The Toronto Raptors never had a shot. Located in a tax-heavy country, and in a city which, despite its cosmopolitan/multicultural qualities (it’s one of the most diverse cities in the world) and big-market advantages (it’s the 5th largest city in North America), likely inspires little enthusiasm among most American-born players, the franchise was seemingly preordained to an unstable and hopeless existence. Tracy McGrady’s departure for Orlando in the summer of 2000; Vince Carter’s incessant whining and sulking, and eventual (forced) trade to New Jersey in 2004; and, finally, Chris Bosh’s opting for Miami’s greener pastures in 2010; all seem to confirm the notion that Toronto is merely a layover for star players who’ll inevitably take their talents to more familiar (and less costly) environs.
Which really is too bad. Despite being regarded in some quarters as a joke (for reasons enumerated above), the Raptors have earned the loyalty and favor of a rabidly passionate fanbase, no small feat in a nation as decidedly hockey-obsessed as Canada. Even in their all-too-frequent lean years, they’ve managed to maintain a relatively high attendance rate. Plus, there’s this.
What’s more, the Raptors have, for all their failures, been one of the league’s most consistently daring (and interesting) franchises, particularly since Bryan Colangelo was brought on-board in the middle of the 2006 season. Indeed, the past six years have witnessed an unusual experiment of sorts, one involving the construction of a team bearing more of a resemblance to a European soccer club than a typical NBA squad. From explicitly drafting, signing, and trading for as many international players (Bargnani, Calderon,Turkoglu, Barbosa, Garbajosa, Kleiza, Valanciunas, etc.) as possible, to flirting with the idea of being the first team in league history to hire a foreign coach (Ettore Messina), the Raptors under Colangelo have habitually skirted conventional team-building methods (which, in any case, would’ve guaranteed failure, had they been adopted) in order to overcome the very-real obstacles faced by any franchise residing north of the border.
This “mad-scientist” mindset has been a hallmark of Colangelo’s career, most prominently during his tenure with the unconventional team of the 2000′s, the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. Hiring Mike D’Antoni, and allowing him to implement an up-tempo offensive system, not only reversed that franchise’s fortunes and transformed Steve Nash’s career historically, but also bucked years of league-wide offensive trends and inaugurated a new and (refreshingly) exciting era in NBA history. Considering how stagnant and staid the game had become by the summer of 2004, this was quite an impressive and revolutionary achievement, notwithstanding the team’s inability to win a title during (as well as following) Colangelo’s tenure as the team’s G.M.
But whereas those Suns teams have earned the retrospective adoration of fans and inspired innumerable “what-if” scenarios (most notably in Bill Simmons’ book), Colangelo’s Raptors have received comparatively little appreciation. His failure to surround Chris Bosh with an adequate supporting cast and, consequently, compel him to stay in Toronto, will undoubtedly overshadow whatever minor triumphs he has or will ultimately engineer. Indeed, losing a player of Bosh’s caliber (however flawed his game), coupled with the series of extremely questionable transactions which made it that much easier for him to leave (the Shawn Marion deal, the Jermaine O’Neal trade, the Turkoglu trade, etc. ), has consigned Colangelo to the league’s “Terrible G.M.” club in the eyes of many, not least of all Raptors fans themselves. Only a drastic reversal of the Raptors’ fortunes will rescue his reputation, and that, unfortunately, seems highly unlikely.
Yet, despite these failures, Colangelo deserves some credit for pursuing his visionary ideas with little regard to popular opinion or historical precedent. For with very few exceptions (most notably the R.C. Buford-Gregg Popovich combo in San Antonio), rarely has a G.M. made as consistent an effort to plumb the world basketball scene for talent as Colangelo has over the last five or six seasons. And as is the case with most pioneers, whose rough, incomplete, and ungraceful achievements are often initially forgotten, ignored, or mocked, his trailblazing methods will eventually (inevitably) be adopted by other teams as the internationalization of the game continues apace (though this trend has seemingly leveled off as of late). That few will think of or credit him in the future, when what is now regarded as crazy or unorthodox is rational and commonplace, and when teams across the league are increasingly defined by their foreign players, coaches, and front-office personnel, should not obscure the very real contributions (however unrewarding or unsuccessful) he’s made to the development of an entirely unique team-building model.
This is, of course, little consolation for Raptors fans, who are now forced to endure the consequences of their G.M.’s unfruitful plans. The team’s poor start, coupled with its complete and utter lack of a legitimate superstar (sorry, Andrea), has cast a pall over a franchise that, not so long ago, seemed to have a bright and exciting future. And despite his contract extension, Colangelo should be more than a little wary in regards to his own future, not only with his current team, but within the league itself. Fortune doesn’t always favor the bold, after all.
Then again, we live in a world in which David Kahn and Larry Bird still have jobs. So who the hell knows.