MLSE made some noise by making some bold moves to bolster the on-field talent of Toronto FC. The acquisitions of Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Dwayne De Rosario show that MLSE is willing to spend money to make Toronto a winning team in MLS. These moves instantly make TFC a legit contender and a big time draw in the city.
But what does this have to do with the Raptors?
It’s simple: the man behind these big time, game-changing acquisitions is the same man who is in charge of the Raptors. Tim Leiweke, was brought in to make a splash and help lure big name talent North of the border. He is starting to live up to this task.
With the additions to TFC, Leiweke is showing that he is more than capable of making the big time moves necessary to win. Jermain Defoe is, arguably, the second biggest acquisition in the history of MLS and one that was probably more difficult to acquire than people think. The biggest acquisition in MLS history is, of course, David Beckham (also acquired by Leiweke). If he is able to make this kind of impact with TFC, then there is no telling what he can do with the Raptors.
I can’t help but recall the first press conference Leiweke ever had as president of MLSE. He made it very clear from the onset of his time as president that the Raptors and TFC were a big priority. It was a small comment, but one I picked up on at the time: He said, “I don’t think it’s any secret the emerging question and the first action is going to be the Raptors…”
Of course, at the time, Leiweke was directly referring to the fate of then GM Bryan Colangelo, but make no mistake, since Leiweke has arrived, he has been very heavily involved and focused on the Toronto Raptors organization.
First he hired Masai Ujiri, the reigning executive of the year and a man who had to be sold on leaving a very good situation in Denver to come to Toronto. Next, he helped orchestrate the bid and landing of the 2016 All-Star game for the city. Next, is likely the acquisition of a big name talent that will help make the team a serious contender for that ever so important 2016 season.
Tim Leiweke was brought to MLSE to create championship calibre teams and, so far, that is exactly what he is doing.
Photo by: JUAN OCAMPO / ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN & ASSOCIATES
Now, Leiweke isn’t directly in charge of the day-to-day transactions the Raptors make. He is more of an overseer. It was Leiweke who chose to bring in Ujiri to turn the fortunes of this franchise around and make those day to day decisions. So far Ujiri has done just that. But Leiweke’s influence around the league cannot be understated and his ability to land the big fish will likely play a key factor in the teams immediate future and the decisions that Ujiri makes.
Leiweke’s resume includes, most notably, a long stint in Los Angeles where he was president and CEO of AEG who own and operate the Kings, Galaxy and Lakers. There he learned how to land the ‘Big Fish” with the Lakers. “I come from the NBA, I know a lot of people in the NBA, I’ve learned under the curve of Jerry Buss and Jerry West…You do not find two better teachers than those two guys on how to build an organization that not only wins one championship, but becomes the dominant organization.”
With words like these, he has gien hope to the Raptors fan-base that the long awaited return of playoff basketball is not far away; that this franchise is finally going to build a contender the right way and that the agony of watching top flight talent leave the city will finally be a thing of the past.
Since the Rudy Gay trade and the change in on-court strategy the Raptors are already looking like a playoff bound team and one that is playing very exciting basketball. The turnaround has been fast and may be happening earlier than originally anticipated. Much of the credit falls on Ujiri, the man Leiweke brought in.
Ujiri is one of the best minds in the game today. His ability to quickly turn around the fortunes of the Denver Nuggets despite losing Carmelo Anthony was a thing of beauty and he hasn’t looked anything but brilliant since taking over the Raptors. Trading Bargnani for future picks and financial flexibility was a solid move with an eye to the future and the Rudy Gay trade has resulted in the team you see on the court right now, but also added a wealth of additional assets.
Still, in a season where most teams are not putting their best team on the court, the Raptors need to be wary of getting too over-confident about the current on-court product. Yes, they have some good young pieces to build with, and yes they are winning a lot of games, but this is not currently a team that is going to do much more than challenge for a mid to low playoff spot in the long-term.
Leiweke knows this. He knows this is not a team bound for multiple championships at the moment. This is a team with some solid pieces, but lacking a true, legit star. Leiweke didn’t come here to just make the playoffs, he came here to compete for championships and I believe that is exactly what he is going to try to do. In order to get to that place he needs to land a ‘big fish’ for the Raptors.
The Raptors roster is currently a solid mix of young players and a number that could be very useful off the bench, but they lack that top-tier star. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that DeMar DeRozan has the potential to be a solid number 2 on a good team, but the Raptors need a number one. A star. A player that can take the game into their own hands. That’s where Leiweke and his influence around the league will come into play. If he can convince Jermain Defoe (still a very talented and useful player), to leave Europe to come to Toronto, then he can likely do the same with todays NBA stars.
In the next two years players like Durant, LeBron, Carmelo, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving will all be available. Second tier guys like Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe and Lance Stephensen will also be available and could help deepen this team even further. Now I’m not suggesting the Raptors will have the ability to lure one of those big names north of the border, but with Leiweke in charge and the capspace now available, these next few years will be the best opportunity that the Raptors will ever get to add a franchise cornerstone.
Add to this the pressure Leiweke has put on himself and the organization to compete by the 2016 All Star Game and you have a recipie for success. 2016 is very much the end goal for the Raptors. Leiweke and MLSE want to be a significant player in the NBA by that time and the hope is, obviously, that at least one or two Raptors will be taking part in that game.
With the success of the current roster, it is clear the Raptors organization has the pieces and the resources to make a move in the very near future. Tim Leiweke clearly believes in the future of this organization, “The Raptors have that chance. They got the fan base, they got the ownership, they got the support economically.” That fan-base he refers to is now firmly behind the team again and desperately wants (and deserves) more.
Talk of tanking is now firmly in the rearview (probably for the best) and the focus is now on how to use this successful year to build on.
With the combination of Ujiri’s ability to evaluate talent and Leiweke’s ability to recruit top-tier talent the Raptors have a dangerous duo running the show. Also, do not underestimate the influence rap star Drake will have as well. Another Leiweke move that could have serious gains in the NBA where most players are big fans of the star. If coming to Toronto means getting to hang out with Drake on a regular basis, there are players that would very interested in that opportunity. It was a simple phone call by Drake to Defoe that helped tip the scales and bring Defoe across the Atlantic. His influnence cannot be understated.
Leiweke has made it very clear that the organization is ready to do what is needed to make this franchise a dominant one. “We will do whatever it takes, including spending to the cap on any of our teams or spending luxury tax for Masai…And Masai and I again, another very strong, good relationship. We see the world the same way. If there’s a move he can make now that ultimately makes this team better and doesn’t give up on any of our assets, then he not only has 100% of our support, we’re not afraid of the luxury tax at the right time. He just needs to make a decision on when the right time is.”
Whatever path the Raptors are going to take to get themselves into the championship conversation it is clear Tim Leiweke and Ujiri will be the ones steering the ship. With the leadership at the top of the franchise firmly in place, fans should enjoy the journey from here to 2016. Good things are in store for this franchise.
Zan Tabak Herald