It wasn't the most opportune time for Bryan Colangelo to be starting his new job. Last February, the 40-year-old Colangelo signed on to become president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors, a moribund franchise that hadn't made the playoffs since 2002 and had rapidly descended to the bowels of the Eastern Conference.
Colangelo, the 2005 NBA Executive of the Year with Phoenix, was in charge of repairing a dysfunctional roster that had one identifiable superstar (Chris Bosh), a host of malcontents and an embattled coach (Sam Mitchell) entering the last year of his contract. Problem was, there wasn't much Colangelo could do about it.
Having taken over the team just after the February trading deadline, Colangelo was just another fan watching the Raptors limp down the stretch to a 27-55 finish. Yet for Colangelo, the unanticipated down time turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
"I had a chance to sit back and learn some things," Colangelo said. "I learned a lot about the players, the organization, the city; it was a nice chance to gather my thoughts before we got down to business that summer."
That business was a complete overhaul of the Raptors roster, a revamping that has landed Toronto in first place in the Atlantic Division and made the Raptors the biggest surprise of the first half. Politicking and infighting plagued the Toronto locker room last season, making a wholesale housecleaning Colangelo's first order of business.
Senior advisor Wayne Embry, who served as Toronto's interim general manager prior to Colangelo's arrival, had already got the ball rolling by dealing locker room lawyer Jalen Rose. Colangelo continued the purge with sweeping changes that included buying out the contract of oft-injured point guard Alvin Williams, trading former first-round pick Rafael Araujo, and allowing Mike James, the Raptors' second-leading scorer last season, to leave via free agency.
Colangelo brought in nine new players, including foreign stars Jorge Garbajosa (Spain) and Anthony Parker (Israel) and playmaking point guard T.J. Ford. He sought out skill players capable of playing multiple positions, which is the primary reason Toronto made forward Andrea Bargnani the top pick in the 2006 NBA draft.
"All the moves that were made were designed to put a team together," said Colangelo, who was also given $1 million to renovate the Toronto locker room. "The NBA is a star-based league, but we feel like we brought in a nice blend of talent. High character talent."
"When Bryan and I started talking about players [this summer] we talked about what a player's objective would be coming to this team," said Mitchell. "We asked if a player was going to be about the team or was he going to be about him. Guys with bad attitudes can kill your team. Bryan brought in a great group of guys; there is not one player on our team I wouldn't enjoy going to dinner with."
The influx of new blood, however, did not pay immediate dividends. The Raptors sputtered to a 2-8 start with their new high-octane offense looking, well, not much different than the old one. The slow start prompted a film session with Colangelo and Mitchell.
"While we were watching, I told Bryan that it wasn't that we weren't getting shots," Mitchell said. "We were getting wide-open shots. We just weren't making them." Mitchell decided to tinker with the Raptors running attack ("It's a hybrid [now]," says Ford), slowing it down just enough to give his new players, particularly the Europeans, time to adjust.
"We took a step back," Mitchell said. "It takes a while for these guys to get comfortable in the NBA game. I think it helped them shoot the ball better."
The numbers bear that out. In November, Toronto averaged 98.1 points per game but shot just 44.2 percent from the field. This month, the Raptors are averaging 97.1 points but are shooting at a 46.6 percent clip. Perhaps more importantly, Toronto has stepped up its defense, going from allowing 101.0 points per game in November to a stingy 92.9 in January. In the last 10 games, the Raptors defense has allowed just 89.7 points per game, second fewest in the league. Not bad for a team that allowed a conference-worst 104.0 points per game last season.
"I'm not surprised at the progress we have made," Colangelo said. "I love when preseason picks have us at the bottom. I believe any year -- including this one -- we don't make the playoffs is a disappointment."
Colangelo has developed a solid relationship with Mitchell, though they have had their moments. One of those concerned the play (or lack thereof) of Bargnani. During the Raptors' slow start, Bargnani was a fixture on the bench, averaging just 9.2 minutes in Toronto's first nine games. Colangelo, however, refutes the notion he ordered Mitchell to play his prized prospect.
"There was never any mandate," Colangelo said. "It was actually Sam that told me before the season he would like to play Andrea 20 minutes a night. I took our start as an opportunity to remind Sam of his plan. We both agreed that in order for us to get where we want to be, Bargnani has to be a big part of that." Since then Bargnani has emerged in Toronto's rotation and his 10.1 points per game rank him third among all rookies. Said Mitchell, "It was a circus around Andrea at the start of the season. But he has figured out that he has to be mentally and physically ready to do what he has to do on the court."
While Colangelo won't go as far as to issue Mitchell a vote of confidence ("He is our coach," Colangelo said. "Until a change is made, that is his position."), the two have developed a strong working relationship. They talk on the phone daily and Mitchell has discovered the benefits of working with a powerful executive. When Mitchell went to Colangelo asking for $25,000 for a new scouting system earlier this season, Colangelo said he would come up with the cash. A few weeks later, it was done. "I call Bryan the Mad Scientist," Mitchell said. "He is constantly thinking about how we can improve."
Despite his lame-duck status, Mitchell is unconcerned about his future beyond this season. "Wayne Embry told me once if you focus on doing your job to the best of your ability, you will always have a job; when you focus on trying to keep your job, that's when you lose it," he said. "I can't do anything about how Bryan feels or what he wants, I can just be the best coach I can be."
Regardless of who is coaching the team, Toronto is well positioned for the long term. Colangelo's carefully negotiated contracts ensure that the Raptors are committed to just $30.1 million in salaries for the 2009 season, with just Bargnani, Ford and Bosh under contract -- leaving plenty of wiggle room to acquire missing pieces. One priority is a slashing scorer to compliment the inside-out play of Bosh, though Colangelo says he will not be tempted to mortgage the future for any short-term fixes. Translation: don't expect much movement in Toronto at the trading deadline.
"We feel like we're on track," Colangelo said. "We are continuing to grow as a basketball team and as an organization. I'm very happy about that."