- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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Rebuilding a franchise is a lot like remodeling a house -- once you've committed to the job, it's best to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. Delays only mean being a protracted eyesore and, worse, risking damage to your delicate interior.
The Raptors can only pray for sunny skies and mild temperatures now that their reconstruction has been halted with the roof torn off and such notable girders as Vince Carter, Jalen Rose, Donyell Marshall and Milt Palacio marked for removal. They face a rock-and-a-hard-place choice, if sources are correct about Vince Carter's achilles-tendon injury being not only legit but serious. They can make half-measure piecemeal trades or wait until Carter is healthy so they can make a multiplayer blockbuster deal.
In any case, the overhaul isn't likely to be completed before February, which means another year of exposure to a dysfunctional team -- and another year closer to free agency -- for second-year big man Chris Bosh, Toronto's greatest hope for a brighter tomorrow. For those not up on their north-of-the-border roundball, he's the guy who went head-to-head with Kevin Garnett and contributed 24 points and 14 rebounds to a 96-90 upset Wednesday night, ending a seven-game losing streak.
"He's only 20 years old," says coach Sam Mitchell. "I have to remind myself of that all the time."
Mitchell is the foreman in charge of nurturing Bosh and not letting the Raptors disintegrate. That would be a tough task for any first-year coach, but it's complicated by the hard line Mitchell has taken with Carter and Rose. VC has sunk to career lows in minutes played (30.4) and points scored (15.8). Rose's minutes are the lowest in six seasons. All of that stems from Mitchell establishing a pecking order based on effort rather than reputation. It's a gutsy line, one a lot of coaches with their eye set primarily on sticking around wouldn't take.
"I can hope and pray that things go right, or I can just do my job," he says. "All I'm asking them to do is play hard and compete. If you don't do that, it's the coach's job to put someone else in the game."
It sounds reasonable. In reality, though, towing that kind of line with vet stars for more than a few weeks is dicey. One, talent -- even malcontented talent -- often gives you a better shot at winning than limited-but-agreeable players. Two, vets have myriad ways of defying your authority or undercutting your chances of success, and both Rose and Carter have not been shy about doing either. (For those who find that appalling, wake up -- it's human nature. It happens in every workplace in the world. If your boss makes it clear you're not part of the company's future plans, your work is going to suffer.) That's why some initially suspected Carter's injury wasn't serious but simply a way to quarantine him -- or for him to quarantine himself.
Mitchell isn't backing off his effort-earns-minutes equation, but he is employing more diplomacy in light of the anticipated delays. He applauds VC and Jalen for cheering on their teammates from the bench and acknowledged that their resistance to reduced roles is understandable, if not acceptable.
"The days of giving a guy the ball and saying, 'Take the whole team,' are over," Mitchell says. "Teams can pack the paint now. Teams can zone. Vince understands that. He's been fine with it. He's second on our team in assists."
The Raptors, of course, are also 4-15 since their 4-1 start. That amounts to a .333 winning percentage. Toronto's last coach, Kevin O'Neill, was fired -- at the end of his first season as an NBA coach -- after going 33-49, a .402 percentage. GM Rob Babcock and Mitchell appear unified enough that Mitchell doesn't have to worry about getting bounced, as O'Neill was by Babcock's predecessor, Glen Grunwald, but he does have to worry about losing the confidence of his troops, which also would short-circuit his tenure.
Bosh, by all accounts, is not the kind to go belly-up on Mitchell, especially since he's getting plays run for him this season, but you still don't want a young star getting lessons on the uglier side of NBA brinksmanship.
"He's just frustrated," says one teammate. "I love him to death. He plays hard, works hard. You don't want to lose a kid like that. And all that's gone on the last two years is definitely messing him up."
Mitchell, in order to survive alienating his top stars, has had to align himself with anyone capable of helping him win and willing to listen. Bosh, point guard Rafer Alston and Lamond Murray are at the top of that list. Putting a potential franchise player in the midst of a locker room crossfire is tricky. Alston is trying to be a leader while knowing he doesn't carry enough respect from his teammates to pull it off, which prompted his outburst about being "tired of getting into it with my teammates" last week and contemplating retirement. Murray, an enigmatic figure for most of his career, appears to behind Mitchell but is far too quiet for that to mean much.
If anyone is waiting for Mitchell to get discouraged, though, forget it. He carved out a 13-year playing career after starting out as a third-round draft pick cut by the '85-86 Houston Rockets, who went onto the Finals. He was their last cut again a year later. He finally cracked the league in '89 with the expansion Timberwolves.
"I wasn't going to get a job like the Lakers the first time out," Mitchell says. "There's a reason this job was available. The situation isn't perfect. But I felt like I never got the breaks as a player. I made it the hard way. I wear that with pride. This is no different."
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 29. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.
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