Bryan Colangelo: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Concerns Going Forward

We take an extensive look at Bryan Colangelo's track record, and what Sixers fans can expect going forward from their new lead decision maker.

Bryan Colangelo represents the Toronto Raptors during the NBA basketball draft lottery, May 21, 2013.

What can Sixers fans expect from Bryan Colangelo going forward?

“Bryan’s record and credentials and experience in the NBA building two franchises speak for themselves. He would have been anyone’s target.”

Joshua Harris, managing owner of the Philadelphia 76ers

That someone’s credentials speak for themselves and he would have been anyone’s target is a pretty lofty claim, especially for an executive who has been unemployed for the last three seasons.

That claim gets even more dubious when it is used to justify interviewing “not that many” candidates for their open president of basketball operations role, as Joshua Harris  admitted to.

Does Bryan Colangelo‘s track record really speak for itself? Was it strong enough for him to have been essentially handed the position of president of basketball operations without an exhaustive search? And what can 76ers fans expect from the new man in charge going forward?

Note: I am going to mostly ignore the time period from 1994 to 1999, when he was promoted to general manager, but still underneath Jerry Colangelo, who was still the president of basketball operations for the Suns during that time. The exception is the two draft picks of significance made during that era, Michael Finley and Steve Nash, but those are mostly just a footnote, and the “team building” moves made during that time period I will largely look past and put them in Jerry Colangelo’s ledger.

Foundational pieces in the draft

High draft picks: 

  • 1999: Shawn Marion, 9th
  • 2002: Amare Stoudemire, 9th
  • 2006: Andrea Bargnani, 1st
  • 2009: DeMar DeRozan, 9th
  • 2011: Jonas Valanciunas, 5th
  • 2012: Terrence Ross, 8th

Late-round Hits:

  • 1995: Michael Finley, 21st
  • 1996: Steve Nash, 15th

Perhaps the area of team building where Colangelo has had the most sustained success throughout his career has been in the draft, where he’s plucked Michael Finley (21st overall in 1995), Steve Nash (16th in 1996), Shawn Marion (9th in 1999), and Amare Stoudemire (9th in 2002),

Going back too far in his track record is a little bit murky, especially in that time period between 1995, when Colangelo was promoted to general manager in Phoenix, and 1999, when Colangelo added the role of president of basketball operations to his title. During that time his father, Jerry Colangelo, was still with the Suns as team president and, theoretically, still wielded much influence in the decision making process.

The elder Colangelo remained with the Suns even after relinquishing his president title, retaining a stake in the ownership of the team until it was sold to Robert Sarver in 2004, and remaining as chairman and chief executive beyond that. Placing credit, or blame, during that time thus becomes murky, but especially so in that period between 1995 and 1999, when it’s hard to imagine Jerry Colangelo viewed his president title as ceremonial in nature. Still, the decisions made during that time have to at least be factored into the equation, and some of those draft picks were big hits.

There’s really only one major blemish on his top-of-the-draft record, and that’s the obvious one: Andrea Bargnani. Terrence Ross has certainly never made the jump many expected and would be considered a minor miss at 8th overall, especially with Andre Drummond going one spot later at 9th, but it’s a pretty understandable miss. All in all, imperfection is the norm among NBA decision makers, even in the lottery, and finding gems like Marion, Stoudemire, and Nash, and to a lesser extent DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, is significantly overdrafting your slot, and certainly a positive mark on his resume.

One thing about that Bargnani selection, though, before we leave. It’s frequently said that the 2006 draft was weak, and therefore missing on Bargnani not much of a blemish on Colangelo’s track record. Nonsense. Whether or not Adam Morrison or Shelden Williams were imperfect prospects had nothing to do with the decision of who to select at #1 overall. It would be like saying the uncertainty around Dante Exum made the decision of whether the Cavs should go with Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, or Joel Embiid more difficult. It didn’t. The decision over who to select with the #1 pick typically comes down to, at most, 2 or 3 prospects, and the relative strength or risk of a draft later on doesn’t change that. Colangelo selected Bargnani in a draft with another elite prospect in LaMarcus Aldridge, who had just averaged 15 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.4 blocked shots per game against a tough college schedule, and was a presumptive top-2 pick. He was the only player in this draft that was really involved in the decision to draft Bargnani, and in the end Colangelo selected the guy with the flashy skill set, but the one with a questionable work ethic and mental approach to the game.

Colangelo spent the majority of his tenure in Toronto trying to find a second impact player to pair with Chris Bosh. While Aldridge has breathed new life into the San Antonio Spurs, showcasing his ability to work in a two big man environment that would have been an enticing pairing with Bosh, even in today’s NBA, Colangelo selected the one who is currently out of the league. It’s absolutely a miss, regardless of what Adam Morrison’s career became.

