One word has dominated Bryan Colangelo’s communications over the last couple of months. Whether it be in scrums, more formal pressers, or his most recent letter to fans, he has said it over and over: evolve. OK. So what has happened with the loss of Chris Bosh is not something that wasn’t anticipated? Good I guess, although I think he repeatedly tried to assure us that if Bosh left there would be a fair bit coming back. Maybe he will manage to convert the Traded Player Exception into something fairly exceptional. If that happens then we should all move on and allow the evolving to continue.
But at this moment I see a flashpoint that cannot be ignored before we just think this team will go on with business as usual. Bryan has been here for some time now. In his first year he made an excellent assessment of what was needed, put forward a blueprint with a core that looked promising, and he got real real results. They are results that he still throws out there to vindicate himself. At the end of the season he pointed out that the team averaged around 30 wins before he arrived, was averaging around 40 since he arrived, and he promised to keep the team “evolving” towards 50 wins. That sounds lovely, but the 47 win team happened four seasons in the past, and instead of evolving, they look to be eroding and losing traction. And it’s hard to see how losing an All-Star, and if nothing else, just about the only guy that gets to the free throw line, is going to push them onwards.
What is actually evolving, I suspect, is the message. And there is a note of desperation involved. Was Bryan responsible for putting an old video of Chris Bosh saying he wanted to be “the man” back into circulation on NBA.com? It seems pretty clear that it wasn’t Bosh. Bosh could have linked to it through his own website. Instead it looks like an attempt to undermine the character of the same guy that Bryan signed four years ago, at that time offering a testimony in the most glowing terms, of Chris Bosh’s character, above and beyond his talents. When Colangelo talks now, he constantly slips various references to Bosh changing his mindset, being more concerned with his brand than with basketball, and most recently, of being there hand in hand with himself as every move was made. Without admitting that this team outright sucks, he is quite brilliantly offering up his character signing as being at least somewhat responsible for the suckage.
One problem though - I’m not that stupid. I saw the same thing attempted when Sam Mitchell was fired. Everything that was holding the team back was supposed have been reversed to some degree. Jay Triano had a great basketball mind and Bryan loved the professional manner in which he approached his job. Jay was going to let players like Andrea play through their mistakes, give everyone a little more freedom, and allow for an exciting brand of basketball to truly take shape. Did you buy what he was selling then? Do you feel like you might like to make a return, even if all you get back is a package of tube socks? Or are you willing to now take in the evolution of his message, and believe that the last two years would have been different had Chris Bosh not gotten in the way somehow?
No - it doesn’t add up. Sooner or later, Colangelo is going to have to accept that the focus is going to land squarely on him. Four years ago he was quite happy to accept the perception of himself as the guy that was going to turn things around here. Again - I have to give him credit for getting off to a brilliant start. This team needed to pair Bosh up with another consistent scoring option. He got that done. He signed John Salmons. Boom. Job well done. Give this team a two-way wing player like that, along with TJ Ford, and the potential of Bargnani with Bosh, and it wasn’t hard to see this team evolving into something at that point. And yet it did turn into nothing much pretty quickly. Salmons somehow decided to swim downstream (now there’s a sure sign of evolution). TJ got whacked. Garbajosa too. Bargnani’s mental strength was not as steely as the pre-draft testing suggested. Bosh kept patient and kept getting stronger. Maybe the whole time he was thinking of being on a real team down the road, and down in South Beach, but the chance to get something done here in that time was present all the same. The means of reversing some bad luck had to be there to some extent. If not - starting over, and looking to evolve all over again would have been a little easier to swallow many years earlier. He failed to have the necessary foresight. He failed to act. He never missed an opportunity to sell.
