When last we left Bryan Colangelo and the Raptors, he had a summer of remaking the team. Gone were the perennial losers and the malcontents, in were the team players and upstanding citizens. For the most part, anyway. He was even able to extend Chris Bosh’s contract until 2011 (with a player option for 2010). Obviously Bosh had respect for Colangelo and what he wanted to do.
With a lottery pick and nearly $10 million in cap room available, Colangelo decided to draft a big man who, at that point, could do little else other than shoot from outside. Also, instead of spending all the cap room on one big name free agent, Colangelo decided to use it to add some depth to the roster, and two out of the three free agent signings were not even NBA players. Interestingly enough, other available free agents that Colangelo decided not to go after included Trevor Ariza, Ben Wallace, Drew Gooden and possibly the biggest free agent out there at the time, a 29 year old, Eastern European born and raised small forward who was drafted in the middle of the first round by the Sacramento Kings and played for them during their heyday. Sound familiar? It was Peja Stojakovic. Oh, and Marcus Banks was also a free agent and signed a 5 year contract with Colangelo’s old team, the Phoenix Suns.
THE FIRST SEASON (WITH COLANGELO)
Head coach, Sam Mitchell, had his work cut out for him with eight new players on the team, and six different nationalities. The month of November was not especially kind to the team and it went 7-13. That would be the last, and only, losing month of the season. For all of Mitchell’s faults as a coach, how quickly he was able to bring together this new team and get them winning was extremely commendable. What he lacked in X’s and O’s, he more than made up for in getting everyone on the same page and playing together.
TJ Ford had a career best season and was able to stay healthy. Anthony Parker provided a steadiness and leadership from the shooting guard position the team had lacked. Jorge Garbajosa struggled shooting the ball, but provided the toughness and smart play from the small forward position, and even Nesterovic played pretty well, starting the majority of the season at center. Plus, Jose Calderon made massive strides shooting the ball and ended up becoming one of the better backup point guards in the league.
Andrea Bargnani didn’t have the season that many expected a number one pick to have. He showed his deficiencies rebounding the ball, struggled to stay out of foul trouble and didn’t exactly light the league on fire on the offensive end. He even missed a month due to an emergency appendectomy, coming back for one game before the end of the season. He shoot the ball much better in the playoffs and came in second to Brandon Roy for Rookie of the Year (in a year where there was little real competition).
The biggest catastrophe, however, came when Garbajosa, who had finally been shooting the ball better near the end of the season, fell awkwardly in a game in Boston. Without going into too much detail, some called it one of the worst looking injuries in NBA history (behind Shaun Livingston’s a couple of months earlier). His toughness and defense would be sorely missed in the playoffs where they faced the now hated Vince Carter and the New Jersey Nets. Despite having home court advantage the Raptors lost in six games.
Still, the season was a huge success going from 27 wins to 47 wins. Colangelo was second Executive of the Year Award and Sam Mitchell won Coach of the Year. The future looked bright once again, for the team.
With the core of the team seemingly set, Colangelo needed only to added some depth to the team, especially at small forward and shooting guard. He was able to turn two generally useless 2nd round picks into a viable player, in Carlos Delfino, found a hidden gem from their summer league team in Jamario Moon, and signed former Miami sharpshooter, Jason Kapono with their mid-level exception.
THE SECOND SEASON (WITH COLANGELO)
The team started off the season by playing .500 ball for the month of November. Fitting, considering that’s what they would finish the season at. They scored more, but won less.
Jose Calderon continued his improvement, making him and TJ Ford possibly the best PG tandem in the league. Anthony Parker continued his solid, if unspectacular play, and Jamario Moon surprised everyone by becoming the starter at small forward.
Of course, as always, there were problems. Kapono showed that Miami was smart not to match the Raptors offer while shooting very well from the field, just not nearly often enough. He couldn’t play defense and ended up playing less than 20 mpg. Bargnani couldn’t build on his rookie season and actually regressed. Mitchell even tried starting him, but Bargnani couldn’t hold onto the spot and was eventually supplanted by Nesterovic.
Like seemingly every Raptor season, though, injury struck and changed the fortunes of the team. TJ Ford was clipped by rookie Al Horford laying the ball up and came down hard on his back. After a previous back injury nearly ended his career during his rookie season, Ford and the Raptors were worried. He would end up missing nearly two months. Thankfully for the Raptors, though, Jose Calderon stepped up and played extremely well in Ford’s absence. So well in fact, that when Ford returned, he was relegated to the bench. A role he did not relish. It would eventually cause him to be shipped out of town.
With the Raptors sputtering at the end, they finished the season without home court advantage in the playoffs against a young and improved Orlando Magic. On the plus side, Jason Kapono finally remembered how to play and had a spectacular playoffs shooting the ball. He ended up more than doubling his season scoring average and shot a blistering .585 from the floor, including .542 from behind the 3 point line. Bosh, also had a good playoffs, raising his scoring average a couple of points. No one else played well, especially Bargnani and Nesterovic, who may still have nightmares to this day about the beating Dwight Howard lay upon them. After losing to the Magic in five games, one thing was apparent. The Raptors needed to add some interior toughness and upgrade their center position. Bargnani, for all his offensive talent, didn’t look like he was going to be ready to be the Raptors center anytime soon. If ever. The words “bust” were being whispered around the league.
Unlike the previous summer, Colangelo needed to do some major retooling. He needed to rectify the point guard situation, and try and re-sign free agent Jose Calderon and he needed to find a real center who could defend the lane and score inside. Whatever is a GM to do?
End of Part 2