Colangelo recently said that what he learned from his time in Toronto was that Chris Bosh wasn’t a guy capable of being “the man”. The real problem was that he never gave Bosh a legitimate second impact player to pair with. The best chance he had to acquire that second star came in the first few months of his reign in Toronto, and he blew it, and blew it badly. The reason I’m willing to overlook this blunder is because it’s the only such major mistake on his otherwise stellar draft resume, not because Adam Morrison flamed out as well. Morrison was never relevant to the decision.

Adding Secondary Stars

Moves that fit the criteria:

  • 1999: Traded Pat Garrity, Danny Manning, and 2 first round picks (2001 & 2002) for Penny Hardaway
  • 2002: Traded Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers for Joe Johnson, a first round pick, and filler
  • 2004: Signed Steve Nash for 5 years, $65 million
  • 2006: Drafted Andrea Bargnani first overall
  • 2008: Traded T.J. Ford, Rasho Neserovic, and the 17th pick in the 2008 draft (Roy Hibbert) for Jermaine O’Neal
  • 2009: Acquired Hedo Turkoglu, Devean George, and Antoine Wright in a sign and trade for Kris Humphries, Nathan Jawai, Shawn Marion, and a 2016 2nd round pick.
  • 2013: Traded Jose Calderon, Ed Davis, and a 2nd round pick for Rudy Gay

If the justification for hiring Colangelo were his draft record, and if the hiring wasn’t tied to his father being chairman, and the search appeared to be more legitimate, it would be a much easier sell to the fan base. But, after three years of his predecessor placing so much emphasis on the draft, the ownership group wanted to project the image that Colangelo was brought in to fix the areas of team building that Hinkie had ignored, and the team would be major players in free agency and in acquiring talent through trades.

Unfortunately, those are the parts of Colangelo’s track record that are far more questionable.

Like most parts of his resume, the moves in Phoenix were, mostly, slam dunks, the ones in Toronto almost universally unmitigated disasters.

The one controversial move in Phoenix is the sign-and-trade acquisition of Penny Hardaway, but that’s mostly because of injuries. Hardaway did have his share of injury concerns coming in, as he played in just 19 games during the 1997-98 season because of knee troubles, but he did bounce back and play in all 50 games during the strike-shortened 1998-99 season. Pairing Hardaway next to Jason Kidd was interesting, in theory, but never really got off the ground, with Hardaway having ankle injuries in 1999-2000, which limited him to just 60 (mostly productive) games. Then came the devastating left knee injuries which required multiple surgeries, limited him to just 4 games in 2000-01, and pretty much ended Hardaway’s time as an impact player.

Still, it was a reasonable risk to take. Pat Garrity was just a role player, Danny Manning was at the end of his career, and one of those two first round picks turned into Jason Collins, selected 18th in 2001, an irrelevant loss when acquiring somebody of Hardaway’s caliber. Where this trade would have turned out differently is that 2002 1st round pick they gave up, which became Amare Stoudemire. Luckily, Phoenix re-acquired that pick in 2001. Had that not happened, Hardaway’s knee injuries would have been even more debilitating and we’d likely look back on that Suns era completely differently, but kudos to Colangelo for getting that pick back.

Colangelo’s other two moves in Phoenix required tremendous foresight to pull off. Not that Steve Nash was an unknown, but was nowhere near the player in Dallas that he was in Phoenix, despite the fact that he was 30 years old when the Colangelo’s lured him back to the desert. But with the system Mike D’Antoni wanted to run, and the running mate Nash would have with Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix correctly predicted that Nash had another level of play in him. While the deal, $20 million richer than the one Mark Cuban was willing to offer, seemed like an overpay at the time, it proved to be one of the best free agent signings in recent memory.

Similarly, trading the aging Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers for 20-year-old, underrated Joe Johnson was a masterful move, and Johnson grew to become a very important piece for the Suns before financial considerations forced his way out of Phoenix prematurely. That 2004-05 Suns team, with Johnson averaging 17.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game, while shooting 47.8 percent from three-point range, won 62 games, and he was a big part of that.

Then we get to Toronto, and this is where the legend of Bryan Colangelo takes a serious hit.

The drafting of Bargnani was a huge mistake that Toronto struggled to recover from. For their careers, LaMarcus Aldridge has produced 79.5 win shares and has a VORP, or value over replacement player, of 20.7, Bargnani 18.9 win shares and a VORP of -0.9. That single decision likely cost the Raptors the rest of Chris Bosh’s prime and regular playoff appearances.

