April 12, 2007 -- Who knew?
The Toronto Raptors are headed to the playoffs for the first time in five years.
The 2006-07 Atlantic Division champions are, for the first time, the Toronto Raptors.
The Toronto Raptors have as good of a chance as any team in the Eastern Conference to advance to The Finals this year.
President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo did. And after what they have done this season, the rest of the league now knows, too.
Colangelo had a plan, and it has worked to perfection. He knew exactly what needed to be changed with the Raptors and was the one person who saw something that no one else could. He didn't hesitate to take on the challenge.
After 15 successful years with the Suns, Colangelo was hired by the Raptors in February of 2006. Just two seasons after being awarded the 2005 Sporting News Executive of the Year for engineering the third-greatest turnaround in NBA history when the Suns went from 29-53 to 62-20, Colangelo is up to his old tricks again in Toronto.
In a shorter amount of time, he has revived the team by keeping just six players from last season, transforming the Raptors to an up-tempo offense with international flair.
"Bryan Colangelo is one of the very best in the business, Heat coach Pat Riley said. He's got great experience. Once they got him away from Phoenix I think that sent a message to the players that they were serious about things.
The savvy GM made four trades, acquiring point guard T.J. Ford from Milwaukee, forward Kris Humphries from Utah, center Rasho Nesterovic from San Antonio and, at the trading deadline, guard Juan Dixon from Portland. He also signed two free agents from Europe, forward Jorge Garbajosa and guard Anthony Parker, and made Andrea Bargnani the first European player selected with the first overall pick of the 2007 NBA Draft.
The transactions may not have sounded like much at the time, but those moves were essential to the Raptors' current success. With just one season under his belt and a great deal of salary cap room, one has to think that their future could be even brighter.
Even though Colangelo is credited as the mastermind that assembled the team, head coach Sam Mitchell has managed to keep the team focused and driven throughout the season.
He was named the sixth head coach in Raptors franchise history on June 29, 2004. However, success was not immediate in his first two seasons; Toronto finished with a 33-49 record during the 2004-05 season and went 27-55 in 2005-06.
But Mitchell began laying the foundation of a more up-tempo style of play that has meshed seamlessly with the fun-and-run style Colangelo brought with him from Phoenix.
Of course it helps when you have an emerging superstar and All-Star forward, Chris Bosh, and a lightening-quick point guard, Ford, keeping the team's engine running at full throttle.
In just four seasons, Bosh has gone from the fourth pick in the 2003 NBA Draft to a franchise player to a starter in the 2007 NBA All-Star Game.
He is posting career highs with 22.8 points and 10.7 rebounds, and his play this season even has fans campaigning for him to win this year's MVP award.
That's one of my goals that I want to attain in my career, Bosh said. I know I have a long way to go.
He and Ford, who is also averaging career bests of 14.1 points and 7.9 assists, have helped rid the franchise of the negative mentality that seemed to linger over Air Canada Centre in recent years. But most importantly, they are sharing the ball and winning games.
Last year we probably would get down by 20 and put our heads down and that's a wrap, Bosh said. That's the thing I like about this team. We keep our eyes on the prize. He (Ford) came to me and I came to him and we were like, Look, as we go, the team goes and we have to take on that type of attitude.
The duo has taken the team from a 2-8 start to its current 45-33 record.
Nevertheless, two men do not make a team.
Bargnani has been compared to MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks. He is a good scorer and has accuracy from long range. Before undergoing an appendectomy on March 21, 2007, he was scoring at an 11.5 points per game clip.
Garbajosa, a Spanish Cup Finals MVP for two consecutive years, signed as a free agent last July. He also led Unicaja to the Spanish ACB regular-season championship and helped lead Spain to the 2006 FIBA World Championship along with current Raptor teammate, Jose Calderon. Garbajosa was averaging 8.5 ppg and 4.9 rpg when he suffered a displaced left ankle and fractured fibula on March 27, 2007.
Despite being injured, Bargnani and Garbajosa, who were selected to the 2007 T-Mobile Rookie Challenge during All-Star weekend, are both in the running for the Rookie of the Year award.
Parker, a two-time Euroleague MVP, has won five Israeli Premier League championships, five Israeli Cups and three Euroleague titles and has had stints with the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic. As a Raptor, he brings a winning attitude and one of the league's most accurate 3-point shooting touches -- he ranks sixth in the league at 43.6 percent.
Nesterovic brings championship experience from his days as a member of the 2005 San Antonio Spurs.
Collectively, the aforementioned group, along with Calderon, Dixon, Humphries, Morris Peterson, Joey Graham, Darrick Martin, Pape Sow, Uros Slokar and Luke Jackson, have led the Raptors' revival.
But who knew?