Sitting second in the Eastern Conference as the stretch run begins, the Raptors are in striking distance of the first-place Cleveland Cavaliers and appear poised for a deep playoff run. But, as so often happens in pro sports, the man who laid much of the foundation for the team has since moved on by the time the success arrives. Bryan Colangelo spent seven seasons (2006-2013) as the Raptors general manager and put in place the core that has come together and blossomed into one of the East’s top teams. Kyle Lowry? Colangelo traded for him. DeMar DeRozan? Colangelo drafted him, and then later signed him to an extension that has proven to be a bargain by NBA standards. Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross? Colangelo drafted them, too.
Still a resident of Toronto, Colangelo has seen basketball culture evolve in the city for the past decade. We caught up with Colangelo and talked to him about a number of topics, including the Raptors, basketball in Toronto, the league, and his desire to get back to the NBA.
VICE Sports: What kind of impression do you think Toronto made on the NBA during All-Star Weekend?
Bryan Colangelo: From all reports, the entire NBA family was absolutely thrilled with the highly successful and entertaining All-Star Weekend in Toronto. Everything from the organization and set-up to the highly acclaimed live events were the culmination of a well designed and even better executed plan that was years in the making. The city and the host organization MLSE really did a fabulous job for what was a historic international NBA event.
How do you feel the perception of Toronto as a basketball city has changed since you arrived here a decade ago?
There has been so much growth in the participation and awareness of the sport in Canada dating back to the Raptors’ inception in 1995 that it really is hard to measure just how far we’ve come. Fans are more educated about the game, the media is more engaged than ever, and the development of the game itself—the coaching and training opportunities—have really blossomed and thrived. Basketball is an urban game at its core and the GTA in particular has produced an extraordinary number of NCAA D1 athletes and now even NBA-level players. The game has arrived in a big way and Toronto is at center stage.
What is the biggest misconception that you heard about Toronto that needed to be corrected?
Living outside of the U.S. is not for everyone, but once here I optimistically think anyone can and will adapt to the subtle differences and nuances of Canadian living. If I had to single out one thing, the perception of it being too cold is overplayed big time. It’s cold everywhere in the Midwest and Northeast this time of year. Try walking your dog in Minneapolis in January and then tell me Toronto is too cold. I will politely disagree.
When you acquired Lowry from the Houston Rockets in 2012, you obviously felt that he was a player that could help the team. But did you honestly envision Kyle becoming as good as he is today, a two-time All-Star Game starter and a heart-and-soul-type leader?
I was quoted at the time as saying he was a top ten point guard in the league and admittedly I was wrong. He is now clearly in the top five and playing at an all-NBA level. Not every player matures emotionally or refines themselves physically the way you would like them to, but Kyle has done both in spades. No one but Kyle himself deserves the credit for his transformation into an elite player.
Valanciunas, Lowry and DeRozan are all key holdovers from the Colangelo regime. —Photo by Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports
When you signed DeRozan to a four-year extension in 2012, it was met, by some, with skepticism. But now, by NBA standards, it is a bargain. What convinced you that DeMar would not only live up to the deal but exceed expectations?
I had learned from a previous experience that not signing a key player to an eligible extension can come back to bite you, as family, friends and agents feel it’s a sign of disrespect or a lack of belief toward the player. The rules of restricted free agency still give you the upper hand, but the damage can sometimes be too deep to overcome in a healthy way. What I saw in DeMar was a high-character, hard-working and constantly improving young talent that was uncommonly committed to the organization and the city of Toronto. Bottom line is that is the kind of young man that I felt comfortable betting on and I did so without hesitation or remorse regardless of the reaction at the time.
Do you feel Terrence Ross has reached his potential? If not, how much better do you feel he is capable of getting?
No, not yet, actually, but I believe he has the skill set and athleticism to achieve a much higher ceiling. Consistency of effort and focus will be the keys to his development going forward, but he has all the tools to become an elite scoring and defending guard in this league.
With Lowry, DeRozan, Valanciunas and Ross—all players that you either drafted or acquired—making significant contributions to one of the top teams in the East do you feel any vindication now that it has shown the path you put the team on was a good one?
