo is losing a battle that he never had a chance of winning. Increasingly, teams are stacking their rosters with big-name free agents. The year Bosh signed with the Heat, LeBron James joined the team, too, and two years later Miami won the NBA title. And the Heat is following the blueprint set by the Boston Celtics, whose signing spree in 2007 helped precipitate the Raptors’ decline. Time and time again, Colangelo’s fast-paced tactical manoeuvring, successful or not, has appeared comically puny when measured up against the big splashes of his competitors.

The Raptors aren’t helped by star players’ reluctance to live in Toronto. Miami, L.A. and Dallas have nicer climates; New York and Boston have richer team lore; and all of those cities have basket­ball teams that might, in any given year, win a championship. They’ve built cultures of success.

Colangelo’s solution of turning the Raptors into a predominantly European basketball team mostly proved how impossible it is to seduce eyeballs for a triweekly TV show staring pale, sweaty Slovenians who rarely win and only vaguely look like they want to. Advertisers don’t buy space on shows no one watches, which is especially a concern when you’re the Raptors and you’re owned by Rogers and Bell. In the modern NBA, having stars, preferably stars who get a kick out of performing windmill dunks and 360 layups, is just as important for selling as it is for winning.

Vince Carter and Chris Bosh were charismatic—they howled after making tough buckets and they dunked hard and often. You could put them on billboards. By contrast, Bargnani, even in the heat of a game, often looks like he just woke up from a nap. His most prominent endorsement deal is with Primo pasta, which produced a cringe-inducingly low-budget commercial starring a gawky, bearded Bargnani eating spaghetti in his Raptors uniform.

Six years with the Raptors has been hard on Colangelo. His hair has thinned and greyed; his face is creased with wrinkles. He no longer enjoys the sports media’s scrutiny. In the midst of the 2010–2011 season, by far the Raptors’ worst since Colangelo arrived in Toronto, he had to renegotiate his contract. He reportedly had the nerve to ask for another five-year contract, at the same $4-million annual salary. MLSE agreed to renew for just two more years.

The Raptors finished the 2010–2011 season with a dismal 22-60 record. In April 2011, the website Basketball Prospectus, a go-to for stats junkies, ranked the Raptors dead last in payroll efficiency, which measures a team’s wins per salary dollar spent. No GM in the NBA was getting less bang for his buck
than Colangelo.

Then, last summer, Colangelo had an opportunity to throw out his team-building model and sign a true star: Steve Nash became a free agent when his contract with the Suns expired.

If there was one player who could single-handedly revive Toronto’s interest in basketball, it was Nash. A two-time MVP, a certain future Hall of Famer, one of the most inventive, exciting players in the league—and Canadian. Nash in a Raptors uniform would solve everything.

Colangelo had a chance to regain the faith of the Raptors board. But an even heavier weight rested on his shoulders in the Nash negotiations, a weight he had carried since he was a young man: the possibility of living up to his father. Because, while his decision to sign Steve Nash to the Suns back in 2004 was often hailed as his greatest achievement, it was his father who had closed the deal.

Bryan Colangelo’s approach to netting Nash for the Raptors couldn’t have been more different. Jerry’s message to Nash was “Take it or leave it,” and he gave him an hour to decide. Bryan’s pitch was “Please, please take it.”

Colangelo was reportedly the first GM to reach Nash by phone in New York, at 12:01 a.m. on July 1, the day Nash became a free agent. They arranged to meet at 10:30 that morning, at the Manhattan apartment of MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum, to discuss the Raptors’ offer. The Raptors seemed like frontrunners in the Nashstakes. The allure of playing in front of what were sure to be sellout crowds of adoring fans in his own country would be too strong for Nash to ignore, many thought.

Four Raptors officials flew in on Tanenbaum’s jet. When Nash arrived at the meeting, they offered him $36 million over three years, an astounding sum for a 38-year-old. Colangelo unveiled their pièce de résistance, a video compilation of highlights from Nash’s career, charting his rise from obscurity in Victoria, B.C., to NBA stardom. The film was narrated by Wayne Gretzky, Nash’s boyhood hero, whom the Raptors had recruited to help tug at the point guard’s heartstrings. Nash fought back tears as the
tape played.

The Raptors asked for an answer right then and there—just like Jerry had done in 2004. But Nash demurred.

On Tuesday, sensing Nash slipping away, Colangelo again did something bold. Knowing that the Knicks were likely to offer guard Landry Fields to the Suns in a potential sign-and-trade for Nash, Colangelo made Fields an offer of his own, a ludicrously generous three-year, nearly $20-million contract far beyond what most people thought Fields was worth. Snagging Fields, Colangelo reasoned, would make it impossible for the Knicks to sign Nash, steering the Canadian legend in Toronto’s direction. It was a clever calculation—too clever by half, as it turned out.

On the morning of Wednesday, July 4, Nash called Colangelo with bad news: he was signing with the L.A. Lakers. Not only that, but he was accepting $9 million less from L.A. than Colangelo had offered. Nash wanted to be close to his young children, who live in Phoenix with his ex-wife. And he wanted to play for a title contender, which the Raptors most certainly were not.

Colangelo, still recovering from the setback, went to Vegas to take in the NBA summer league, where prospects and bench­warmers go to prove themselves in the off-season. On July 5, just a day after Nash delivered the bad news, word leaked out that Colangelo had secured a trade for the Houston Rockets’ Kyle Lowry, a point guard with a reputation as a tenacious defender and a penchant for headlong drives to the basket. He was no Nash, but he was a significant coup.

When Colangelo talked about Lowry in a press scrum on July 17, he broke out into a greedy little smile. “We’ve got two very solid starting-calibre point guards,” he said, referring to Lowry and José Calderón. When Lowry was introduced to the media as a Raptor, he wore a natty bow tie and checked shirt. “Given the keys,” he said, seated next to Colangelo, “I think I can drive this car to a playoff team.” The Raptors had a potential star and a tantalizing chance to win again.

So here he was, at the cusp of the 2012–2013 season, fielding the Raptors’ most vivid, energetic lineup since the team’s last playoff run. Aside from Lowry, Colangelo is relying on DeMar DeRozan, the athletic shooting guard he drafted in 2009, who seems poised for a breakout year. This season also sees the debut of Jonas Valanciunas, the seven-foot Lithuanian centre Colangelo drafted in 2011 and then left to gestate back home for a year. Valanciunas has already been named among the preemptive frontrunners for Rookie of the Year—in Lithuanian league play, he’s been a defensive live wire, swatting shots away from the rim with abandon. And he’s a charming, wide-eyed presence off the court, a kind of anti-Bargnani. Even Bargnani appears to be turning a corner—before getting injured in January last season, he was being talked about as a possible All-Star.

At the start of the pre-season, I asked Colangelo where he put the team’s odds of making the playoffs. “Next question” was his exasperated response. I asked him what, if anything, he’d change if he could start over as Raptors GM. He didn’t want to answer that, either, and instead offered his version of basketball philosophy: “The beauty of my job is that you can’t look back and say I would do this differently,” he said. “In our business, you can’t be afraid. And I’ve never been afraid.”

The team’s first pre-season game was against Europe’s top-ranked Real Madrid. The Raptors won, 102 to 95—and that was without Lowry, whose debut was delayed by a pulled leg muscle, and without Valanciunas, who had strained his calf. DeMar DeRozan was the star of the game, scoring 18 points. And the Raptors kept up that level of play through the pre-season, finishing with a 5-0 record at home for the first time since 2007.

While ACC crowds cheered and hoooted from their seats, Colangelo, his arms crossed and his expression hovering between pensive and relieved, stood alone in his tunnel.