When the bad luck fouled the plans for this team’s future, Bryan did not make the same sort of assessments that he had when he arrived. He did not get back to the need to pair Bosh up with a proven scorer. He looked for an easy way out. He failed to stick to the principle of needing two solid options to be able to play off of each other, make each of them better, and make all the roles from there much easier to define and properly fill. When John Salmons did not materialize he jumped to his immediate signing of Fred Jones. At the time he said it might have been a blessing in disguise, since Jones came cheaper and afforded him greater flexibility down the line. Flexibility was one of his favorite words back then. He held it out like a magic talisman. It was going to allow us to get just the right player that was going to make this team top tier. Still, from there he overspent on Jason Kapono, and while he wasn’t giving up on flexibility altogether with that move, there was a dangerous shift in thinking. It was becoming apparent that he was giving up on the idea of pairing up Bosh with another star with reliably good production, and instead moving towards the gimmicky idea that five offensive threats on the floor in some shape or form, with defense as an afterthought, could get the job done splendidly. It didn’t, so he grabbed Jermaine O’Neal. There you go - something for everyone: defense, size, the tough mindset Bargnani was lacking, and a former all-star to boot. And flexibility remained for the future when that enormous contract expired. Flexibility was still the key. Bryan was paying lip service to everything else. Jermaine was not the guy that would be just the right player, but he could sell him as such and buy some more time.
JO turned out to be DOA. And unfortunately a former All-Star lying flat on his back and giving up, would eventually evolve into an almost All-Star (and great pizza pitchman) lying flat on his back and giving up, with drinks afterward. Now I don’t want to dredge up too much of the past that lies in the midst of all that, but it does strike me as remarkable how many players came here, only to end up with severely limited careers in the NBA, if any NBA careers at all, shortly thereafter. Of course that sort of thing goes back to before Colangelo arrived. But I’m definitely not going to dredge up the whole mess, and besides - I expected more of the man with the high collar. Instead he offered up the likes of the aforementioned Jones and Kapono and O’Neal. Then there’s also Luke Jackson and Juan Dixon and Pape Sow and Uros Slokar and Maceo Baston and Linton Johnson and Hassan Adams and Will Solomon and Roko Ukic and Patrick O’Bryant and Jake Voskuhl and Quincy Douby and Nathan Jawai and Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Reggie Evans, and that is all on top of the terrible luck occurring to Jorge Garbajosa and TJ Ford. I had hoped Hedo could do some of the things Garbajosa had, and more: play big, play smart and hit some threes as well as facilitating. Unfortunately he went straight to buggering up his leg and angrily denying that he was the same player as ever, while taking big long drags on cigarettes. The similarity to that part of Jorge’s history I could have done without. Unless he gets that leg back to what it was, and gets back into shape, add Turk to the long list of the living dead. That is an ugly list. And worse than that list, is that the players that didn’t make that list were still asked to fill much bigger roles than their abilities afforded them. There’s a list just about as long to cover all the players that looked bad far too often when too much was expected of them. This team won 47 games upon Colangelo’s arrival, with quite a few borderline talents like Humphreys and Graham contributing nicely along the way, and then going into the playoffs they pretty much had to start Joey Graham and force him into way too big of a role. The flexibilty never paid off as was promised. Andrea started as the small forward in the playoffs the following year, offering no better solution. Nobody as good or better than John Salmons was ever hooked. Flexibility turned into tying up too many of just-the-wrong-guys long-term. Flexibility turned into talk about paying luxury tax when Bosh was headed out the door. Flexibility was always just the long drawn out process of natural selection, and nobody on the Raptors roster has grown a third arm just yet.
Is it all on Colangelo? I wish I could say yes. I think the job of GM in this city is simply very difficult and requires more good luck than bad. But if Colangelo is going to bask in a good perception upon his arrival, he needs to accept whatever poor perception might be cast upon him now. I simply wish he would not pee in a cup and tell me it’s Gatorade (or G, or whatever the hell it is now), or steal that brand’s latest slogan to try and sell some seats. After years of not being able to deliver what he’s been selling, he needs to just give us the straight goods and straight talk as much as possible. At most: let him pee in a cup and call it P. I’ll live with that. Because even if he offers a little bit of wizardry this off-season, this team will at best only give some indication of what kind of foundation they might be able to build upon. This team will be much more like the primordial goo where DNA first came together, than any kind of life-form worthy of evolution. If that is too hard to sell, it’s only because of how long we have seen him come up short. Which is a shame. The only thing that might have evolved from Dinosaurs are birds. And maybe that’s alright. Maybe this team takes that sort of step and finally takes flight after 15 years. They don’t need to fly into the sun or fly like an eagle. Just find some wings and show us some stability for a few years. With a little luck that can happen. Or maybe Colangelo just gets tarred and feathered, and sticks his head in the sand.