The trade for Jermaine O’Neal is just as scary. Not only because of what they gave up — T.J. Ford, who was instrumental in their turnaround, Rasho Nesterovic, and the 17th pick in the draft, which became Roy Hibbert one day later — but also because of the mindset it signified.

The Raptors, after their 20-game improvement in 2006-07, had stumbled a little bit, finishing just .500 and losing to the Magic in five games in the first round of the playoffs. With the image of that 47-win season still fresh on their minds, the Raptors thought they were closer than they were, and thought a Jermaine O’Neal, who would turn 30 before his first season in Toronto began and whose production had already taken a nosedive, could give Bosh the kind of running mate he needed to propel the Raptors to contention.

It was a disaster.

It was a disaster because Roy Hibbert became a dominant defensive center for a time. Typically, you would just say the Pacers over-drafted their slot, and, in part, that’s true. But with the trade made just a day before the draft, it’s a draft Colangelo had scouted heavily, and knew of its relative depth. It was a disaster because T.J. Ford was such a big contributor on that Raptors squad, and his contributions would be missed, although the impact of this blow was softened a little bit by Ford’s unfortunate injuries just a few years later. It was also a disaster because O’Neal was an abject failure in Toronto, playing just 41 games for the Raptors before being shipped off less than a year later at the 2009 trade deadline.

The scariest part of this deal? When Colangelo tried to rid himself of his error by trading O’Neal at the 2009 deadline, he compounded the mistake by including the draft pick which would eventually become Jonas Valanciunas. Thankfully, Colangelo was able to get that pick back when he was forced to trade Chris Bosh to Miami a little over a year later.

Next up you have the Hedo Turkoglu trade. Turkoglu was coming off of a pair of good seasons in Orlando, averaging 19.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game in 2007-08, and 16.8, 5.3, and 4.9 in 2008-09. Turkoglu had the kind of three-point shooting and secondary play making to provide value to the Raptors, even if overcoming his defense was a little bit harder without Dwight Howard there to erase any mistakes.

But the trade was a huge miscalculation. Turkoglu was signed to a 5 year, $54 million deal, despite the fact that he had turned 30 years old earlier that spring, a troubling sign considering Colangelo’s big investment in another 30-year-old whose production fell off a cliff the previous year. It looked like it had the chance to be one of those classic “pay for past performances, not future contributions” moves right from the get-go.

And, as it turned out, it was. Turkoglu reportedly arrived in camp 20 pounds overweight, and spent the first half of the year working his way back into playing shape. He clashed with head coach Jay Triano, publicly criticized management, and requested a trade just one season in Toronto. On top of that, Turkoglu was one of the players who really benefited from the attention Dwight received in the post to generate open looks for their perimeter players, and Bosh, as talented as he is, just didn’t command that kind of gravity in the paint. It was a move that failed from a basketball standpoint (Turkoglu was worse in Toronto’s situation than he was in Orlando), from a financial standpoint ($54 million to a 30-year-old who had the chance to decline rapidly), and from a human element standpoint (not correctly identifying how Turkoglu would react to his new environment).

Finally, you have the 2013 trade for Rudy Gay. The move seemed to be one borne out of desperation, with the Raptors at 16-29 and Colangelo seeing the writing on the wall in terms of his job security. Gay was supposed to be that talented player who could catapult the young Raptors back into playoff contention, to be the last piece in the Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, and Andrea Bargnani core necessary to make the Raptors relevant again.

That didn’t work out, of course. Gay drew touches away from the developing DeRozan and Valanciunas, and his gunning style of play made the team worse while doing so. The drawbacks to Gay’s gunning — he averaged he averaged 17.6 field goal attempts per game, with a 29.7% (!) usage rate while in Toronto — was not only stealing touches away from DeRozan, the young perimeter player the Raptors should have been developing, but also making the team worse as a result of it. The Raptors offense had a 110.2 offensive rating when Gay was on the bench during 2013-14, compared to just 103.3 when he played.

Gay ended up playing a grand total of 51 games for the Raptors before Colangelo’s successor, Masai Ujiri, shipping him off to Sacramento. The Raptors, 7-12 at the time of the trade, ended the season going 41-22 after the Gay trade and qualifying for the playoffs. The series of moves ended up not being a total disaster for Toronto, mostly because Patrick Patterson, who Ujiri got from Sacramento for Gay, has turned into a key role player for Toronto, but Ed Davis is still just 26 and a productive role player, and Jose Calderon remains a dependable point guard.