In this business you are certainly judged by results, but I’ve always believed that you are never as bad as they say and equally never as good as they say. Every decision is justifiable at the time, but the outcomes of those decisions are not always in your control as there are far too many variables that can skew results. I had complete confidence we were on the right path, but I simply ran out runway with the arrival of a new CEO. Rather than feeling vindicated, I’m just pleased that these young men have succeeded for themselves, their families and the organization, because that was clearly the intended result.
To that end, the coach you hired in 2011, Dwane Casey, has become the most successful coach in Raptors history. What is Dwane’s biggest strength as a coach?
Dwane’s biggest strength as a coach is his respect for the game of basketball. He’s dedicated to an approach of seriousness, thorough preparation and hard work and he expects that from everyone on his staff and all the players.
Masai Ujiri was an executive that you brought over to the Raptors early in your tenure. What has allowed him to grow into one of the most respected executives in the NBA today?
Masai is a passionate, tireless and savvy basketball man who has a great feel for people and players which obviously goes a long way in this business. By applying his love and intelligence for the game, along with his drive and charisma, he has certainly made the most of his opportunities along the way.
Andrea Bargnani seemed to be a lightning rod for criticism during his tenure in Toronto but, frankly, was a productive player, just maybe not to the level of expectations that come with being a first overall pick. An inability to stay healthy did not help either during his final years but, again, injuries are not necessarily always within a player’s control. Is it fair to say that Bargnani’s draft position and injury troubles, neither of which were of his choosing, prevented people of appreciating what he really was—a productive player?
It’s unfortunate but true that Andrea will be remembered more as a disappointment than a significant contributor to the resurgence of the Raptors starting back in 2006-07. To some degree, Andrea was his own worst enemy as he never quite endeared himself to the fans, his teammates or coaches. Expectations and injuries aside, he is a prototypical highly-skilled seven-footer which is a well sought-after commodity in today’s game. But he just hasn’t figured out that a little more effort on the glass and some solid help defence would put him in rare company.
Bargnani is one of the most polarizing players in Raptors history. — Photo via Wiki Commons
If you had the opportunity to make a change to one aspect of the game, what would it be?
I would say probably the age limit of the player eligibility should be increased by at least one year. In the draft process, the evaluation of players is based so much on projection rather than production that it is sometimes the most difficult aspect of the job. We are generally dealing with underdeveloped players, both physically and emotionally, and the more opportunity for them to grow and develop as young men and as basketball players will benefit both the evaluator and the athlete alike.
As Kobe Bryant winds down his career this season, what’s your all-time favourite memory of Kobe?
It has to be even before his career started during his draft workout back in Phoenix. We would run the players through a series of agility, speed and quickness tests and a player has two shots at each and you move on to the next. Before starting each test, Kobe asked what the best time or measurement was. He refused to move on to the next exercise until he was at the top of the list. His will and drive to be the best was simply astonishing.
How do you think the success of the Golden State Warriors through their high-paced and efficient ball-movement will affect the way teams approach the game going forward?
Well, they are not the first to try it but they are arguably the first to win a championship and then some. The NBA is a copycat league and their current success combined with the tendency for teams to seek maximum efficiency through analytics will be the model going forward until someone cracks the code and something new is adopted.
If you were faced with a one game, winner-take-all scenario, would you want Steph Curry or LeBron James on your team?
Very tough call but I think you have to say LeBron given his ability to affect the game in so many ways.
What led you to opting to remain in Toronto?
I’m a permanent resident of Canada now. With no place to go immediately, it made the most sense to stay put and not disrupt the family with our two kids thriving in local schools and extra curricular activities. Bottom line is we really love Toronto and this is where we now consider home.
In June, it will be three years since you stepped down from your position with the Raptors. How eager are you to get back into an NBA front office in some capacity?
I would clearly like to get back in but I also want it to be the right time, place and situation. It almost happened last year as I was part of a group bidding on the Atlanta Hawks which unfortunately did not come to pass. There also hasn’t been a lot of turnover in recent years and those jobs that did open up generally were filled by internal promotions or with the latest trend appointing a president/head coach. I was recently a finalist for the Brooklyn job which would have been a nice fit for a variety of reasons, but they chose to go another direction. On to the next opportunity.