Toronto Raptors Lack Draft Pick, So Franchise Must Look Beyond Basketball Court to Remake Brand

Jonas Valanciunas, Nazr MohammedThe revolution will be televised — on TSN and Rogers Sportsnet.

Big changes are underway in Toronto, where such alterations have been necessary for some time. The arrival of Tim Leiweke, who oversaw the Los Angeles-based group that owned the Lakers, Kings and Galaxy until being hired last month as CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, promises those changes will not be confined to the basketball court — because they can’t be, thanks to the Raptors’ own missteps.

The Raptors have no picks in this year’s NBA draft, the result of some ill-advised dealing that netted them little more than point guard Kyle Lowry. They have a collection of bad contracts, a promising yet unspectacular young player in Jonas Valanciunas and some mid-career types like Landry Fields and DeMar DeRozan, who are far away from fulfilling the potential they once showed.

Worse, the team has an image problem. Perusing the sports pages of Toronto and Canada’s major news websites this week, the only mentions of the Raptors were post mortems pillorying the tenure of outgoing general manager Bryan Colangelo. The Blue Jays and Leafs aren’t the only sports team to let down their city lately.

The removal of Colangelo, who will remain as the team’s president, is a workable first step. Leiweke has promised renewed “accountability” and “new thinking” in the organization, and the team’s next G.M. should reflect that approach. Someone in the mold of Utah’s Dennis Lindsey or Philadelphia’s Sam Hinkie would be perfect, assuming such candidates don’t run away screaming at the sight of Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay.

Before any of that can begin, though — Gay and Bargnani are both around for at least two more years, hooray! — the Raptors’ rebuild needs to start in the marketing department, not the basketball personnel department. Leiweke, to his credit, accepts this.

“We absolutely have had conversations about the color and the makeup of our brand, our uniforms and our image,” Leiweke said, according to The Associated Press. “To me, we should be all about the Canadian flag and Canada. We are Toronto’s team, but I think we have to learn how to be Canada’s team.”

In an era when renaming teams is the hot new thing, the Raptors’ name should be the next to go. Chosen solely due to the dinosaur’s popularity in 1995 as a result of the blockbuster movie Jurassic Park, the mascot has no historic connection to the city and has not been entrenched long enough to establish a deep connection with the team’s fans. As dedicated as some Torontonians are in supporting their team, which was 13th in the NBA last season despite the Raptors tying for the league’s 11th-worst record, ditching the Raptors nickname would not be nearly as controversial in Toronto as similarly oxymoronic name changes would be in Los Angeles or Utah.

There is no evidence Leiweke has gone so far as to explore losing the “Raptors” moniker, but the fact that he is rethinking the franchise’s brand provides some burgeoning hope for the team’s fan base. This sort of long-term planning has been absent from Raptors leadership for too long, Colangelo’s 2005 NBA Executive of the Year Award notwithstanding. They keep getting saddled with flawed players like Gay, Bargnani and DeRozan on multi-year deals, but it is crucial for the Raptors to recognize that they need a vision for the organization, not just the roster. There is a disconnect between the amount of support the Raptors get from their community, and how much support outsiders perceive they get from their community that causes the Raptors to be viewed as an afterthought rather than as “Canada’s team.”

The Grizzlies’ move from Vancouver in 2001, as well as a series of exoduses by major players from Toronto, created the misconception that pro basketball in Canada was dying. It isn’t. It has simply been in stasis for most of the last decade as the Raptors franchise struggled to find its identity. Soon, it may get its claws into an identity its fans, its city and its country can appreciate.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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