Role Players

Like most general managers who have been in the league as long as Bryan Colangelo has, this is quite the long list, and will contain both its fair share of hits and misses. The trading of Charlie Villanueva at the apex of his value, for an underrated piece in T.J. Ford, was sneakily good. Signing Anthony Parker and Jorge Garbajosa, and trading for Amir Johnson were certainly moves that helped the Raptors. That being said, signing players like Jason Kapono to a 4-year, $24 million contract, or giving up the draft rights to Marcin Gortat before he ever played in the league, or having to give up the rights to Nate Robinson in order to get rid of Quentin Richardson‘s contract, who he just signed a year before, were extremely damaging.

I would not rate Bryan Colangelo’s acquisition of role players as either exceptionally great or horrifically bad, but somewhere in-between. That being said, while this article will naturally focus on the star, and complementary, pieces of team building, since that’s the phase the Sixers currently find themselves in, diving into this section of Colangelo’s resume would be an interesting exercise as well.

Team Building

Again, like most things in Colangelo’s track record, there’s a clear delineation between his tenure in Phoenix and Toronto.

In Phoenix, he seemed to show a razor focus and an element of forward thinking, building teams that had a clear identity and purpose, although much of that could have been attributed to Mike D’Antoni. Still, Colangelo hired D’Antoni, and he made the moves as executive that would support D’Antoni’s vision.

In Toronto the pieces never seemed to fit, he always seemed to be reactionary, and, more or less, it looked to be a rudderless mess of an organization.

Despite inheriting a team with a 22-year-old Chris Bosh, a ton of cap space, the runner up in the 2006 rookie of the year voting, and the #1 draft pick in the 2006 draft, you would be hard pressed to find a defining element of Bryan Colangelo’s Toronto teams. They weren’t consistently good offensively, nor were they consistently stout defensively. They didn’t have that defining attribute, like emphasizing the three-point shot or pushing the pace, as they did in Phoenix. They didn’t consistently get to the free throw line a ton, didn’t force turnovers to get out in transition, and didn’t protect the rim at a high level, even though all of these things should have fit into Chris Bosh’s strengths as a player.

Some league rankings, in offensive rating, defensive rating, and pace played, during Colangelo’s time as general manager of the Toronto Raptors.

2016-05-15-raptors-ortg

And the rankings of three-point rate (three-point attempts per field goal attempt), free-throw rate (free-throw attempts per field goal attempt), blocks, and steals.

2016-05-15-raptors-ftr

The scary part about the above two graphs is how inconsistent it was. Colangelo was never able to build anything sustainable around Chris Bosh, despite all the resources in the world to do so, and building a team that was last in the league in defensive rating, while being anchored by an in-his-prime Bosh, is downright terrifying for a fan base. Especially with the way the NBA has trended over the last few years, Bosh’s defensive versatility should have been a key piece in a strong defensive team. But nobody, perhaps even Bill Russell himself, could overcome being surrounded by Andrea Bargnani, Hedo Turkoglu, Jose Calderon, Jarrett Jack, Marco Belinelli, and a 20-year-old DeMar DeRozan. That team, which was built to win, being downright terrible defensively was incredibly predictable.

The Human Element

One of the justifications for Colangelo being the right guy for the job was that he is going to focus on the human element which has been missing with the Sixers over the last few seasons. Yet many of his major miscues in Toronto stemmed from, to some degree, missing on the human element of sports.

Regardless of whether T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon could play on the court at the same time together — this isn’t exactly the defensive versatility required to do so — Ford, while the consummate professional willing to try to make it work, struggled at times sharing the point guard responsibilities with another lead ball handler in Calderon. The two made it work, though, and ultimately Ford had the right mentality to give up some of his own touches for the good of the team.

The other gambits Colangelo attempted didn’t work out with near the same degree of success. His decision to select Andrea Bargnani over LaMarcus Aldridge would only work out if Bargnani were truly dedicated to the game of basketball, to working hard to improve his game as much as possible, and to working on the little nuances of the game that make talented players great. Bargnani didn’t have that mindset.

“He wasted his talent,” Colangelo told me recently during a 1-on-1 interview. “Here’s a guy that should have been a lot better and should have been more productive than he was.”

That’s a convenient way to spin the biggest mistake of his career as a general manager, on missing out on a one-two punch in Toronto’s frontcourt that could have set them up to be contenders for a decade. While it’s certainly not a stretch to say that Bargnani had more talent than what he turned into, part of a general manager’s job is not only to assess what the top-end potential of a player is, but also whether he was likely to reach that potential. If Bargnani didn’t have the mental make-up to become an impact player in the league, as Colangelo seemed to suggest, it’s his own failing for not recognizing that, a failing which he doubled down on after giving Bargnani a big extension when his rookie contract ran out.

