Commentary

With Mitchell out, focus shifts to GM who assembled middling Raptors

Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo had tried everything else, so firing Sam Mitchell was in a sense his last card, John Hollinger writes.

Updated: December 4, 2008, 3:29 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Bryan Colangelo & Sam MitchellRon Turenne/Getty ImagesSam Mitchell will no longer be discussing how to get Bryan Colangelo's roster past the first round.

When a team that went 41-41 a year earlier fires its coach because it started the season 8-9 with largely the same roster, that's going to raise some eyebrows.

When the coach is a former coach of the year winner who is on just the second season of a four-year contract, that also will tend to lift a forehead or two.

And when it's the third firing in just a month of basketball, and several other coaches already appear to be on life support, it makes you wonder whether there's something in the water in the NBA this season.

Nonetheless, you can make a few arguments in favor of the Toronto Raptors' decision to ax Sam Mitchell on Wednesday. Certainly, the lifeless effort the players gave in a 132-93 loss to Denver on Tuesday night was discouraging. Additionally, many have grumbled over some iffy personnel decisions by Mitchell in the early season. And if you factor in the 13-20 finish to last season, it's been a fairly miserable 50-game stretch the Raptors have had under Mitchell's guidance -- providing a large enough sample of mediocrity to satisfy the statisticians in the audience.

However, one still surmises that the greatest reason Toronto changed generals Wednesday is the fact that general manager Bryan Colangelo essentially painted himself into a corner. The Raps already played their trump card this summer by trading T.J. Ford, the expiring contract of Rasho Nesterovic and a first-round pick to Indiana for Jermaine O'Neal. Minus those three assets, the Raps have no tradable pieces left unless they want to nuke the Chris Bosh-Jose Calderon-Andrea Bargnani-O'Neal core they hoped would push them to a deep playoff run this season.

With no place else to turn, whacking Mitchell was the only option left. Canada's only team will now have the league's first Canadian coach, as assistant Jay Triano was promoted to the head-coaching job. Colangelo said that Triano will stay in the role until at least the end of the season, implying that (a) he'll wait until this summer to sort through the profusion of high-profile available candidates, and (b) Triano has a shot at being the choice should the Raptors rally under his tutelage.

Of course, if things don't turn around, Colangelo might have a tough time persuading anybody else to take the position. The firing speaks as much to Colangelo's performance as it does to Mitchell's, having come about partly because several personnel moves (Bargnani, Jason Kapono, Roko Ukic, arguably O'Neal) have flopped. As such, the honeymoon phase of his stewardship of the Raptors officially ended Wednesday.

As much as Colangelo might hope that Mitchell was simply misusing his roster, the GM's tenure has contained enough questionable decisions to raise considerable doubt as to whether the next coach can fare any better. The Raps have no wing players who can create a shot, no backup point guard, only one promising young player and just three players you could say would start for a majority of the league's teams.

Triano talked Wednesday about getting the Raptors to play faster because the team is last in the NBA in fast-break points, but good luck fixing it -- that's mostly an effect of roster composition. The club has few good transition players and, without Ford, lacks a floor general who can push the tempo (don't get me wrong, I love Calderon, but he's a half-court guy through and through).

Instead, the new head coach should focus his attention elsewhere. There are two significant changes Triano needs to make, and his ability to do those will largely determine whether the Raptors are any better under him than they were under Mitchell.

First and foremost, he has to get them to defend better. Acquiring O'Neal was supposed to help largely by improving Toronto at the defensive end, but the Raptors are just 24th in defensive efficiency thus far. Much of defense is effort and, regardless of personnel limitations, the Raps' effort often has been inadequate at this end of the floor.

But the second part might help bring about the first: Toronto has to stop granting unearned minutes to players in whom Colangelo invested heavily until those players actually perform on the court. Bargnani is the prime example; he's been granted far too much playing time based on potential future returns rather than current performance, and for a team in win-now mode, it's been puzzling to see him continue to have such a prominent role. The same goes for Kapono unless Triano can sit him down and explain to him that he's a lot more valuable when he's shooting 3s rather than 2s (71 of his 98 shots have been 2s, continuing his maddening, value-destroying career pattern).

Instead, Triano should revert to starting defensive ace Jamario Moon on the wing and bring Kris Humphries in as his first big man off the pine. Yes, each is capable of cringe-worthy shot selection, but each has been more productive both this season and last than the likes of Bargnani and Kapono. Additionally, doing so would remove two horrid defenders from the rotation.

While he's at it, Triano should beg his boss to make a call to the D-League and get somebody, anybody, to replace the comically ineffective duo of Will Solomon and Ukic that Colangelo imported to back up Calderon.

Even in their current state, the Raps aren't far off the playoff scent -- today's Playoff Odds have them finishing just one game out. So one could argue that Colangelo pulled the trigger while the season still could be salvaged.

The larger question, though, is whether this roster can be salvaged. The Raps have less than two years to convince Bosh that it's better to stick around than to pair up with somebody like LeBron or Amare in New York, and they're not exactly making a compelling case so far.

Thus, although Mitchell took the bullet Wednesday, Colangelo is the one who must bear the brunt of the blame for the Raptors' sluggish start. This move says more about his performance than about Mitchell's.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.