Similarly, the sign-and-trade deal to acquire Hedo Turkoglu, a guy who was unhappy from virtually the moment he arrived in Toronto, cannot be ignored. This was another player who Colangelo made a big time investment in, and another who, in part because of his personality, never paid dividends. With Colangelo set to use free agency as a resource over the next two years, that’s a little bit scary of a miss on Colangelo’s resume.

Another miscalculation in terms of the human element was the decision to keep Chris Bosh at the 2009 trade deadline. This is a 25-year-old superstar who was averaging 24 points and 11 rebounds, and the only real asset Colangelo acquired for him was re-acquiring the draft pick that would become Jonas Valanciunas, a draft pick Colangelo previously gave away to get rid of Jermaine O’Neal. It’s impossible to know what offers were on the table for Bosh at the deadline, but you have to think it was more than what they were able to get as a sign-and-trade deal that following summer. Colangelo’s desperate, perhaps naive, belief that he could retain Bosh greatly diminished what they were able to get for him.

Relationships Throughout The League

Another justification for Colangelo’s hiring has been how his relationship around the league, both with other team executives and player agents, will help him execute the moves he needs to in order to build a winner.

However, when looking back on it, what has Colangelo’s Rolodex really gotten him? They signed Nash in Phoenix because they offered $20 million more. Nash wanted to return to Dallas. His relationships couldn’t convince an in-his-prime Chris Bosh to stay in Toronto, nor could they attract impact free agents at below-market rates to act as secondary stars.

When Colangelo was able to attract premier talent, he overpaid. Sometimes that worked out well, such as overpaying market for Steve Nash, and sometimes that turned into a disaster, such as overpaying for Hedo Turkoglu. That’s the inherent risk of overpaying.

One of the justifications for Colangelo’s seemingly desperate team building in Toronto was that NBA players didn’t view Toronto as a destination, and so he couldn’t attract the premier talents across the league. Fair. But he’s not exactly stepping into a situation that is well-received by the currently established stars of the NBA, either. If the justification for Colangelo’s hiring is that he’s going to help Philadelphia become attractive to players, there’s simply nothing in his history to suggest that the myth of the Colangelo name has that kind of power and influence.

Conclusion

Looking at Colangelo’s tenure in Phoenix paints the picture of a young, innovative, forward-thinking executive who had a real future in this league. When that’s juxtaposed with the picture painted in Toronto, which is one of a desperate, reactionary, short-sighted general manager who never seemed to build a team with any real sense of direction or identity, despite walking into an incredibly fortuitous situation where he inherited a rising star, a ton of cap space, and a lot of young assets, it creates a lot of confusion for Sixers fans trying to figure out what to expect going forward.

The extremes Colangelo’s previous two tenures went to is perhaps even more frightening because of the natural tendency to place more weight in his stop in Toronto, because of its recency, because of Colangelo stepping out of his fathers shadow, and because of the similarities in what he inherited in Toronto compared to what he has inherited in Philadelphia.

Some will argue that Toronto’s current success is, in large part, owed to moves Colangelo made towards the end of his tenure, something which certainly holds some merit, as DeRozan, Lowry, and Valanciunas were all brought in under his watch. But Toronto wouldn’t have been in that position to be drafting high enough to select Valanciunas (5th overall in 2011) and DeRozan (9th overall in 2009) if Colangelo hadn’t wasted away the early part of Chris Bosh’s physical prime, an almost unforgivable failure considering how difficult acquiring a player that talented is.

When you inherit a player of the caliber of Chris Bosh, and 3 years later the moves you have made to surround him with talent have directly led to the worst defense in the league, there’s no way to spin that other than as an abject failure.

All of the reasoning provided for Colangelo being a no-brainer candidate here in Philadelphia (relationships, using free agency and trade, the basketball background to build a team) were elements he failed at in Toronto. For these reasons, saying that Colangelo’s track record speaks for itself, and that he built two world class organizations, a case which Joshua Harris made for Colangelo during the introductory press conference, was ridiculous at the time, but even more so when a closer inspection is made to his time in Toronto.

None of that is to say Colangelo isn’t deserving of another shot as the lead decision maker of a club, to have the chance to prove Toronto was a misstep, not who he is as a basketball thinker. His track record in the draft is strong enough to earn that shot. But his tenure in Toronto contained enough glaring mistakes that there’s ample reason to be concerned about how he will use the numerous assets he has been given, and certainly enough mistakes in his resume that fans deserved a true, exhaustive search for a new guy to steer the franchise.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.